There’s a telling moment in Paul Lacoste’s serenely tense documentary (yes, that juxtaposition is part of why it’s so compelling) Step Up to the Plate, about chef Michel Bras handing the reins of his eponymous Michelin three-star restaurant to his son, Sébastien, when Séba, as he’s affectionately known, is grappling with his own identity on a plate.
His father was just 35 when he created his seminal dish, Le Gargouillou, in 1981. This 60-ingredient paean to plants has inspired a generation of chefs with its use of flowers, herbs, humble vegetables and slashes and squiggles of purées and emulsions. From his southern France home, Michel Bras launched a new way of thinking about food that can be traced in its current evolution via the world’s latest culinary superstar Noma’s Rene Redzepi in Copenhagen.
Approaching 40, Sébastien Bras grew up under his father’s immense talent, success and, more importantly, his relentlessly exacting standards and expectations.
As he prepares to take the helm 23 years after he first began, aged 16, to work alongside his father, Séba is designing a dish that, like his father’s gargouillou, is an expression of his identity. He draws on family history and childhood flavours in an elaborate and elegant creation, but hasn’t yet found a solution that makes him happy.
When father and son head to their other Michelin three-star restaurant, Michel Bras Toya, in the northern Japan prefecture of Hokkaido, Séba tries to create a Japanese-accented version and presents it to his father, hoping for approval that quickly evaporates as Bras senior begins to point out shortcomings.
Then Michel delivers a backhanded compliment.
"It's tasty, I didn't expect that."
A King in waiting
Séba is a Prince Charles-like character waiting for the throne. There’s a touch of Lear to this drama, without the shrill, raised voices found in "reality" cooking shows. Instead, amid the shining stainless steel armour of a kitchen where father and son battle daily, there is a quiet intensity.
Rural men from southern France have the sort of relationships Australian males would identify with – conversations that say more in the silences than the words. Michel and Sébastien have a combative, deep love for one another.
"He’s as stubborn as a mule," says Séba.
"I’m not," Michel retorts.
And so it goes.
"I can be mean," Michel says, interrupting his son as he briefs the restaurant team before service.
They jostle creatively and in the kitchen, his son refers to Michel as 'the big boss" when speaking with other chefs.
What’s also apparent in Step Up to the Plate – the translation of the French title Entre les Bras is a pun that translates as 'between the arms" – is that both men are grappling with the uncertainty in their futures.
This moody documentary, which lingers on Aubrac’s serene rural landscape, especially at first and last light (metaphors for both men’s careers), regularly captures father and son lost in their own thoughts.
The fear for Michel is twofold: Can anyone match his sense of perfection? And after a lifetime commitment to his art, how can he stop?
One great distress is who else will pick the herbs, flowers and leaves in the morning with his careful tenderness? And then there’s the lifetime habit of his daily kitchen routine.
'The time I spend in the morning with the cooks is important for me," Michel confesses. 'I told Séba, if I ever stop seeing them and stop going to the market, that’ll be the end of me; I'll be dead."
Two chefs talk
Three-hat chef Ben Shewry, from Attica in Melbourne, and author of Origin, understands the pressures Sébastien Bras faces.
He grew up on a farm in a remote corner of New Zealand’s north island. Of the seven kids in his school class, two were his sisters and his mother was the teacher.
Attica is now listed in the world’s top 100 restaurants and Shewry brings his own quiet intensity to his nature-based cuisine, which reflects both his childhood landscape and the country he now calls home.
The surprising thing is that when the two chefs talk, at first the conversation isn’t about ingredients and cooking, but rather family and the influences they gathered growing up.
When Ben says Step Up to the Plate reminded him of his own childhood, Séba responds, 'Childhood really shapes you. The sharing of your life with nature really comes through in the way you express yourself as an adult."
The surprising thing, Ben confides, is that, 'I didn’t think about these things so much until I had three children of my own." He wonders how becoming a father influences Sébastien.
"History is repeating itself. When I was a child I had two playgrounds. One was the restaurant, where I spent half my time and my bedroom was right above the restaurant, and the other half was out in nature."
What worries Ben now is that work takes him away from family, so he asks Sébastien how he juggles those competing demands.
"My father says now I didn’t spend enough time with you when you were children, but I don’t recall it that way. My memory of my childhood is that my parents were very busy, but when we were together, it was a very intense, very strong moment," he says.
"I have two speeds in my life. When the restaurant is open it’s very busy and full on, but I’m very conscious to make sure I get family time in there. And when the restaurant is closed, I feel I can make up for it all."
Ben was just five when he knew he wanted to be a chef and wonders if Sébastien had a similar experience.
"I don’t recall a specific moment. It was just a natural continuation of my childhood. It was quite logical. My playground just became my career."
"How did your father react?" Ben asks.
"He was very happy and very proud," Séba says.
By coincidence, it was another case of history repeating, since Michel was just 16 when he joined his parents – his father was a blacksmith – in their new venture, a hotel-restaurant, Lou Mazuc, going on to earn two Michelin stars in the 1980s. When Michel risked everything to carve his dramatic new restaurant out of a hillside, he was reassured that his son would one day follow in his footsteps.
Ben is intrigued by the relationship the two men have and remarks: 'There’s a sweetness to the conversations between the two of you. Has it always been that way?"
Sébastien laughs: 'For 18 months the director was dreaming that we’d have a fight so he could get it on film. It’s not how we operate."
But he admits it hasn’t always been easy.
"We’ve had some hard times. When I left university and came to work with my father, he was very demanding with everyone and never made concessions. He did feel he could be more demanding with me than with the other cooks.
"There were times when he would criticise me openly in front of 20 other people. There were two-to-three years that were really hard, toughening me up and getting things up to the level of my father’s expectations. But I have no regrets.
'That’s what I needed to make myself strong and to get to that level of cooking."
Ben wonders how the chef feels now that the fourth generation of the Bras family is showing an interest in cooking. Sébastien and his wife, Veronique, have two children, aged 11 and eight.
"It’s kind of a game and that’s how it should be right now.
"I really want my children to have the freedom to make the choice they want, but I find it very touching and my father is probably even more touched than I am," he says.
Step Up to the Plate is as much about family as it is food.
It ends with grandfather in the kitchen at Sébastien’s place with his grandson. From the look on Sébastien’s face, you can’t help thinking that if history repeats, that’s just the way nature intended it.
View Ben's marron, cured beef and wild sea flora recipe from Origin: The Food of Ben Shewry (Murdoch Books, $95, hbk).