'STAGE: The Culinary Internship' Review: A tepid take on a radical food philosophy at world-famous Mugaritz
Most of the film devotes itself to following a bunch of competitive 20-year-olds, the interns, having low conversations in the kitchen or cleaning it vigorously after service, which is terribly dull
The rise of cooking reality shows from 'MasterChef' to 'Hell's Kitchen' to more sensual and companionable endeavors like 'The Naked Chef' or 'Nigella Bites' has meant that we all have become 'couch chefs'. Chefs are now celebrities and there is a glamor associated with owning and running a restaurant. A documentary like 'Stage...' would probably have not been made before this because there was no audience for it.
When you read the documentary's premise, you think you will be seeing a real-life version of 'Hell's Kitchen' with newbie interns put through the grinder as they are being trained to be master chefs. But none of the interns have enough personality to really hold the narrative and give it a spine.
Instead, the most interesting part of the documentary becomes the restaurant itself with its radical food philosophy. Any industry that reaches a level sophistication that sees it breaching into questions of art and philosophy is always an interesting subject. But instead of this being the focus, most of the film devotes itself to following a bunch of competitive 20-year-olds, the interns, having low conversations in the kitchen or cleaning it vigorously after service is over, which is terribly dull.
Mugartiz, the restaurant featured in the documentary, started in 1998 and advertises itself as a restaurant that questions "the logic of the gastronomic world". As one chef who is part of the Research and Development team at the restaurant says, they would rather disgust a diner with their food than have them be indifferent to what they ate.
A molecule with a particular aroma in a wine becomes the basis of a whole dish and a reconstituted bone is the main dish with one of the chefs commenting on how it is counterintuitive for a diner to be "licking a bone".
The point is that the food at Mugaritz is not for the tongue or mere mortal needs like hunger. It is about a surprising experience that resembles performance art more than food. We have the front of the restaurant staff talking about theatrics and how to introduce diners to the food, taking their cues from an actress who has come to train them.
We keep getting snatches of this strange world where chefs stand in the garden sniffing flowers and leaves, entranced. A world we wish to see more of, instead of the long interviews with the said 20-year-olds, most of whom drop out before the nine-month internship is over.
It is a wasted opportunity to experience a world of senses and experiences that is completely new to the average person unconnected to the culinary world of elite dining. We never hear the diners talk about what they feel about having a meal of 300 euros that is designed to shake them out of any conceptions they have around food and eating. For instance, how do they feel when they have to kiss a ball of ice to get to the oysters and flowers perched on it?
Only towards the end does the film seem to get the subject they have missed all along. In a time-lapse, we see an apple tree mature from bare twigs, to green sprouting leaves, to buds, to flower to the final fruit.
This apple is then lacquered in penicillin and left covered until they form a thick layer of "noble rot". The camera captures the many thin filaments of the penicillin mold growing on the apples which are then sliced and served to the diners. It is the life of a living thing, from cradle to grave, served on a plate -- a revolutionary thought.
This entire sequence only has the strains of music accompany it and no words and is the best part of the film because it shows how great a film about Mugartiz's food and philosophy as the subject matter could have been. And yet, it is not.
'STAGE: The Culinary Internship' opens nationwide in virtual cinemas on May 29 in Los Angeles (Laemmle Theater), San Francisco (San Rafael Film Center), Denver (Denver Film), and Napa Valley (Cameo Cinema).
'STAGE: The Culinary Internship' released on May 29 in virtual cinemas across the nation. All tickets can be purchased here.