By Cari Borja
“tell me and i forget, teach me and i may remember,
involve me and i learn.
Ahh, the idea of being in a kitchen again ~ not mine, but someone else’s with others, (or even the kitchen I once had in my design studio in Berkeley, above) ~ apprenticing, learning, collaborating in the same tactile real space as other human beings (that I’m not related to)… making things and tasting things and giving others something they never knew they even wanted? I didn’t think I would actually have to imagine this, crave this even, as much as I do right now.
But let’s face it ~ we’re not going anywhere; well, I’m not going anywhere any time soon ~ all salon dinners postponed, most large gatherings on hold with no idea when we’ll be able to even eat in a restaurant dining room again, never mind a full sit down 9-course tasting menu, that spans 4 hours. Now, most things for many of us are vicarious, so I depend on, as in live for ~ film and food to take me away, transport me into another world, make me feel alive again, immersed, elsewhere.
As an anthropologist (what I came to California to study at CAL, before becoming a clothesmaker) one’s training is through fieldwork, hands-on, experiential ~living in and with, to study the culture of a different way of being. But before participant observation became the norm in the early 1900s there was the armchair anthropologist of the 19th century ~ the scholar who learned about things from afar ~ from the safety of their own library without leaving the comfort of home. My own fieldwork took me to Britain, then Jamaica in the late 90s, and then most recently I turned my analysis on “studying up” in America through understanding patterns of behavior in Silicon Valley corporate culture. It’s all about being experiential, but you can be an observer-insider-outsider of anything, including the fashion and food worlds ~ looking at how and why people do the things they do, and what happens when things change, sometimes drastically, like now. So right now many of us are just that, an armchair anthropologist ~ especially if we have or had a business ~ trying to adapt, hoping to survive.
That is why Rémi Anfosso’s A Chef’s Voyage is so poignant at this moment in time, and the perfect place to be in, an immersive journey to experience. Sitting in your living room imagining what it’s like to do the things that many of us used to do, and hopefully will be able to do in some non-specific future ~ the ease with which we got on an airplane and hopped across an ocean to travel or work, or could enter someone else’s kitchen and learn to feel right at home. This fascinating portrayal of how Manresa’s 3 Michelin starred chef David Kinch decided to “celebrate” 15 years of his Los Gatos restaurant by taking his whole team to France to do a series of four hands dinners —?!— is the perfect addition to my compulsive list of things to do and watch since sheltering in place 6 months ago. Just finishing a project at Apple, about to launch into a handful of other cool projects that got canceled or postponed indefinitely ~ I’ve been catching up on every Netflix, Amazon, Hulu series imaginable, documentary films, indie features, 40+ MasterClasses (why not?), reading and cooking my way through the stacks of books piled in corners, collected and alphabetized, finally cracked open.
I miss traveling, sure, but I miss gathering and collaborating and building those muscles of adaptability even more ~ hosting salon dinners since 2012 through the present that once took place in my studio (the first 77) and became moveable feasts in other places + spaces (the last 30+). So to be transported simultaneously to a past almost forgotten and future hardly conceivable, in the very present now of watching Kinch’s odyssey to France and back again ~ well, I watched it first to settle into its narrative arc, and then again to inhale the details. Lingering on those little moments that seem another lifetime, an imaginary distant me ~ from the strategic packing of local ingredients ~ “abalone and underwear” and the intimacy of an elbow to elbow kitchen to the simplicity of taking a train from point A (Gare de Lyon) to point B (Marseilles) or being able to plate a series of dishes that are eaten inside a restaurant, rather than boxed and taken home, its original composed beauty wilted and tasteless ~ out of context. To get lost in the act of remembering what it was like to have that freedom to focus and the challenge entailed in translating a vision from one space to another ~ across cultures and through time ~what magic!
David Kinch’s Manresa isn’t new to me ~ in fact, I’ve been there at least a half dozen times, twice for the full sit down many-coursed menu~ the first time in 2009 with my husband Lloyd and our chef friends Angela and Larry Tse from SF’s The House. Right now I think of the evocative power of that Arpege egg amuse-bouche that has stayed with me for over a decade. The second time was during the weekend celebration of Chez Panisse’s 40th anniversary in August 2011 with friend and food writer Camille Labro in town from France. This was a completely different experience that came after apprenticing at Chez Panisse earlier that year. My attention was to all the subtle particularities that come with contrasting two different establishments, two ways of doing: the balance between front of the house and back of the house, the distinctive ceramics that appeared for different courses, the actual plating, and presentation of each ingredient, the placement of flatware, the nature of light, the attention to service. During the following years when I worked in Cupertino, I would take friends to the bar to taste the perfect bit of Jamaica through its hibiscus cocktail, a moment of Japan in its Shizuka with Love Apple shiso, the reinterpretation of a margarita in its mezcal-based Smoke Signals. The memory of munching sour grass in its Fieldnotes. The way a simple taste and juxtaposition transports through time and space.
I fell in love with the idea of translation and transformation ~ the alchemy of “ingredients” ~ via fabrics and textures and silhouettes through the making of clothes and the creation of collections ~ to be photographed and then come alive on the runway. I spent over a decade doing just that before wanting to understand it through taste and the sensual act of eating. I also wanted to learn how to cook, how a kitchen functions, how a team works so seamlessly together. After 3 months in the kitchen of Chez Panisse working under my mentor Cal Peternell, I made a mini Chez Panisse collection of clothes for the 40th anniversary, inspired by creative processes in the kitchen, and started the salon series in my design studio a few months after that.
“The way you do anything is the way you do everything,” Tom Waits once said, and I agree. The same rituals and habits of repetition of cutting that I did in my studio with fabric, we practiced in the kitchen on onions, the same focus, and precision on cleaning calamari and shelling fava beans efficiently, of understanding the bias as not the cut of a gown, but the cut of a carrot. And then to add the salons to it ~ to contextualize the practice of cooking and cultivate connections. The final challenge was making them “moveable” ~ like what Kinch was doing at such a dramatic scale taking Manresa abroad. To me, that is the beauty of the balance that is this film. To be able to be taken through that process from start to finish ~ from one point in France, to the next ~ with each step, mastering the way of inhabiting another space ~ immersed in a foreign culture ~ using another’s stoves and sinks, and adapting to the head chef, the other cooks, the way they run their dining room. From the countryside chill of Glenn Viel’s Baumaniere in Provence to the center hustle in Paris at Alain Soliviere’s Le Taillevent and final destination the seaside Hotel ~ Gerald Passedat’s Le Petite Nice in Marseilles… 9 meals over 10 days, a marathon, and in the process you slowly see the tense shoulders ease, the communication becomes not quite effortless, but less prickly, each person slowly adapting to the culture and ways of doing around them, but still maintaining Kinch’s voice, his vision. The one moment that I keep going back to is when Kinch says he’s there to “spread the gospel of Manresa…every action that you do has to have a certain sense of confidence and, not only be respectful of the house that we’re in, but be respectful of Manresa ~ where we are coming from.”
And then, he is back in his world in Los Gatos, and we are back in ours, in our homes, still in many ways sheltering from reality, and if you’re on the West Coast, sheltering from the smoke that fills the air around us. I like to think of watching any film or series pragmatically, especially something like this. It takes us someplace but what does it make me want to do, besides travel far away? I’m left with a few things. The first, the real power of food and memories ~ that moment in Pixar’s Ratatouille when Anton Ego is brought back to his childhood. Like Kinch mentions towards the end, about the ephemerality of it all ~ food like music ends up a memory in the mind. How do we get it back? I started obsessively doing MasterClasses in March and at one point decided unexpectedly to try Dominique Ansel’s. I had always loved the idea and power of the Proustian madeleine and my daughter Royal brings them home from her work every so often dipped in chocolate. But making them? Within a couple hours, after an 11-minute video of Dominique taking me through the process of making the batter, refrigerating it overnight, a quick trip to Sur La Table for the pans, next day, post-dinner, bam. Perfection. And it was all in the little masterful details ~ the hint of orange and lemon, the powdered sugar, and eating them RIGHT OUT of the oven. I never thought of myself as a baker, also never a cook ~ never my true metier ~ I do things with a sort of calm and laissez-faire that frustrates my chef friends who are more particular and perfectionist in their ways of doing. But for me, it’s never been about the food, but the people, the experience, the process. And that’s what is so endearing about A Chef’s Voyage ~ exactly that ~ the process… the adaptability. Now more than ever, we need that flexibility muscle and the ability to pivot if and when necessary as we move forward ~ and to do so with elegance and grace retaining the soul of all you’ve created, collaborating, and engaging in new ways. Whether it’s Manresa’s “family meals,” Chez Panisse’s shift to take out on-line with pick-up in person, or Daniel Patterson’s Alta Adam’s series of collaborations with chefs like Dominique Crenn ~ a few examples of how supple some of our food institutions are and have had to be.
Why do we do what we do? How do we do what we do? I leave you with two contrasting yet overlapping quotes. The first is by Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand, the writer of an 1826 text entitled Voyage en Amerique, about his travels to the New World in the 1790s; the second is a quote from Christine Muhlke (who opens and closes the film), and who co-wrote Kinch’s stunning opus from 2013 Manresa: An Edible Reflection.
“A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between their work and their play; their labor and their leisure; their mind and their body; their education and their recreation. They hardly know which is which. They simply pursue their vision of excellence through whatever they are doing, and leave others to determine whether they are working or playing. To themselves, they always appear to be doing both.” ~ chateaubriand
“it’s like the swan. you don’t see the feet paddling.” ~ christine muhlke
A Chef’s Voyage is ultimately a way of seeing and doing, that could simultaneously be a manual on leadership and management and what it takes to inspire and motivate a team; or it can be literally about a way of living: how to push yourself as a creative being, never complacent, always striving for another way of being and becoming ~ how to keep the chaos under the calm and through a sense of grace. It’s also in many ways a reflection on our choices ~ our values, living and working out of balance or integrated ~ and our perspective on the way we take meaningful moments and exchanges and sculpt them into something else. We don’t just ask what it is we do and why, but for whom and how. Somewhere deep in this film one chef talks about food and love, another about culinary memories, exactly those things that bring us back to who we are, what we hold dear, and what we never want to let go of ~ a sense of magic, a feeling of wonderment, something we all need in our lives right now.
A Chef’s Voyage is currently showing in Virtual Cinemas where you stream it at home and the “admission price” is shared between your favorite independent cinema and the filmmakers/distributors. Here is a list of presenting venues.
The film also benefits the support of ongoing restaurant workers relief programs, racial justice, restaurant reboot relief, and more. Learn about The Lee Initiative.
Three new recipes from David Kinch’s upcoming (March 2021) book At Home in the Kitchen.
Read chef Joyce Goldstein’s review of A Chef’s Voyage.
Cari Borja is a clothesmaker, salonniere and anthropologist who received her Ph.D. in cultural anthropology and film from UC Berkeley. From 2017 through Spring 2020 she has been a consulting anthropologist at Apple ~ at Apple University, then in retail marketing for Today at Apple, and most recently in Environment, Policy and Social Initiatives. Cari also creative directs a variety of galas and salons including She-Can Global in SF and NYC and Boston Review Magazine in the Bay Area, and was a Visiting Artist at Oakland-based Creative Growth through March 2020. Cari is also on the board of National Novel Writing Month. You can read some of her work on her Fashion Film Food blog HERE, most recently a 4-part series on the first 100 days sheltering in place. Cari has written regularly for EatDrinkFilms.