Review: A Chef’s Voyage Is the Behind-the-Scenes Journey of an American Chef in France

Generally speaking, I’m always open to a food documentary. The story of a masterful sushi chef who’s influenced a generation from his six-seat restaurant under a train station? I’m in. A mini-series on the essentials of cooking, no matter the cuisine or geography? Binged it. And a personal favorite, the food-inspired travels of a dopey, endearing American TV producer? It’s the reason I traveled to Portugal in 2018.

Image courtesy of Music Box Theatre

So generally speaking, I went into A Chef’s Voyage happy to be immersed in the high-pressure world of fine dining and all it takes to execute such artistry at that level. Because in their own way, those who excel in this world are artists and craftspeople, learning and mastering the ins and outs of their chosen field in order to push the boundaries of food preparation and presentation. And to that end, the film does not disappoint as it follows Chef David Kinch celebrating the 15th anniversary of Manresa, his Michelin-starred northern California restaurant, with a pop-up dining tour across France.

Directed by Rémi Anfosso and Jason Matzner, the 90-minute film is a foodie’s delight, with sumptuous footage of delicately crafted courses designed to impress more than just one’s sense of taste. The voyage of the documentary’s title is the one Kinch and his staff embark on through Provence, Paris and Marseilles, partnering with some of the best chefs in France to create exceptional—and fleeting—dining experiences. As compelling as it is to get to know Kinch and his staff and have behind-the-scenes access to the hours of preparation and planning it takes to create the tour, perplexingly, the film never once shows us a diner actually enjoying the meals. We never see a full dining room. We never see a single happy customer, never get to vicariously experience through a layperson the magic of being on the receiving end of all that hard work. It’s a glaring oversight in an otherwise fairly comprehensive chronicle of Kinch’s journey.

Instead, the film interviews Kinch two years after the fact; as he makes himself an omelette for breakfast one day, scruffy and clearly “off duty,” Kinch recalls the experience of packing up not just his staff but his essential cutlery and ingredients and flying everyone over to France for a month. At each stop, we’re there to meet the French chefs, sommeliers and front-of-house teams prepared to work with the Americans eager to prove themselves in the birthplace of gastronomy. Kinch speaks admiringly not only of the partners they work with at each stop, his contemporaries who he still sees as mentors and idols, but about his sous chefs, butchers and pastry teams, artisans he’s deftly managed in order to bring out their strengths in service of Manresa’s ultimate success.

To that end, the film is something exceptional: a portrait of a wildly successful (white, male) chef of a certain generation who has achieved greatness without being an asshole. Kinch seems genuinely grateful to get to do the work he does, taking special pride in allowing others to shine as well. One of the staff profiled is a former chef Kinch mentored for years who, a year after the tour featured in the film, leaves Manresa for a different opportunity. He may be hiding his true sentiments, but at least in the film, Kinch never seems to begrudge his former employee’s ambition to continue his career elsewhere. Meanwhile, the restaurant’s head pastry chef sweetly (no pun intended) recounts her journey in Kinch’s kitchens, where she’s found a place to thrive and grow, a place that feels like home.

As recounted in A Chef’s Voyage, Kinch’s pop-up project seems to have something quite significant missing (you know, the diners…). But whatever the film lacks in a connection to the general populace, it attempts to make up for it in the rich connections the chef and his team have to the work they do every day. Though it might not top anyone’s list of must-see food documentaries, it’s a worthy addition to an enjoyable genre, offering a glimpse into a world most of us only ever see from our seat in the dining room.

A Chef’s Voyage is now playing via Music Box Theatre’s virtual cinema.

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Lisa Trifone
Lisa Trifone