How to Cook Your Life

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Los Angeles Film Festival

The Food Channel puts very little emphasis on this, but according to master chef Edward Espe Brown, the essential ingredient for good food is a touch of Zen. Of course, Brown also happens to be a Zen priest. For the uninitiated, Brown is the Bay Area author of "The Tassajara Bread Book" and "The Tassajara Recipe Book," among other well-known titles, and a longtime teacher of meditation and Zen techniques. Now he is the subject of an amusing and insightful documentary by German filmmaker Doris Dorrie ("Me and Him" "Nobody Loves Me").

"How to Cook Your Life" certainly will do much better than other docus on religious or self-help topics because its focus is on a thing everyone can relate to -- food.

Food preparation and cooking are the lighthearted means by which Brown expresses his Zen philosophy, bringing every thing down to tasks we all perform almost every day. The film, which will be released by Roadside Attractions in North America, has a solid though limited theatrical audience and looks like a good bet in home video formats.

During summer 2006, Dorrie and her crew sat in on cooking sessions with Brown and a class of enthusiastic students of all generations at several Buddhist centers in Northern California and one in Austria. Brown makes a charismatic central figure for a movie as he is a modest yet self-assured man with an easy laugh and the instincts of a natural-born teacher.

The movie's title sums up the Brown approach best. The act of cooking serves as an apt metaphor for the Zen approach to life. We are not cooking the food, he insists, but rather the food is cooking us. The focus must be on each task. If one is washing rice, then wash the rice. If one is slicing a carrot, then slice the carrot. In other words, treat each task with the utmost care and concentration, for these are, in fact, spiritual acts.

"Take care of food as if it were your own eyesight," he says more than once. (There is, understandably, some repetition from session to session.) More practically, he advises to take care of fingers and other body parts when using a knife. "The knife will find anything that sticks out. It's just what knives do."

The film and Brown -- it's hard to separate one from the other -- make passing reference to the decline and fall of Western civilization as seen in today's fast food and the denigration of manual labor in our culture. From Frankenstein foods made as much out of chemicals as food ingredients to burgers-on-the-run, Brown has a hard time laughing, for once, at the "labor-saving" excesses of a culture in too much of a hurry to take time to prepare food at home.

At 94 minutes, the film is possibly 10 minutes or so too long. Brown's teachings register easily and clearly without the need for quite so much repetition. The film also gets sidetracked in vistas to an organic farmer and then an eccentric woman who only eats what other people discard. (She cheats a bit, though, by pilfering fruit off trees.)

Certainly the experience of "How to Cook Your Life" will leave you with a new appreciation of culinary chores. So what's for dinner?

HOW TO COOK YOUR LIFE
Roadside Attractions
Megaherz Gmbh Film und Fernsehen
Credits:
Screenwriter-director: Doris Dorrie
Producers: Franz X. Gernstl, Fidelis Mager
Executive producer: Richard Sterling
Directors of photography: Jorg Jeshel, Doris Dorrie
Music: Florian Riedl, Martin Kolb
Editor: Suzi Giebler
Running time -- 94 minutes
No MPAA rating
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