‘Sergio Herman: Fucking Perfect’: Berlin Review

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
An impassioned portrait of one great chef who could no longer take the heat

Dutch director Willemiek Kluijfhout turns the camera on her country’s best cook

The title says it all: Michelin 3-star chef Sergio Herman is Fucking Perfect, or at least he tries to be. But as every foodie film from Ratatouille to Jiro Dreams of Sushi to Jon Favreau’s Chef has shown, running a first class restaurant is no walk in the park, especially when it’s a gastronomic powerhouse ranked among the top 50 in the world.

Documenting the daily grind of planning, prepping, cooking, plating and serving a dauntingly complex array of dishes on a nightly basis, and revealing the heavy toll it takes on Herman’s life at home, director Willemiek Kluijfhout provides an intriguing fly-on-the-wall expose that’s more passionate than informative, but still finger-licking good. Premiering in Berlin’s Culinary sidebar – where Kluijfhout’s Mussels in Love played two years ago – this well-lensed feast should land reservations on the various food networks popping up in Europe and elsewhere.

Herman was raised in the apartment above his dad’s small-town seafood restaurant, Oud Sluis (Dutch for “Old Sluice”), located near the northern coast of the Netherlands. He took the place over in 1990, quickly transforming it into one of Europe’s premier eateries, with a propensity for elaborate recipes inspired by both his father’s cooking and the molecular haute-cuisine concoctions of elBulli’s Ferran Adria.

For over 25 years, Herman slaved away at the stove, barking orders at his kitchen help like a sergeant breaking in a bunch of new recruits. This is how we first encounter the chef: in the thick of a dinner rush, surveying his busy staff as he meticulously sculpts various unidentified food objects onto a small plate. Later, we see Herman driving home late at night, his wife and four children already fast asleep.

The endless toil continues throughout the opening reels, and it becomes increasingly clear that the high-octane job is running 43-year-old Herman into the ground. And then, shocker: He decides in 2013 to shut Oud Sluis down, hoping to spend more time with his family while pursuing less taxing enterprises. The news causes an outcry among food critics and foodies, but Herman has made his choice.

It’s at this point that Kluijfhout, who’s so infatuated with her subject that her film sometimes feels like an hagiography smothered in emulsified onions, manages to capture something akin to true emotion. As Herman makes a speech on Oud Sluis' final night, he nearly chokes up, and you can suddenly see what it's like to have your life’s work disappear in the course of an evening, even if the decision was yours.

But not so fast: No sooner is Herman lounging around the house and looking prodigiously bored, then he decides to open up a brand new establishment – a massive bar-restaurant located in an old church in Antwerp. It looks like a more releaxed joint than his 3-star affair, but still requires hours of preparation, meetings, samplings, and of course, more driving back and forth. Herman simply can’t stop.

That’s the moral of the story, and in that sense Sergio Herman: Fucking Perfect lives up to its name, revealing a man obsessed with culinary perfection and willing to sacrifice much in his life to achieve it. Yet while this idea is made abundantly clear, it would have been helpful if Kluijfhout had explained what makes Herman such a great chef: we see the persistence and passion, but never understand what he’s brought to the table in terms of contemporary cuisine. (The only full dish we see him prepare is the classic Langoustines a la nage, and even that is only shown in a few brief fragments.)

In the filmmaker’s defense, there are plenty of decent cooking shows out there, and what Kluijfhout does offer up in comparison is something that’s much more visually arresting. With DP Remko Schnorr (The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema) shooting on Super-16mm, the “food porn” close-ups have a rich, contrasted look filled with color and grain, bringing out the beauty of Herman’s work during his long tenure at Oud Sluis. His creations there look more like pieces of art than something you can actually eat – sensational dishes you can admire but unfortunately, can no longer taste.

Production companies: Trueworks, VPRO
Director: Willemiek Kluijfhout
Producer: Reinette van de Stadt
Director of photography: Remko Schnorr
Editor: Saskia Kievits
Composer: Trentemoller
Sales agent: Fortissimo Films

No rating, 80 minutes

 

 

 

 

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