In a recent piece for The New Yorker, Bill Buford movingly recounts the kind of romantic apprenticeship most aspiring chefs imagine when they hear the word “stage”: Having moved to Lyon to absorb French food culture, the American humbly offered himself as a student hoping to learn from the crusty character who made the town’s best bread. A skill was passed from master to learner, a friendship developed, and a new evangelist for the region’s traditions was born.
Things are a bit different at Mugaritz, the experimental haute-dining destination in Spain’s Basque country. There, a nine-month stage program attracts 1,500 applicants for 30 spots; many of those admitted will not make it to the end. As depicted in Abby Ainsworth’s first feature-length doc, Stage: The Culinary Internship, this is a place for food professionals to test their own mettle, not learn from a sensei. While the film leaves many questions unanswered — just what percentage of the labor force producing that 220-Euro (not including wine) meal is working for free? — its balance of a few different modes of food doc will appeal to those not scared off by dishes that revolve around, for instance, apples sporting a carefully grown layer of mold.
Ainsworth assumes we’re pretty familiar with Mugaritz, pointing out that it’s one of the world’s top 10 restaurants without telling us what authority says so. Executive chef/owner Andoni Luis Aduriz fits the part of genius-innovator, addressing his new recruits and asking them to spell out what they want to get from their time here. Little do we suspect this will be nearly the last they see of him: Perhaps Aduriz meets regularly with the stagiers or visits the kitchen for coaching, but if so, we don’t see it. His most meaningful scene in the film comes when, at the dress-rehearsal dinner before the debut of the new season’s menu, he dines on the dishes they’re making and critiques each with his wife.
We meet a handful of 20-somethings from as far away as Korea and Poland, many of whom have food service in their blood. Individually, they speak to Ainsworth about seeking their most creative selves here — learning to understand ingredients and master exotic techniques. But much of the hard work shown here seems indistinguishable from that done in any other very good restaurant: A woman named Jade, herself a graduate of the program, keeps watchful eye in the kitchen, calmly questioning each cook about what he or she is doing wrong.
Fans of exotica will get to see plenty of the weird, and sometimes revolting, plates this kitchen sends out to the dining room: One creative assignment is to design a piece of food that looks like a used condom. Dani, the business’ head of research and development, says of their experiments, “I prefer somebody showing disgust than showing nothing”; Aduriz acknowledges that Mugaritz is “equally worshipped and hated.” But if Ainsworth is ever turned off, you won’t know it: She and DP Ben Ainsworth make everything look interesting, if not necessarily appetizing.
If we seem to skip over big chunks of the cohort’s instruction, and if the film ignores the ethical questions surrounding using free labor to make food for one-percenters, it’s clear that most participants feel the experience is worthwhile. Whether they’ll want to continue in this environment after they’ve passed the test is another matter.
Production company: Butternut Productions
Distributor: Cargo Film & Releasing (Available Friday, May 29 in virtual cinemas)
Director-Screenwriter: Abby Ainsworth
Producers: Abby Ainsworth, Lindsay Kutner
Director of photography: Ben Ainsworth
Editors: Jordan Kawai, Nicolas Kleiman
Composer: Lydia Ainsworth
In Spanish and English