'A Chef's Voyage': Film Review

First Run Features
Gorgeous food and scenery, but not a lot else.

Remi Anfosso's doc follows California chef David Kinch as he takes his show on the road to France.

It sounds fun on paper — sort of: The kitchen staff of a high-level California restaurant was to be whisked off to France, where they'd bring their chef's vision to restaurants in three different picturesque locales, pairing his food on each occasion with that of a locally revered restaurateur. Except: There was nearly no down time between assignments; each night demanded they get comfortable in an unfamiliar kitchen; and being true to their menu required them each to pack an insane quantity of perishable ingredients in their luggage. (Hey, do my socks smell like shellfish?)

Highlighting the sensory pleasure and creative satisfaction while mostly only hinting at the hassles, Remi Anfosso's A Chef's Voyage seems, like the tour it chronicles, a bit like a vanity project: an expensive and labor-intensive tour that serves to raise the profile of Los Gatos restaurant Manresa (on the occasion of its 15th anniversary) and its chef/owner David Kinch. That said, epicureans could do worse than spend 90 minutes looking at DP Steven Hollerman's pictures of rugged coastlines, Provençal gardens and immaculately plated food. And while none of the human subjects exactly leaps from the screen as a feature-worthy character, all are pleasant company. Expect to be whining about COVID-era restaurant shutdowns as the credits roll.

We learn little about Kinch's background aside from the suggestion that he works outside the spotlight of San Francisco because he wants to live in Santa Cruz and surf every day. Shaggy of hair and beard, he looks the part. As big a Francophile as most possessors of three Michelin stars, he decides he will shut his restaurant down and connect with the source. He'll take his key cooks, staff and sommelier with him. Who cares if nobody in the kitchen speaks French?

But the film sets aside time for some of the duller challenges of this production — how to pack all that abalone; making sure everyone has a passport — while mostly eliding the intriguing ones: How did Kinch settle on how he and his hosts would balance their respective duties? What had to change so that two (presumably) distinct visions would harmonize for diners instead of clashing? Do they not have abalone in France?

As the first dinner approaches, in a truly spectacular-looking town called Les Baux in Provence, comments from interviews conducted after the tour suggest we might be about to watch a trainwreck. But aside from a couple of shots hinting at a culture clash between one kitchen's staff and the American invaders, nothing bad happens. On to the next spot.

In Paris, Alain Soliveres of Le Taillevent is a cosmopolitan host who suggests that cliche about Yankee-hating Frenchmen is nonsense: The restaurant's wine cellar, boasting a couple of hundred thousand bottles, has enough California vintages to impress Manresa's sommelier. On this occasion, they serve the Americans' dishes with French wines and vice-versa. Cute. Time to pack those bags again.

Lastly to Marseille, for a hotel restaurant set right atop the coastline and a chef, Gerald Passedat, determined to offer diners only what the sea provides. Images of exquisite, inventive-sounding dishes have been getting more beautiful as the film progresses (or am I just getting hungrier?), but they're at their height here, even though we can't taste the hundred year-old bottle of wine Passedat proudly offers alongside one of them.

Throughout, the French restaurateurs tend to have more interesting things to say than Kinch, who tries to focus on questions of leadership and legacy. Viewers will have to read between the lines when his employees are on camera, looking back on an experience that was probably more grueling than enjoyable. None seem to hold a grudge, and the few complaints we do hear are truisms we all already understand. (Cooking at a gastronomic destination is not great for your love life.) But since their return, only two cooks from this tour still work in Manresa's kitchen.

Production company: Flapjack
Distributor: First Run Features (Available Tuesday, November 24 on Apple TV, iTunes & Amazon Prime)
Director: Remi Anfosso
Producers: Jordan Feagan, Remi Anfosso
Executive producers: Mary Wagstaff, Mark Gottwald
Director of photography: Steven Hollerman
Editors: Bryan Rodner Carr, Remi Anfosso
Composer: Kyle Newmaster

90 minutes