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‘The Quest of Alain Ducasse’ Only Goes Half the Distance

Notes on a food film and two TV shows, plus a roundup of the week’s entertainment news

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A scene from The Quest of Alain Ducasse

This post originally appeared on June 15 2018, in “Eat, Drink, Watch” — the weekly newsletter for people who want to order takeout and watch TV. Browse the archives and subscribe now.

Please feel free to take your shoes off if you like and help yourself to something in the fridge. There’s a lot of food TV for you to watch over the next few days, so let’s dig right into what’s new and good this weekend. Here are three recommendations, plus a roundup of the week’s entertainment news:

Alain Ducasse is everywhere (and nowhere)

Acclaimed French chef Alain Ducasse lives an extraordinary life, worthy of the big-screen treatment. But a new feature-length documentary about the chef, The Quest of Alain Ducasse, feels like a missed opportunity: Though it promises a peek inside the mind of an influential chef, it doesn’t reveal much about how Ducasse carved out an unusual niche for himself in the culinary world, or what continues to fuel his fire.

Ducasse spends most of his life jetting from city to city, checking on his 23-restaurant empire, which holds a total of 18 Michelin stars. In the film, before hopping on a plane at Charles de Gaulle Airport, Ducasse gives notes to the staff of the terminal’s VIP lounge — which he also manages — on the correct way to pour Champagne. And while he’s up in the air, Ducasse spends his time reviewing the artwork for a few forthcoming cookbooks. When he gets bored with cookbooks, he heads into the cockpit to chum around with the pilots and offer them tips on the best ways to cook lobster. It’s just another day in the life of “the first remote chef” who, the narrator explains, is “capable of earning stars and running tables without being present.”

Later, you see Ducasse practicing “gastrodiplomacy” with heads of state in Paris, high-fiving children enrolled in his culinary school in the Philippines (a few of whom are even sponsored by the chef), and talking shop in the French countryside with the farmers who grow all the food for his flagship restaurant, Plaza Athénée. The documentary is bookended by footage of Ducasse opening his most ambitious project to date, a fine dining restaurant that’s literally inside the Palace of Versailles.

As filmmaker Gilles de Maistre explains, Ducasse is secretive about his personal life, and during the two years he spent following the chef around the world, the director only briefly interacted with his wife, and never met any of his four children. A few of his colleagues offer anecdotes about the chef, and Ducasse sporadically recounts his former triumphs. But you never really get a sense of who he is, exactly, when he’s not flying, eating, sitting in meetings, or commanding his brigade.

Although it lacks an emotional core, The Quest of Alain Ducasse moves along at a nice clip and includes a lot of gorgeous footage of the cities where Ducasse has restaurants, and the food that’s served in his dining rooms. This film will also likely appeal to fans of Chef’s Table, and anyone who obsesses over the yearly updates to the Michelin guide and World’s 50 Best List.

The Quest of Alain Ducasse is now playing in select theaters across the country and is available to purchase on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Video, and Video on Demand.

Streaming selections du jour

Lords and Ladles/Netflix

Lords and Ladles, “Castle Leslie”

Watch it on: Netflix

The gist: In keeping with the great UK tradition of food shows that are exceedingly mellow, but full of just enough interesting cooking to keep you engaged, Lords and Ladles explores the culinary history of Ireland’s great castles. At the top of each show, the three chef/hosts — Derry Clarke, Catherine Fulvio, and Paul Flynn — lift up the “cloches of destiny” to determine if they will be cooking, sourcing the food, or doing the historical research during each episode.

Part of the fun is seeing the chefs recreate bizarre and oftentimes bland-looking dishes from century-old menus, while using their culinary know-how to slightly update them for today’s palates. Each episode also features pastoral shots of these majestic castles, and interviews with the people who tend to them — or live in them.

You’ll know after one episode if this show is the right fit for you. The “Castle Leslie” installment, which focuses on the 19th-century country house where Sir Paul McCartney married Heather Mills 15 years ago, has a menu that includes the unusual trifecta of boiled turkey, Mulligatawny soup, and venison cooked in paper.

Documentary Now, “Juan Likes Rice & Chicken”

Watch it on: iTunes; Amazon Video

The gist: If you find yourself fed up with self-serious food documentaries like the one mentioned at the top of this newsletter, this hilarious Jiro Dreams of Sushi parody from SNL alums Fred Armisen and Bill Hader might be right up your alley.

As the story goes, an aging chef named Juan (played by Hector Elias) operates a humble, but critically-acclaimed, restaurant in the hills of Colombia where he serves a daily set menu of “a cup of warm coffee, followed by a banana split perfectly in half, then rice with a little bit of butter, and, on most days, chicken.” One guide book author remarks that it’s “the only Michelin three-star restaurant I know of that’s a 40-minute walk from the nearest road.” When Juan falls ill, his hapless son Armando (played by Armisen) tries to fill his father’s shoes, even though he’s clearly not cut out for the job.

“Juan Likes Rice & Chicken” effortlessly lampons both the style and tone of documentaries like Jiro and Chef’s Table, right down to the artsy slo-mo kitchen shots, dramatic musical cues, and dry interludes where random experts extol the glories of these culinary masterminds. Frenemies David Chang and Jonathan Gold make cameos as two of the talking heads.

Oh and one more note: The new season of Queer Eye is now live on Netflix. The first episode, focusing on the dual makeovers of a church-going mom and her gay son, will surely tug at your heartstrings.

In other entertainment news…

  • The food word is still reeling over the loss of Anthony Bourdain one week after he was found dead in a hotel room in France of an apparent suicide. This week, CNN confirmed plans to air the final two Season 11 episodes of Parts Unknown this Sunday and the following Sunday, as originally planned. (The network has not yet commented on the fate of Season 12, which Bourdain was shooting when he took his own life.) This week’s episode will focus on Cajun Mardi Gras, and next week’s show will cover Bourdain’s trip to Bhutan with Darren Aronofsky. CNN’s hour-long tribute special Remembering Anthony Bourdain will air again this weekend before Parts Unknown at 8 p.m. And, in an act of goodwill toward Bourdain’s legion of fans, Netflix also negotiated a deal to keep the first eight seasons of Parts in its library for “months to come.”
  • Bao, Pixar’s short film about an adorable dumpling baby, is running before all showings of Incredibles 2 starting today. Check out a behind-the-scenes look at the making of this instant-classic short film, along with an illustrated dumpling recipe for from writer/director Domee Shi, here.
  • Netflix is making a new baking competition show called Sugar Rush, which will be judged by Sprinkles proprietor Candace Nelson and Australian TV star Adriano Zumbo. No word yet on a release date.
  • Ree Drummond, aka the Pioneer Woman, is opening a new pizzeria in her hometown of Pawhuska, Oklahoma called P-Town Pizza.
  • The tenth season of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee will land on Netflix on Friday, July 6. This batch of episodes will feature Jerry Seinfeld gabbing with Tracy Morgan, Kate McKinnon, Ellen DeGeneres, Hasan Minhaj, Dana Carvey, Neil Brennan, Alec Baldwin, Zach Galifianakis, John Mulaney, Dave Chappelle, and the late Jerry Lewis.
  • And finally, now that Starz’s surprisingly crunchy restaurant drama Sweetbitter has concluded its run, you can stream all six episodes marathon-style, which is probably the best way to enjoy this soap opera-esque show. Catch it on Starz, Amazon, or iTunes.

Have a great weekend, and if you’re looking for something hearty (and meatless) to make this weekend, consider whipping up on of Tyler Kord’s mighty crispy zucchini parm sandwiches.