Buddhist chef Edward Espe Brown started studying Zen and the art of dicing under the tutelage of legendary monk Shunryu Suziki Roshi in 1965. (Was it karmic equilibrium that Gordon Ramsay was born the following year?)
For decades, Brown—a goofball with the face of a bald eagle—has been the head chef, or tenzo, at Suzuki's San Francisco Zen Center, where he supervises three vegetarian meals a day for those paying $85 to $325 a night for a meditative retreat—although that he refers to his first cookbook as The Bible of Bread-Making proves that a Judeo-Christian mindset is harder to shake free than a springform pan. German documentarian Doris Dorrie has essentially filmed Brown's five-day retreat session, How to Cook Your Life, in which the gentle giant dispenses parables about rotten turnips and koans like "When you cut the carrots, cut the carrots."
These chanted admonitions to "attend to vegetables with your own hands" are meant to share enlightenment but here come across sanctimonious and didactic, not just because Brown's lecturing to paying students, but there's a post-Alice Waters fatigue in feeling guilty about not growing your own tomatoes. And Dorrie's chastising habit of cutting to fat men chowing diner cheeseburgers isn't helping.
But Brown's anthropomorphized view of his kitchen has a lively magic: His battered teapots, which he describes as "plump" and "still willing to carry water," are a source of his strength, and you nearly believe him when he says his dough is a living being, these huge, quivering mounds caressed into neat bundles. (Though to be fair, the way squashed white bread springs back into shape seems like an argument for reincarnation.) Brown also nicely links moldy produce to life's tragedies, saying that in both, we have no choice but to chew and shallow.
However, despite the film's repeated exhortations that humans need to be more humble about who is cooking whom, the broccoli continues to seem inert. Occasionally, Dorrie ventures off the monastery to look at other solutions to modern-day man's disconnection with food, visiting among others an organic farmer who shocks her by saying he fertilizes his arugula with turkey meal and an urban scavenger who steals apples from the yards of Republicans and orders the sound guy to knock down figs with his boom mike.
Distributor: Roadside Attractions
Cast: Edward Espe Brown
Director/Screenwriter: Doris Dorrie
Producers: Franz X. Gernstl and Fidelis Mager
Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language
Running time: 93 min.
Release date: October 26, 2007 SF, November 16 exp.