Precision and passion are essential to haute cuisine in any country, conveys the film "Soul." It gets up-close with three-star chefs from Spain and Japan and was presented, along with a high-class meal, at the Berlinale.
"When will I ever get a chance to meet this wonderful cook in Bilbao," an elderly lady exclaims, her excitement palpable. She's about to see "Soul," a film featuring the Basque three-star cook Eneko Atxa, and then enjoy an exclusive dinner in the Berlinale restaurant.
Eneko Atxa and Jiro Ono
"Culinary Cinema," one of Berlinale director Dieter Kosslik's favorite projects, is particularly popular among the guests. Under the slogan "Passion Food," half a dozen films are shown this year about famous star cooks and sommeliers, among them Jeong Kwan from Korea, Massimo Bottura from Italy, and Tim Raue from Berlin.
The series kicked off with 39-year-old Basque chef Eneko Atxa, one of the chosen few three-star cooks. In "Soul," directors Ángel Parra and José Antonio Blanco set out to search for the soul of food together with their protagonists. They span continents and oceans to set up dialogue between Eneko Atxa and another three-star master, legendary sushi chef Jiro Ono.
The contrast could hardly be any starker. There's the young Basque star cook coordinating his culinary empire Azurmendi in the Bay of Biskay, located in a lush green landscape with a gorgeous view of the coast and the rough sea.
And then there's 90-year old Jiro Ono, a sushi master who practices deep relaxation while managing a comparatively modest restaurant in Tokyo. His guests don't look out onto the Bay of Biskay, but at cellar walls. If they want to enjoy unique sushi, they first have to make their way down a very steep staircase.
Former US President Barack Obama is among those who have ventured into Ono's sushi cellar. As pictures of his dinner with Japanese Prime Minister Abé show, he obviously didn't mind the stairs.
A shared passion for precision
What Eneko Atxa and Jiro Ono have in common is their never-ending curiosity, their permanent search for new nuances of flavor, and their almost crazy passion for precision. There's an almost erotic atmosphere in the air when tuna is cut meticulously in Jiro Ono's kitchen, or when the sushi master personally forms fish and rice with his hands. What counts here aren't only exact portions, but also the perfectly rounded form of the sushi.
Compared to Eneko Atxa's huge kitchen, Jiro Ono's workplace resembles a room for meditation where food is cut and formed in complete silence. The film teaches, however, that things can be done quite differently: Eneko Atxa's kitchen is full of activity and noise.
When the camera follows him as he bends intently over a plate to position each single oyster, the audience practically stops breathing so as not to disturb him. One thing that becomes quite clear is that minimalism isn't only a Japanese virtue.
Both star cooks agree that it takes passion and emotion to become an exceptional cook. But the film also reveals some differences in mentality. Eneko Atxa loves communication not only in the kitchen, but also with his guests. Jiro Ono, by contrast, dryly notes that he would never ever talk to his guests because "otherwise I wouldn't be able to prepare sushi."
Chefs don't share a meal
Both chefs had heard about each other, but had never met in person. After exchanging statements, the two of them finally do meet towards the end of the 75-minute film. We watch how they shake hands in Jiro Ono's restaurant while expressing their mutual respect.
But that was it. No conversation, no cooking together, no shared meal. What seemed to be developing into a grandiose finale ends with a disappointment.
Talking with DW, Eneko Atxa explained what fascinated him about his encounter with Jiro Ono: "I learned from Jiro that you can keep up the passion and your way of working for the rest of your life."
And what about the soul of food that gave the film its title? Also here, the film doesn't give an answer. But at least in the interview, Eneko Atxa talked about a philosophy that unites all successful chefs across cultures and culinary schools: "You must try to make people happy if you want to be happy yourself."
And chefs can do that with their culinary art, which also holds true here at the Berlinale restaurant in Berlin where visitors can enjoy oysters, tartar and a bit of seaweed.