Steak (R)evolution Dir. Franck Ribière

[Kino Lorber; 2015]

Styles: documentary, food
Others: Food Inc., Somm, Farmageddon

Aside from that pretty tired pun in its title, Franck Ribière’s collaborative documentary with legendary French butcher Le Bourdonnec is a fascinating exploration of the culinary and agricultural landscape surrounding high-end beef throughout the world. Unsatisfied with the lack of tradition surrounding steak preparation in their native France, Ribière and Le Bourdonnec travel the globe, from Europe to Japan to North and South America, searching for the breeds and cooking methods that will result in the best steak either one of them will ever taste. An altogether visually appealing though at times tedious venture, Steak (R)evolution works as a documentary for those intensely preoccupied with modern beef and cookery, although probably won’t offer all that much of interest to those who aren’t.

The son of French cattle farmers, Ribière was never that impressed with steak until he had one at renowned Brooklyn institution Peter Luger. Situated at the eastern terminus of the Williamsburg Bridge, Peter Luger Steakhouse will only prepare steaks that they have painstakingly selected themselves each morning, evaluating each cut based on several unmentioned criteria (but it’s easy enough to guess which ones are the most important, namely, fat and its marbling). After tasting a fatty, tender American steak, Ribière was inspired to start asking question about why his homeland’s steaks were so abysmal. So he hooked up with the best (or at least most famous) butcher in France, Yves-Marie le Bourdonnec, and hit the road looking for the best steak and cattle farming practices in the world.

First off, it’s hard to overstate just how refreshing it is for a creative team from a traditionally pretty haughty nation (especially when it comes to cuisine) to completely own up to the fact that their beef is pretty terrible. For centuries, the French have bred their cattle to be as lean and musclebound as possible, which makes for some pretty buff looking steers, but the resulting cuts of meat are ridiculously lean and chock-full of collagen. Traditional French cuisine is tailored for stewing, roasting, and other methods of slow cooking meats which uses their ungodly high amount of collagen as an advantage rather than a drawback, as collagen will turn into a natural kind of meat jelly during the slow-cooking processes they’ve perfected over countless years. Up until the second world war, this served them pretty well, and then America screwed everything up by introducing our method of grilling thick cuts of beef in a relatively short amount of time. That quintessential method of cooking steak is completely ruined by collagen, which turns the resulting piece of cooked meat into a rubbery mess, which is why it’s almost impossible at this point to get a decent steak in France.

Arguably the most important scenes in (R)evolution have to do with tireless farmers working with legacy breeds to maintain animals that are healthy and subsist primarily on grass. Speaking with everyone from traditional Aberdeen-Angus farmers in Scotland to cattle ranchers maintaining old stocks of Argentine Herefords to the famous and highly systematized farms producing Wagyu of Japan, the two filmmakers are almost preternaturally dedicated to the idea that grass fed beef is the only way forward for agriculture and fine dining, although the science behind such a claim is never actually explored.

Interspersed with Ribière and Le Bourdonnec’s interviews with dedicated (some might say obsessed) chefs and farmers are several visits to restaurants around the globe in search of the perfect steak. While these segments are essentially music videos dedicated to decadent food cinematography, which tend to drag a bit by the end, they do serve an essential function to embody why it is the two filmmakers are as enamored with cooked cow flesh as they are. It’s really quite something to behold, although if you’re not into beef, you probably won’t find much to dig on in this film.

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