Did you know there’s such a thing as a “zen chef?” Well there is! And you learn all about one in this movie!
Dir. Doris Dorrie, 2007, 93 min
Ever since I moved out, I’ve been trying to develop a good set of culinary skills. After all, one can’t subsist on take-out forever. I think I’m good at it, but I haven’t found cooking to be a particularly relaxing pastime; quite the opposite, in fact. I’m constantly worrying over my dish, hoping not to screw anything up. I might be doing it wrong. Which, if How to Cook Your Life is any indication, may be the case.
This movie makes cooking look like the most peaceful thing in the world. Chef Edward Espe Brown kneads dough, chops vegetables, and sizzles sauce with languid, practiced ease. But Brown is only half chef: he’s also a full-on Buddhist priest. To him, cooking is a form of meditation, and it puts him outside his own body, into a state of utter contentment. I can’t relate. Or maybe I can. I might not get that feeling out of cooking, but I certainly feel that sense of peace when I’m sitting in a movie theater. I suppose everyone has their “thing.” I wonder what it’s like for people without a “thing.” But I digress…
The doc follows Brown teaching his hybrid cooking/Buddhism to classes of people in California and Austria. He blends bread-making lessons with meditation sessions. A piece of every meal is brought before an altar. Buddhism, as I understand it, is supposed to infuse every aspect of one’s actions. It makes sense to try and make it a part of even the smallest, most mundane parts of your life.
Brown lectures us as well as his students. His subjects range from his personal history, and the reasons for how he lives and what he does, to his thoughts on the current state of food in the world. That’s a subject well-traveled on this blog, so I won’t reiterate everything that’s wrong with us, but he’s still right. You never think about how gross processed white bread is until he points out how similar the stuff is to a stress ball. Our attitude towards what we eat is all wrong, and we could do with a more Buddhist perspective on it, no matter what our beliefs.
Brown himself is interesting. Despite his convictions, he has a great propensity for a temper, and loses it a few times in the film, often over the most minor things. To think that a Buddhist priest could be defeated by a stubborn oil stopper or an impenetrable cheese wrapping! But this doesn’t make him seem a hypocrite. In fact, it makes him far more relatable and likable. He freely admits to his weaknesses, and he’s always working to improve himself.
Once again, the contagious peacefulness of Buddhism shows up. This is an easygoing movie, although it doesn’t pull it off as successfully as, say, Unmistaken Child. While that film was overflowing with beauty, director Doris Dorrie doesn’t exploit the beauty of food nearly as much as she could/should. The pacing drags at times, and the doc feels perhaps ten minutes longer than it needs to be. Occasionally the movie feels more like a stoned vagrant lazing by the highway than a monk sitting in a temple.
How to Cook Your Life isn’t as good as it perhaps could have been, but it’s a nice little movie about an interesting guy. I certainly could use a course in zen cooking myself, unless my neurotic attention to my food is the only thing making it palatable. But then again, I’ll break down and order Pizza Hut from time to time, so maybe I’m just no good at this. If I were a hackier critic, I’d probably make a food-related pun about the film’s quality as a capper, but I’m not, so I won’t. And okay, I couldn’t think of one. It’s good.