How would you judge a piece of steak as being the best in the world? By its flavor, the texture, some meat-to-fat ratio? The casually informed gourmand might point to Japan’s kobe beef, that practically defied brand of meat from Hyōgo Prefecture renowned just as much for its marbling as for the cattle breeders’ unusual methods of raising them: giving them beer; regular massages; playing Mozart day and night to relax the cows. But no, kobe beef was never meant to be eaten in gigantic portions the way it is in the West. In Japan, beef is a condiment for rice and is traditionally cut into small, very thin strips before cooking.
Next you might assume that the best steak would come from continental Europe. But again, this isn’t necessarily the case. During the fifties, Europe stopped boiling their beef in favor of grilling it in the Anglo-American manner. But beef undergoes different chemical reactions when it is grilled rather than boiled. The meat of Europe’s heavily muscled cows became much tougher and less flavorful when cooked in the “American” manner. In fact, it is America that is home to much of the world’s best beef thanks to industrialized breeding methods.
If it sounds like I’m an expert on this subject, it’s only because I just watched Franck Ribière’s STEAK (R)EVOLUTION. Everything I mentioned in the preceding paragraph was gleaned from this new documentary where he does, in fact, try to find the world’s best steak. STEAK (R)EVOLUTION is at its best when it limits itself to the realm of comparative cultural studies. As Ribière travels the world–or more specifically the West, two Latin American countries, and Japan–fascinating details emerge revealing long-standing culinary rivalries, the impact of modern science on the cattle industry, and how different cultures raise and prepare beef.
But the film is anything but objective. Instead it frames these scenes as digressions from Ribière’s larger quest for the supreme cut of cow meat. The result is an overlong film (135 minutes) incapable of maintaining momentum.
It would be foolish to expect an exhaustive analysis of the international beef market, but Ribière’s expedition is nonetheless highly Eurocentric and cursory. Never-mind that 60% of all humans live in Asia, the only country in that part of the world that gets any representation is Japan (the omission of China is especially heinous considering it’s the fourth largest producer of beef on the planet). Non-haute cuisine traditions are barely given a passing glance–American barbecue, halal and kosher cuisine, and practically all Central and Eastern European cuisines are completely disregarded. By the time Ribière declares that (surprise surprise) the best steak in the world is from his home country of France after all, the documentary feels less informative, less explorative than it does self-indulgent.
Nate Hood (NYU Film, 2013) is new to Screen Comment. Read his other reviews from Tribeca here.