“Steak (R)evolution” – 2015 Tribeca Film Festival Review

Kobe beef, as shown in the documentary "Steak (R)evolution." (still courtesy of Kino Lorber)
Kobe beef, as shown in the documentary “Steak (R)evolution.” (still courtesy of Kino Lorber)

In examining the primal sensations of a sizzling steak – representing both a triumph of industrialization and fundamental agrarianism – “Steak (R)evolution” explores how we can raise and prepare the best beef.

While paying due tribute to caveman-sized Porterhouses and foie gras-like morsels of hand-massaged Kobe beef, this documentary is not so much about the two years of steaks consumed by director and protagonist Franck Ribière, his sidekick Yves-Marie Le Bourdonnec and their confrères (Marcos Bassi, founder of iconic Brazilian steakhouse Templo da Carne, passes away during filming, but his emotional beef epiphany was preserved).  Instead, similar to Anthony Bourdain’s brand of culinary journalism, Ribière seeks what makes the cattle, and their owners and consumers, happy. The film deduces that older grass-fed cattle raised in smaller herds, served in smaller portions, is the sustainable way to eat beef in the future.

The two axes that are explored are grain-fed vs. grass-fed cattle, and large commercial vs. small herd production; the filmmakers have an obvious preference for the latter of each.  The insider access Ribière received, coming from a family of cattle breeders brought forth numerous factoids. Brooklyn steak house Peter Luger’s secrets (other than how long they dry age their meat – still secure after three generations) are grilling until “blue,” followed by a ladle of clarified butter, and then broiling to the desired level of doneness.  Argentinians eat an average of 60 kg. (about 132 lbs.) of beef yearly, more than double the U.S. average consumption. European “wagyu” beef cattle allegedly entered the continent by skirting Mad Cow disease quarantines through stolen fertility lab samples and imported embryos. Matsusaka beef, rarer and more prized in Japan than Kobe beef, literally melts in your mouth.  A conscious focus on women’s struggles to succeed in this industry was also noted, with subjects featuring Peter Luger’s Jody Storch (Luger is the only steakhouse in NY owned by women), Scottish Angus breeder Alison Tuke, Japanese butcher Haguiwara Seinikuten, and 22-year-old French cattle rancher Bérénice Walton.

Cattle in Spain. (still courtesy of Kino Lorber)
Cattle in Spain. (still courtesy of Kino Lorber)

While for the most part “Steak (R)evolution” is a welcome contribution to world culinary knowledge, there are some beefs to this 130-minute treatise. There were many appealing scenes of pastoral cattle and mouthwatering dishes, but as in a Brazilian rodízio-style churrascaria, after a while the viewer is beyond sated. A mini-series may have been a better format. Composition at times was artsy for its own sake. The titling had an iMovie feel that should have resisted using the random letter effect. Some scenes cropped subjects’ heads and torsos out of frame, perhaps signaling disapproval.  Other scenes skewed horizons as if the camera was left slung on one’s shoulder.

There was also an arbitrary – and unnecessary – attempt to rate the world’s steak.  Peter Luger was labeled “Number 4” while the other members of the top 10 were randomly ordered throughout and conflated with cattle producers. One dubious scene included an on-screen claim by a proprietor of a Brooklyn butcher shop that “grass-fed beef doesn’t take to the [USDA] grading system as it was set up,” which should have been better challenged. Another claim is that the “best beef in the world” (unnumbered) is raised by a Prince Charles-like figure from Corsica that promotes ecologically whole practices, but more than half of his 160 head of cattle are roasted at a town festival all day on a spit, and served as roast beef au jus, and not as steaks. Hopefully these inconsistencies are fleshed out in the accompanying French coffee table book published by Editions de la Martinière (not yet available in the U.S.).

“Steak (R)evolution” screened at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival and the 2015 Colcoa/French Film Festival.

Audio Slideshow: Q&A with “Steak (R)evolution” director Franck Ribière – 2015 Tribeca Film Festival