April 26, 2019
by Carla Hay
“A Taste of Sky”
Directed by Michael Y. Lei
International premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 26, 2019.
Award-winning restaurants and chefs around the world have gotten a lot of exposure, thanks to non-fiction shows like “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” and “Chef’s Table.” So when there’s a documentary about a risk-taking restaurant started by a world-renowned chef, that movie better deliver something extraordinary. Unfortunately, “A Taste of Sky” falls short of those expectations and ends up being a conventional documentary with some serious flaws.
“A Taste of Sky,” the first feature film from director Michael Y. Lei, is about the creation of Gustu, a fine-dining restaurant in La Paz, Bolivia. What made Gustu different from other Bolivian restaurants is that it was founded by Danish restaurateur Claus Meyer, whose Noma restaurant in Copenhagen was named Best Restaurant in the World by Restaurant magazine from 2010 to 2012 and in 2014. Meyer also had the idea of making Gustu a culinary school for underprivileged youth who could train to become chefs. “A Taste of Sky” focuses on two of those students: Kenzo, an ambitious hunter who was raised in the Bolivian Amazon, and Maria Claudia, who is from the Andes high plains.
To its credit, the movie doesn’t shy away from the “white savior”/colonialism issue. Meyer talks about it and is fully aware that he can be perceived as an arrogant European who thinks he can tell Bolivians how to run a successful restaurant in their own country. There’s a sequence in the movie showing Bolivian chefs or restaurateurs sitting at a table, essentially saying the same thing, as they criticize Meyer for founding Gustu to boost his own ego.
Meyer denies that his intentions are driven by his ego and a “white savior” mentality, but his denials don’t ring true when viewers see that the top managers he’s hired to get Gustu up and running are Europeans. A restaurant owner who cared more about cultural inclusivity would have hired at least one qualified local Bolivian to be one of the first managers of the restaurant. Instead, the Bolivians shown working in the restaurant are all subservient to their European teachers/supervisors. Unfortunately, director Lei does not question this ethnic inequality in the film. Perhaps he was too star-struck by Meyer to ask why Bolivians were excluded from Gustu’s initial management team. The film’s written epilogue mentions that a Bolivian employee of Gustu was eventually promoted to general manager about a year after the restaurant launched. Unfortunately, the viewers of this movie don’t get to see any Bolivians in positions of power at Gustu.
And that’s not the only problem with this film. “A Taste of Sky” has a lengthy interview with Meyer telling his life story, but there’s a corny gimmick that tries to be cute: His pre-teen daughter Augusta asks the questions in the interview. It’s unknown if Augusta came up with the questions herself or if an adult provided her with the questions, but the gimmick guarantees that Meyer would be asked very easy questions. There is virtually no investigative journalism in “A Taste of Sky.”
The movie has some footage of Kenzo and Maria Claudia learning chef skills and visiting their families back in their hometowns, but it’s all framed with the tone that they would be poor, downtrodden Bolivian people with a dismal future if not for this restaurant run by Europeans who have saved them from a life of misery. Kenzo’s brother, who was also enrolled in the chef school, had to drop out, in order to help their family take care of their farm. It’s not the catastrophe that the movie wants us to think it is, mainly because Kenzo’s brother doesn’t have the passion for cooking that Kenzo has. Kenzo’s family is poor, but they’re happy, they’re close-knit, and they live comfortably off of their land. Money can’t buy that type of family happiness.
Kenzo is seen as a bright and confident pupil, and his story is given more weight than Maria Claudia’s story. There is brief mention of sexism, as Maria Claudia talks about how her family didn’t think it was appropriate for her to be enrolled in the school because she’s a woman. It’s clear that not having the emotional support of her family has affected Maria Claudia’s confidence. But sexism in the restaurant industry overall— the industry has a long history of giving male chefs more power and better opportunities than female chefs—is barely acknowledged in the movie. It’s not too much of a surprise when a male chef at a prestigious restaurant in Spain invites Kenzo to be an apprentice. Maria Claudia doesn’t get a similar opportunity. One could argue that Kenzo is simply more talented than Maria Claudia, but the movie doesn’t really go into specifics about who are the most talented students in the program.
Worst of all, for a documentary about the opening of a restaurant, there is hardly any mention of the restaurant’s first menu or how the restaurant was marketed to customers. There are brief glimpses of food after it’s been plated, but what’s actually on the plate isn’t really explained. Crocodile is mentioned as a popular Bolivian entrée, but the movie never details what makes Gustu’s menu so special from the menus at other Bolivian restaurants.
In the movie, Bolivia is described as a third-world country that’s the poorest in South America, and Meyer wanted to launch Gustu as a fine-dining restaurant to help uplift the Bolivian economy. But the movie doesn’t even mention how pricing was chosen in order to market a “luxury” restaurant in a “poor” country. Customers aren’t interviewed, so there’s no sense of who goes to this restaurant. There are some lovely shots of the Bolivian terrain, and plenty of scenes that take place in the kitchen, but viewers don’t get to experience Gustu’s inner ambience from a customer’s point of view. In the end, “A Taste of Sky” could have been a fascinating documentary about a groundbreaking restaurant. Instead, it seems as if the filmmakers bent too far backwards to accommodate Meyer’s ego, and the whole movie looks like a superficial vanity project.