How To Cook Your Life

How To Cook Your Life


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Sometimes, before reviewing a film, I take a look around the web to see what other people have thought of it. In this case I found several angry people complaining that it had failed to provide the insight into Zen they were expecting. I expect its star, Edward Espe Brown, would be amused.

Brown is a chef. He learned to cook in a Buddhist centre and his experiences of cooking have taught him much about how to experience life. The first thing he cautions his students (and viewers) against is commodification. Zen insight is a not a commodity, and you won't be able to buy it for under a tenner with a copy of this film. Neither, Brown stresses, is food rightly treated as such. In fact, he scarcely sees food as a thing at all - he sees it as a process. Our interaction with food, he says, should respect its sacred nature as the most vital thing in our lives, even in a culture where we have a surfeit of it. We should contemplate what it means to give and receive food, how it can serve as an expression of the care we feel for others, and how we can employ it in caring for ourselves.

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Deliberately slow-paced, this insightful documentary will nevertheless give you plenty to think about. Beneath its deceptively calm surface it's packed full of ideas, like the feet of a duck beating hard under the water as we watch it glide along with apparent ease. But these are ideas which you'll need time to consider, not fast food for hungry minds with little interest in nutritional value. The film takes its time and seeks, in accordance with Buddhist tradition, to speak to the senses as well as the intellect, presenting us with an exploration of Brown's world that is rich in evocative sound and imagery.

If all this sounds a bit too plain for your tastes, bear in mind that it's enlivened by a warm sense of humour and not a little mischief, as when the director, herself a friend of Brown's and committed to the same philosophy, enlists the help of the film crew in stealing apples from the gardens of 'Bush voters' who, she contends, don't properly appreciate them anyway.

Her passionate advocation of freeganism - taking discarded food from supermarket bins, and so forth - will unsettle some viewers but, in so doing, demonstrates that this is a film with a real agenda, not just a little Buddhism-lite pandering to western sensibilities and hoping to become the latest fad. In fact, Brown has already experienced that kind of fame, with a bestselling book to his name, but he clearly feels that he's moved on in his own journey since then, and he invites viewers to do the same.

In a climate where shock tactics have become the norm, it's quite daring to make a documentary this gentle, and it's a testament to the film's power that it has attracted strong positive critical attention anyway, scooping a major award at Sundance. If you like the idea of setting your busy life aside for a while and tasting something different, it's quite a treat.

Reviewed on: 01 Feb 2009
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A Zen Buddhist chef talks about his philosophy of cooking and how his approach to the kitchen has transformed his approach to life.
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Director: Doris Dörrie

Writer: Doris Dörrie

Starring: Edward Espe Brown, Doris Dörrie

Year: 2007

Runtime: 100 minutes

Country: Germany


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