"How to Cook Your Life" is an unexpectedly charming and enlightening film, a documentary that makes the most of the intersection of Zen Buddhism and cooking in the life of Edward Espe Brown.
A Zen priest and chef, Brown is best known as the author of 1970's landmark "The Tassajara Bread Book," a volume that introduced an entire generation to the joys of baking. German director Doris Dorrie took a cooking class from Brown and was captivated enough to want to film his thoughts on connecting the way you cook food with the way you live your life. It was an inspired idea. For besides being an artist with bread, Brown turns out to be a great raconteur with a puckish sense of humor and a sly look in his eye who couldn't be more of a treat to hang out with.
Most of the time.
Neither the director nor Brown shies away from the chef's temper and his other foibles. Shown beginning a class in Austria, he confesses to being "a little excited and a little anxious. 'You've been doing Zen for 40 years and you're anxious, what's your problem?' I'm a human being."
This pleasing candor is a hallmark of Brown, who dates his interest in homemade bread to a visit to an aunt when he was 10. "I wondered, 'What's happened in our culture, what went wrong, that we are eating this manufactured bread?' "
Brown studied Zen under Suzuki Roshi, shown in archival footage, who was a founder of the San Francisco Zen Center and one of the key figures in introducing the practice to this country. When Brown became a chef, Roshi's advice was, " 'When you wash the rice, wash the rice.' Don't go through the motions, don't have stuff on your mind."
These kinds of thoughts recur frequently in Brown's cooking talks. He laments our disconnection from the physical world, the way we "give away our capacity to do things with our hands and our bodies that make us feel human." In cooking, "hands get to be hands, to do something."
Brown's great ability to impart teachings while talking about food means that when the film wanders away from him, as it does from time to time, you wish it wouldn't. He's that engaging a presence, and this lively, thoughtful film shows us why.
"How to Cook Your Life." MPAA rating: PG-13 for brief strong language. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes. At Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood.