The Buddha is in the dough as well as the details in “How to Cook Your Life,” a portrait of Zen priest and “Tassajara Bread Book” creator Edward Espe Brown. Director Doris Dorrie delivers an agreeable mixture of ideology and personality in this documentary. But don't expect anything profound.
Brown, who is also a culinary and Buddhist teacher, views cooking as a means of preparing wholesome food with positive spirit to create both physical and spiritual nourishment. In settings such as Austria’s Scheibbs Buddhist Center and the San Francisco Zen Center, Dorrie shows him acting earnestly and cheerfully on that principle.
T-shirted and forthcoming, Brown teaches students to knead dough and chop tomatoes, and to chant and leave offerings for the Buddha. He talks about his aunt’s homemade bread, feeding homeless people and finding his calling as a baker at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center.
Brown also discusses his studies with his mentor Suzuki Roshi, an inspiration in his approach to cuisine. Treat your food with care, Brown says. Wash every grain of rice. “When you stir the soup, stir the soup.”
The film works best when capturing Brown’s culinary skills in action — braiding dough, guiding a pizza-making session — and Brown’s undeniable love for cooking.
Dorrie, the German filmmaker whose credits include the comedies “Men” and “Enlightenment Guaranteed,” brings a winningly comic, nonjudgmental touch to her presentation of Brown, while fondly emphasizing his passionate nature and his own brand of humor and eccentricity.
Passages in which Brown bemoans the degeneration of bread from a grain-hearty staple of dinner-table connection to “papery, cardboardy” white squares are stellar. Dorrie additionally doesn’t hesitate to address her subject's flaws — Brown’s impatience with students who don’t grasp his lessons, for example.
But while Brown is a genuine and distinctive presence — how many people can get away with praising a cracked teapot for its poetry? — his novelty appeal wanes in the absence of anything penetrating or revelatory coming from him or Dorrie. As he continues to chuckle at his unfunny jokes and get superficially preachy, he can’t really carry the movie.
Perhaps if Dorrie had asked students what they derived, deep down, from studying cooking and Zen with Brown, we’d form a sharper picture. As is, the film amounts to an amiable but unenlightening serving of flour and philosophy.
Visual highlight: the radishes with images of human faces carved into them.
How to Cook Your Life **½
Starring Edward Espe Brown
Written and directed by Doris Dorrie
Running time 1 hour, 40 minutes