"How to Cook Your Life" is a pretty good movie about a possibly great man, the Zen priest and chef Edward Espe Brown. Directed by Germany's Doris Dörrie (art-house fans with long memories will recall her 1985 hit comedy "Men. . ."), the engaging and rambling documentary pokes around in the kitchen of Western Buddhism, clattering the pots and throwing random ingredients together. The resulting meal is light but sustaining, especially for foodies, seekers, and fans of Michael Pollan's essential best-seller "The Omnivore's Dilemma."
Brown is best known for "The Tassajara Bread Book," the tome that helped launch the alterna-yeast revolution at the dawn of the '70s, but his interests are more macro than that. An ordained Zen master, he treats the way we cook and the foods we eat as central metaphors for our oneness with the world or lack thereof. He finds a sad irony in the average American's disassociation from what's on his or her plate, saying, "We'll pay a lot of money not to cook. We'll pay a lot of money not to confront a potato."
For all that, Brown's not a moralist but a hulking goofball whose sermons in the meditation room or lessons over the stove are punctuated by loopy humor and a wayward giggle. A former cook at various West Coast Zen centers, he grouses over the difficulties of catering to macrobiotics who chew their brown rice 100 times, acknowledges kitchen fiascos as "part of the deal," and allows that the "possibility of anger" is crucial to the ferment of cooking.
The goal is connecting to life as it's happening, something the best cooks intuit naturally. "When you cut the carrots, cut the carrots" is the guiding koan here, a directive as simple and difficult as it sounds. The gulf between a battered teapot and the human being contemplating it is, in the film's moving final scenes, both unbridgeable and bridged.
Given Brown's immersion in the rich history of West Coast Zen, Dörrie could have sketched in more biographical background, and her forays into the politics of food are too generalized to stick. A visit with an activist dumpster-diver makes a point about the vast amounts of food we waste, but the tone is needlessly self-righteous. The film wanders, albeit with the practiced eye of a world traveler.
"How to Cook Your Life" is most focused when it stays close to Brown, trying to get the biscuits right and delighted when he sees they already are. The man's the next best thing to a Laughing Buddha. The movie, when it's really cooking, is soul food.