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To kick off a month of posts by members on the theme “Chef’s Surprise,” let’s go to the movies. There have been a number of movies of varying quality made about or featuring chefs, cooks, cooking, restaurants, or eating. What follows is a summary of movies I have seen and enjoyed, to one degree or another. There are a number of critically acclaimed, and surely quite sumptuous, movies on the theme that I have not yet gotten around to viewing. This list is mostly middle to lower brow, but none will spoil your bowl of popcorn.
The finest film, and I mean that sincerely, on cooking, is Babette’s Feast (1987). Babbette is a Parisian woman, a great cook, who seeks refuge in a town on the Danish coast. There she serves and cooks very simple fare for many years in a very austere community and environment. Then news arrives that she has come into a small fortune, by a stroke of luck. A friend in her old life has renewed her subscription to a lottery each year and she has won.
She proceeds to throw a feast for the elderly community that has sheltered her. The preparations involve the arrival of all manner of supplies and Babette shows her full culinary mastery, enchanting the community. [Spoiler alert, read below the line at the bottom at your risk, if you have not seen the movie.*] This movie is also one of two G-rated movies on my list.
The other G-rated film takes us from the sublime to the slightly ridiculous. From 1987 foreign art house, we jump forward two decades to Pixar’s 2007 Ratatouille, in which the aspiring chef is a rat, who allies with a young garbage boy, naturally named Alfredo Linguini. Look, this is just fun for all ages, so long as you are not looking for high art. So, now we have established the upper and lower boundaries, of a sort, on this culinary movie list.
Next up is a German movie, Mostly Martha, and the American remake, No Reservations. I strongly prefer the original German version, despite the undeniable charms of Catherine Zeta-Jones in anything. The protagonist is a career woman who has chopped her way to the top of the culinary world, a chef with her own kitchen in a fine dining restaurant. Her sister dies unexpectedly, leaving Martha to care for a young niece. Have a box of tissues handy for a few moments in this very German romantic comedy. If you are allergic to subtitles and German is not among your languages, Catherine Zeta-Jones will not ruin your bowl of popcorn. The two trailers will give you the difference in tone:
From PG-rated tragi-rom-com to R-rated buddy comedy, we go on the road with a father and son team. Jon Favreau wrote, directed, and starred in Chef (2014), as an out-of-control chef who has wrecked his marriage, his relationship with his son, and finally his job. He puts his life and family back together by going on the road, coast-to-coast, with a food truck. The young son learns the hard work of cooking for a living, and turns out to be the social media whiz his father needs to get back on top of the food business. Yes, this could have been a better film written or edited to PG-13.
Take it way back to 1945 and Christmas in Connecticut. Barbara Stanwyck plays a food writer for a popular magazine. She has taken on the role of a Connecticut farm wife, dispensing home cooking advice and recipes, when she is a single New Yorker living in an apartment. A friend, Felix, is a restaurant owner and the real cook behind the cooking column. The magazine owner, not knowing the truth, decides that it would be great publicity to have a recovering wounded sailer go to her farm for Christmas dinner. This sets off a race to conjure up a real Connecticut farm family and dinner, in order to save her career from ending in a national scandal.
The movie’s context is important. It was released in the summer of 1945, after VE Day (8 May) but before VJ Day (15 August end of hostilities, 2 September signing ceremony). There were many men returning from the war, many wounded recovering in hospitals, and hope of peace ahead. The movie did well at the box office and became a perennial Christmas movie on television and video.
From American home cooking, we go to Indian restaurants, in The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014) and Today’s Special (2009). The Hundred-Foot Journey is the distance from the front door of Madame Mallory’s Michelin-starred restaurant, across the road to the front door of an Indian family’s new restaurant and home in a small French town. The movie has marvelous food and strong performances by Helen Mirren, as the French restaurant owner, and Om Puri, as the Indian family patriarch who first clash and then find common cause.
Today’s Special is a smaller budget film, where the first generation immigrant son aspires to rise as an elite, French-trained chef. He returns to his family’s run-down Indian restaurant to save the family business, only to realize he has no idea how to produce the expected food. Enter a cab driver who coaches the young man in the mysteries of spices and Indian food preparation. Mick LaSalle at the San Francisco Chronicle explains why Today’s Special works:
However, “Today’s Special” has two major virtues. The first is Aasif Mandvi, who co-wrote the screenplay and stars as Samir, the would-be chef. Mandvi has become a familiar face as a supporting actor in movies and television, and has a breezy, New York-style command of himself that’s appealing. He’s a likable presence in movies, and it’s good to see him headlining his own picture.
The second is Naseeruddin Shah, who plays a cabdriver who is something of a philosopher. There are some gifted actors who, by virtue of some inner peace or composure and some compelling and impossible-to-imitate magnetism, become the center of every frame. Shah is a thin, gray-haired man of about 60, a man of average appearance, and yet there’s something about him that makes him riveting onscreen.
The Bread, My Sweet (2001), also known as A Wedding for Bella, was another small budget picture, a bit of a love note to a couple and a community in Pittsburgh. Shot on location in a small bakery, you may get flour in your eyes near the end of this tragi-rom-com. As a hometown Post-Gazette reviewer of The Bread My Sweet noted:
[The movie] was inspired by a beloved Italian couple who lived above the Strip District bakery Enrico Biscotti, which is run by [first-time movie director Melissa] Martin’s husband, Larry Lagatutta, and serves as a key set in the movie, shot in Pittsburgh during the summer of 2000.
The film is a love letter not just to them but also to the Strip, to the authentic foods that are made and sold there and to the people who preserve the traditions and skills that go into it.
Roger Ebert concluded that the actors made this sweet confection work:
What makes the movie special is its utter sincerity. For all of the contrivances in the plot, there is the feeling that the actors love their characters and are trying to play them honestly. Yes, the movie is corny, but no, it’s not dumb. It’s clever and insightful in the way it gets away with this story, which is almost a fable. The turning point is the key conversation between Dominic and Lucca. Once that works, we can believe almost anything. Now if only Bella will.
From Indian food, we turn to Japanese food on two continents, and a pair of non-Japanese young women who fall in love with making food outside their experiences. Both face reluctant masters of the kitchens, one a ramen shop cook and the other a sushi chef. The Ramen Girl involves a young American woman who follows her boyfriend to Japan, only to be dumped. She flees her apartment for a bowl of ramen noodle soup across the street and falls in love with this simple but difficult dish. The rest of the movie is about her learning to master herself, and the process of making and serving bowls of ramen soup. East Side Sushi has a single Hispanic mother, living with her father and daughter, struggling to get a job that will support them and offer a path upward. She must overcome both her father’s and the sushi restaurant owner’s attitudes about who she is and what sort of food she should make. In both movies, long hard work pays off in culinary excellence.
What are your favorite movies about or involving food and cooking?
* It turns out that this is no farewell celebration before returning to a sophisticated urban life. Babette has spent her entire winnings in an act of sacrificial thanks, preparing and serving the feast.Published in