Working in a professional kitchen fills one’s life with crazy little “did that just happen?” moments that we all think, patched together with some semblance of narrative could make a great movie. I can’t count the times that I’ve looked over at one of my co-workers and giggled, “Oh yeah, that’s going in the [enter restaurant name here] movie!”
Usually when these scraps of kitchen life hit the big screen they are intended to shock, disgust and make the audience laugh. Cooks are usually comic relief or tragic life-lessons. Look at those poor dropouts behind the double doors! Their lives are a mess! Rarely is an entire movie based in a kitchen.
But sometimes they get it right. Sometimes a director or screenwriter or whoever show a little love to us cooks by putting our lives (and yeah, often our trials) center stage. Life, as perceived from our side of the pass-through is vastly different from what our customers, friends and loved ones experience. Movies that find that humanity in the midst of our “cyclone within a submarine” world are something to be treasured, and endlessly quoted. Here then, is a handful of films that I think get it right in a big way.
Spoiler alert! Good Burger(1997) and Waiting (2005) are not on my list.
A major theme in all of these flicks is food as expression of (or in some cases a surrogate for) some fundamental human emotion. Food can communicate a sense of family, identity, artistic expression, and affection. Sometimes the characters use cooking to express themselves in ways they never could in their everyday dealings with friends and family. Other times food acts like an armistice between warring lovers, families or neighbours. It’s all metaphor. Cooks are really thoughtful people… Well, not always. Sometimes it’s just good ‘ol fashioned food porn and fire-related shenanigans.
So now that the weather is totally going to pieces, why not stay inside? Cook a killer meal for your significant other and curl up with popcorn and a movie for dessert. May I suggest:
Big Night (1996)
Two Italian brothers battle the culinary apathy of a New Jersey town to save their failing restaurant. Primo, the mercurial chef strives to make the best, most authentic food he can, while his brother Secundo (the maitre d’) acquiesces to every inane demand made by their “spaghetti ‘an meatballs” clientele. In an attempt to keep their business afloat, Secundo plots with a flashy entrepreneur Pascal to host a one night only feast in honour of singing legend Louis Prima. Will the guest of honour ever show up? Who cares! The food is incredible!
The oftentimes hostile dynamic between the two brothers mirrors the neighbourhood they live in. Half live in the past, adhering to the traditions and language of their old-world home, while the younger half try to adopt more American traditions and attitudes. The vitrol that Primo has for Pascal’s watered-down faux-Italian food is epic!
The little nuances are perfect – Like the opening walk through with Secundo (finished with a start of the shift drink!), the risotto scene (“Sometimes the spaghetti she likes to be alone.”) the burning cook, the timpano scene, even the way Primo makes his espresso. All of it is stylish, meaningful magic. The best though, is the saved for the last – The final scene, about 5 minutes long and completely silent, is one of my favourite pieces of cinema, ever.
Dinner Rush (2000)
I’m pretty sure that if you handed crazy uncle Anthony Bourdain a copy of Dinner Rush and said, “Hey Tony, they made Kitchen Confidential into a movie!” he’d be pretty pleased with the result. It’s got gangsters, addicts, hard-core line talk, inter-kitchen fraternization and even a murder or two. All of this takes place during one night of service at a smoking Italian joint in New York. The pace is frantic and the overall vibe is very indie. I’m convinced that all cooks will dig it.
There are some absolutely crucifying characterizations of our industry’s inhabitants: You’ve got an artsy mob son-turned chef that balks traditional Italian food in favour of nouveau lobster and vanilla creations. The sous-chef is deeply in debt to a pair of leg breakers and can’t stop mauling the hostess during smoke breaks. The smarmy bartender with eidetic memory who supplements his tips and battles boredom by betting customers can’t stump him. The grill guy who can’t stop swearing. The F’n New Guy who’s just trying to survive his first night on the line. You’ll definitely recognize a couple people you’ve worked with during this 90 minute masterpiece.
Eat Drink Man Woman (1994)
The opening five minutes of Ang Lee’s Academy Award-Nominated Taiwanese film are probably the most comprehensive and beautiful bit of kitchen prep even put on screen.
It’s like poetry watching old master chef Chu preparing a variety of complex Chinese dishes for his three daughters. It’s the weekend, and the whole family gets together, eats and talks about life… Except, they don’t talk about much of anything anymore. The family’s stuck between the father’s old ways and their modern careers, loves and plans for the future. No communication. No love.
Enter the food. Every meal (and there are a lot in this movie!) acts as a metaphor for communication and expresses love. When someone is mad or the vibe amongst the family is strained, they insult Chu’s sense of taste, saying his food is “off”. When one of the sisters cooks for her boyfriend later on the vibe changes completely and the ensuing conversation is effortless. The side story (and there are many!) about the little girl’s school lunches is especially touching.
Great flick, total food porn, twist ending. What more could you want?
Now before my line cook friends begin sneering, know this – Legendary Napa Valley chef Thomas Keller was a consultant on the kitchen aspects of this movie, and actually interned one of the movie’s producers at The French Laundry. So yeah, it’s an animated Disney movie, but it’s a really well researched one. It’s full of kitchen-life Easter eggs and it’s a lot of fun!
Remy the rat (voiced by Patton Oswald, bonus!) travels to Paris to become a chef and have various adventures trying to save a restaurant from an evil sous chef (what?!) and restaurant critic.
The scene where Remy is explaining the interplay of flavours, and how they can enhance or detract from each other switches to a Chuck Jones-esque jazz animation, which I thought was pretty boss.
The best moment though (no, not the Grandma with the shotgun) is right at the end when the restaurant critic takes a bite of the titular French peasant dish and we are sucked through his eyes into a childhood memory in his mother’s kitchen. Those are the kinds of moments that cooks strive so hard to create! I think about that scene all the time.
Tampopo (1985) and The God Of Cookery (1996)
Alright, so I snuck two movies in, my title is invalid. Guilty… I bunched these two flicks together for a couple reasons. I saw them first around the same time, they’re tone and thematic elements are similar and they’re both straight-up crazy.
Tampopo is a Japanese film made up of a series of vaguely interwoven stories tied to a ramen shop. The owner enlists a truck driver to help her become a better cook and they have various adventures with other nutball characters. All of the vignettes involve food and how it has become a foundational part of Japanese culture and psyche. There’s an old woman obsessed with squeezing vegetables, a class for young ladies on how to eat spaghetti in front of their husbands, a gangster who seeks out strange foods to please his sitophiliac girlfriend, and even dinner cooked by a zombie. I’m not sure why they chose to give the main narrative a faux-wild west theme, but then again… I’m still not sure I understand a lot about this movie.
The God Of Cookery is an equally madball film from Hong Kong that my buddy Simon first introduced me to a while back. It stars Stephen Chow (of Kung Fu Hustle fame) as a narcissistic celebrity chef that can’t cook who must learn to make a living on the “mean streets” after being betrayed by his sinister assistant. It’s a flick with a crazy sense of humour and a couple things to say about the whole celebrity chef phenomena. Be warned though, it’s got some singing, cross-dressing, pissing shrimp balls and Shaolin monks… ‘Cause all Hong Kong movies must have Shaolin monks. The part with the woman rolling back and forth on a giant piece of beef is just, wow.
I don’t get to sit down and watch movies as much as I’d like, so I’m sure I’ve missed a ton of great films that should be on this list. Feel free to leave a comment and let me know what other food ‘n kitchen life movies are out there.