Last month’s weekends were pretty gross weather-wise, so I’ve spent quite a bit of time indoors tuning up my bike, working on some secret online projects (bacon anyone?) and watching a lot of food documentaries on Netflix.
These movies generally come in two types: The ones that dig deep into a localized corner of the culinary world and celebrate it and the ones that show you the horrors of the modern industrial food complex and make you wish you weren’t born into this cruel world.
Both types of documentary are equally captivating and deserve a view or two, but only the former will leave you feeling okay about the human race and ready for a three course dinner with loved ones. I’m not saying the tough love docs aren’t important; they just aren’t good date night material.
So if you’re interested in diving down the rabbit hole, here are a handful of documentaries that I’ve really enjoyed. They celebrate food and the culinary industry with passion and enough levity to leave you happy and hungry.
All in This Tea (2007)
When it comes to tea, Crystal and I are into the real deal Chinese stuff, not the flowery junk that comes in silk bags or Kurig pods. If you’re snobby like us, or interested in upping your tea game this movie is both a great resource and a good time. Legendary documentarian Les Blank follows equally legendary American tea connoisseur David Hoffman through the back roads of China in search of farmers willing to export their handmade tea for a fair wage. Watching Hoffman’s Zen-like patience fray when dealing with autocratic government officials is worth the download price alone.
Director Morgan Spurlock (yep, the guy from Super Size Me) gathers together a small group of artisans (including my boys from Bloodroot Blades!) to discuss their craft and how it’s enriched their lives. There are lots of rough textures and long, lingering shots of hands doing interesting things while people talk reverently about “process” and “the elements” and whathaveyou… But it’s mainly just a feast for the eyes, like a Pintrest account turned into a movie!
Deli Man (2014)
I saw this one on a plane back from Ontario and enjoyed it immensely! Deli Man follows super-mensch Ziggy Gruber around during the day-today operations of his famous Deli in Houston, Texas. It’s one of only a handful of authentic Jewish Delis left in the US after the economy crashed and despite every conceivable hurdle tossed in their way, it’s thriving! The secret (we learn from Ziggy and his star-studded list of customers) is history, community and damn good pastrami recipe. It’s a fun movie and a rare opportunity to learn about Jewish food and culture. Plus, you’ll learn a bit of Yiddish.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2012)
More than any of the other titles on this list, this flick comes closest to reaching unabashed food porn Valhalla… In fact, Jiro Ono himself might be the one guarding the gates! The spry 85 year old titular chef of the twelve-seat Sukiyabashi Jiro restaurant in Tokyo is accepted as the best at what he does, but (as the documentary explores) he’s actually a restless soul, unsure if he’s done enough and venomously fighting against retirement. The narrative also follows his rather tragic and melancholy son, who’s already 50 and wondering if he’ll ever have a chance to take center stage. It’s a 120 minute zen-like rumination on life, death and purpose with exquisite slow-motion food preparation shots and an ethereal soundtrack by Phillip Glass.
Noma : My Perfect Storm (2015)
Speaking of pretty plates and crazy people; this one’s all about Michelin-starred Danish chef Rene Redzepi and his restaurant Noma, which if you don’t know is considered to be the best in the world… But seriously who hasn’t heard of Noma? Whatever, this movie is full-on Redzepi worship with lots of Mozart analogies, slo-mo plating scenes and even a couple long walks on the beach with the man himself, holding hands and talking about how awesome he is… Its way over the top and sometimes unintentionally funny, but it does a great job portraying the tension that comes from running a world class restaurant.
If like me, you don’t know anything about wine, don’t worry; there’s a group of people out there whose job it is to help you understand, select and appreciate wine for any occasion. They’re called “sommeliers” and after watching this movie I’m convinced they are all completely insane. In this film four dudes attempt to pass the ridiculously difficult exam to become master sommeliers by basically cramming their heads (and livers) full of as much obscure wine knowledge as possible. It’s a crazy ride: Tense, cathartic, absurd and full of more real human emotion than the reality-competition show theme would lead you to believe.
Spinning Plates (2012)
How does a chef or restaurateur measure success? This is the question at the heart (and there is a lot of heart on display) of this very poignant documentary, which features the trials and triumphs of three very different restaurants: A Michelin starred molecular-gastronomy Mecca, a 150 year old country inn and a struggling mom-n-pop Mexican cantina. The comparisons are stark but despite many differences the answer to why they keep at it is the same: passion, family, community.
If you slather everything in sriracha, then maybe this is the doc for you. It’s a short one, but packed into its 33 minutes is a couple ‘o cocktail party gems you probably didn’t know about the eponymous red chilli sauce, dished out by its creator David Tran.
The Fruit Hunters (2012)
This Canadian food doc is a series of vignettes in which Bill Pullman (yeah, Lone Star from Spaceballs!), ventures deep into into the jungles of Asia, South America and Africa alongside over-enthusiastic naturalists ‘n scientists to collect various rare fruit and discover whole new ones. Sounds strange? Wait, there’s more! We’re also treated to a handful of very bizarre animated shorts explaining the entire history of fruit from hunter-gatherer days to modern agriculture. It’s (pun absolutely intended) totally bananas! Pullman is such a strange choice for this, but happily samples every bit of exotic plant life with a wry smile and a distracted nod, eyes scanning the distant jungle probably wondering (as we all are) just what he’s doing in this movie.
The Search for General Tso (2014)
Oh, this one is so good! Documentarian Ian Cheney and Jennifer 8 Lee (author of the awesome Fortune Cookie Chronicles) scour American Chinatowns to figure out just who the hell General Tso is and why he’s become such a mythical giant in American-Chinese food culture. Along the way they piece together the history of Chinese-immigrant-run restaurants in the US and the evolution of Chinese food from reviled to celebrated thanks to some deft ingredient substitutions and some pretty crafty marketing.