Movies tell us great stories, take us to new places, act out our fantasies, give us a thrill, make us sad, and let us, if the movie is good, escape for a few hours. Set in restaurants, kitchens, or dining rooms – food movies are a small morsel of the movie biz enticing food lovers and cooks of all stripes.
When we’re at a food event or wine tasting, the conversation often turns to favorite food movies. A few classics are almost always on the list: “Babette’s Feast,” “The Big Night,” and “Eat, Drink, Man, Woman.” More recent food movie favorites like “Ratatouille,” “Chef,” and “Julie & Julia” are also popular. Lesser known films including “Mostly Martha,” “Haute Cuisine,” and “Today’s Special” also come well recommended. Of course, these movies are not about food per se, but rather tell stories set in the world of cooking and eating with main characters deeply involved with food.
Authenticity is crucial for these films. Actors and filmmakers need to master the skills of their roles to give a convincing performance. In movies that involve restaurant kitchen scenes, professional chefs are called on to share their craft. For “Ratatouille,” the Pixar animated film about a rat who loves to cook, Thomas Keller – owner of the renowned French Laundry restaurant – was filmed while cooking for “reference footage” so that the animators would have real-life action to guide their art. Keller was rewarded with a bit part in the movie. It’s his voice, as a customer, challenging the chef to make something new.
In the 2014 movie “Chef,” writer, director and leading man, Jon Favreau enlisted the help of Los Angeles chef Roy Choi for culinary authenticity. Favreau joined the crew in Choi’s kitchen for real-world restaurant experience. Choi, who designed all the food and menus f
or the film, was so key to its success that he was named co-producer as the film was being made.
“Babette’s Feast,” one of our favorites, tells the story of a refugee in a remote Danish village who was once a star chef in Paris. Her lottery jackpot funds the re-creation of a famous dinner she once cooked for the rich and famous – much to the astonishment and delight of her unsophisticated employers and their neighbors. With a great story line, this is a movie more about delicious food than cooking.
Tony Shalhoub and Stanley Tucci are chef and manager of their own restaurant in “The Big Night.” The restaurant struggles for customers, largely due to Shalhoub’s obsession with quality and authenticity. An elaborate meal prepared for a special guest whose approval will, they hope, revitalize their restaurant, is the focus of the story. Great acting and mouth-watering food earned the film numerous awards. Tucci, who is from Westchester County, has a long standing interest in food, has been a partner in successful restaurants, and has written “The Tucci Cookbook.”
For a window into Chinese cooking “Eat, Drink, Man, Woman” can’t be beat. Master Chef Chu cooks for his family as they sort out generational issues, creating intricate multi-course menus. Be sure to have your take- out menus close at hand when watching this one – it gives you a hankering for the exotc spices and endless variety of Chinese food.
“Ratatouille” and “Chef” balance skillful and authentic cooking with good storytelling and lots of laughs. In both, cooking provides a path for overcoming obstacles and finding personal fulfillment. You’ll feel good (and hungry) after watching.
Food icon Julia Child is the central character in “Julie & Julia.” It’s the story of Julia’s start in cooking and the writing of her first book, told from the point of view of a young writer, Julie Powell, who is working her way, recipe by recipe, through Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” With Meryl Streep, Stanley Tucci (again) and Amy Adams in a screenplay by Nora Ephron, this one’s a winner and will make you yearn for French food.
Martha Klein is a perfectionist chef (the good ones usually are) whose life is disrupted when she has to care for her eight year old niece in “Mostly Martha.” This German movie (don’t worry about the subtitles) explores relationships in a restaurant kitchen with lots of cooking. While the food is great, the story and setting make it one of our favorites.
“Haute Cuisine,” another foreign film, is all about the food. Based on the true story of a chef plucked from her truffle farm in Perigord to cook for the President of France, there is plenty of narrative, but the real attraction is the food. Each meal is stunning, each recipe complex, the ingredients exotic and perfect, and the cooking sequences authentic. The food is more beautiful than a glossy magazine layout. It’s hard to believe that this complex food is country cuisine in the style of la grand-mère. How do they all stay so slim? You’ll be making reservations at a French restaurant after watching this one.
“Today’s Special,” much like “Chef” recounts the story of a chef disillusioned with three star restaurant cooking who goes back to his roots and finds success, fulfillment, and love – this time with Indian cuisine. Although the story is familiar, the inside look at Indian cooking is fascinating and the acting excellent. Another feel good story with hunger-inducing food.
Food movies are generally not blockbusters, but they are popular and fun to watch. You won’t see them in the top 10 all-time box office hits, but with an engaging story, good acting and great food, they’re perfect for a few hours’ escape on a cold winter night!