“We are like actors, aren’t we? Out there, under hot lights, strutting our stuff. Anything can happen. Billy, sometimes it does” – Joe Macbeth
The professional kitchen is a strange place. It’s a night-time haunt, a gleaming beacon of white and stainless steel that attracts night-owls, lovers, old friends. Those working in the kitchen are not immune to this intoxicating stream of life. In fact, they are at the beating heart of it.
The kitchen is a fertile territory for storytelling. With this in mind we have put together a small list of some of the worst and the best movies about chefs of the past decade, and the quote given above already hints why the “chef film” should be a natural fit. But let’s first look at how not to make a chef movie.
Mediocrity and the Misery of Fine Dining
The cardinal sin for any chef movie is to be both predictable and boring. Unfortunately for everyone, with No Reservations and Chef that particular order did not come through and we are left with a pair of films as bland as a hospital bun. Both of these check the box for every stereotypical plot point you could imagine for a chef film. Troubled family life because they’re too dedicated to their job? Check. Frustrated because they feel true creativity is constrained? Check. Monologue in the first five minutes about how such-and-such should be cooked exactly so-and-so? Check. Is their dilemma ultimately resolved by a return to cooking simple foods that fixes their personal life (and incidentally insinuates that the best food should not in any way challenging or audacious)? Check. Check please? Please!?
There is nothing in either of these films that has anything interesting to say about being a chef or working in a kitchen. To be fair to Chef it does try to stand out from the pack by cashing in on the current hype surrounding food trucks. However, both these conceits flop spectacularly. The titular chef is stuck in a rut because he is forced to churn out the same old food all his regulars like. A road trip making Cuban sandwiches featuring enough shots of molten cheese to make your veins harden and dozens of suckers assuring us his sandwiches are “the best ever!” solves everything.
The Middle of the Road: Cross-Cultural Exchanges
On to the films that provide a little more food for thought. The French gastronome Brillat-Savarin once said: “Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you what you are.” France, food and identity all feature in the entertaining comedy The Hundred-Foot Journey. Hassan, a cooking prodigy, finds himself in a small village in France with his family after they are forced to flee India. His father, in a moment of hurt pride, decides to open an Indian restaurant opposite to the local establishment angling for the all-important second Michelin Star.
Conflict and comedy ensue, particularly when Hassan, feeling insecure about his food culture and lack of refinement, defects to the French across the road. The film doesn’t spring any big surprises or make grand statements about French and Indian food, but that doesn’t bother because it is packed full of fun and charm. It is not one of the best movies you will see about chefs, but it is one of the best movies for the family.
Also stranded in France is Julia Child in Julie & Julia. Based on the true story of food-blogger Julie Powell, who took on the challenge to cook all the recipes in Child’s first cooking book within a year, this film is also about forging connections through cooking. It tells the stories of both Child and Powel in parallel to highlight their similar struggles and how they found their calling in mastering French cuisine. As you’d expect there is a lot about food in the film, it marries food and passion, and bubbles along nicely but doesn’t match the best movies. The best film about writing about food.
The Best Movies Like It Hot
As we said earlier, the best movies take a master-narrative and play with it, and this is true of the best movies about chefs. First, the rightly celebrated Ratatouille both confirms and subverts the mythology of the kitchen: Remy is a hugely talented cook and so proves that anyone can be a master chef, but being a rat he cannot fulfil that dream.
To solve this dilemma he physically controls Alfredo Linguini, a bungling garbage boy, who is thereby transformed into a great chef overnight. The reason everyone buys into this fantastical transformation is precisely the belief that nevertheless prevents Remy from revealing himself to anyone.
Estómago: A Gastronomic Story, a Brazilian film about Raimundo Nonato, takes a more direct approach. We meet Nonato as a penniless man from the sticks who arrives in town desperately needing a job. He finds one as a late-night cook in a café where he works for next to nothing.
Running parallel with this story is that of Nonato in jail, slowly working up the ranks using his cooking skills to impress his critics – not the most demanding, but possessing the power of live and death over him – until he becomes the private chef of Bujiú, the kind of criminal even the guards are afraid of. Cooking is thus a salvation of sorts for Nonato, like it is for Remy, but a limited one. Although light on fine dining, Estómago is well worth your evening, as it possesses the qualities that mark the best movies: a killer narrative, passion, love and a strange fixation on Gorgonzola.