Tuesday, February 24, 2009


Dim Sum and then some

A year or so ago I had the opportunity to ask three of the city’s top chefs what their favorite food movie was. I was reasonably sure that the three would agree. I was also sure I knew what their collective answer would be, and I was right on both counts. Care to venture a guess?

The answer was a small movie called Big Night. Professional and amateur foodies love this bittersweet story of two Italian brothers who open a small but authentically Italian restaurant across the street from an extremely successful meatballs and spaghetti eatery. Produced in 1996, the movie takes place in 1954 – long before the word "pasta" became a part of the average American’s vocabulary, or the Food Network taught us about the joys of pancetta, Pecorino Romano, or olive oil for that matter.

I think the thing that so many professional chefs identify with in this movie is how all too often the cream does not rise to the top. That despite the proliferation of food shows and exotic ingredients found in your average supermarket, most people don’t know or appreciate the difference between amazing and sub-standard fare. I suppose it’s true in other industries as well – certainly in the world of music, where a fine musician often finds his or her work set aside in favor of the ‘artist’ with little or no training, ‘chops’ or originality.

Just as in 1987’s Babette’s Feast (another of my favorite food flicks), the movie centers around one glorious meal. So great was the interest in one particular on-screen dish known as timpani, that Stanley Tucci, who, co-wrote, co-starred and co-directed the film, co-wrote a cookbook featuring it and other family recipes. The multi-layered concoction is filled with what amounts to an Italian feast, containing a wide assortment of ingredients. Various versions of the recipe include a wide-ranging mixture of meatballs, pasta, chicken, mozzarella, provolone, egg, salami, béchamel sauce and/or some sort of ragu. It is the ultimate pot pie. If at some point you feel both adventuresome and flush you might want to give it a try. You’ll find a recipe complete with "how-to" photographs at www.angelasfoodlove.com/2008/06/pauls-big-night.html.

Big Night quickly moves from the opening of the restaurant to the brother’s struggle to keep it open and true-to-its roots. When the owner of the wildly successful but highly inferior American-Italian restaurant across the street offers to send band leader Louis Prima their way after a New York engagement, the brothers accept his offer in good faith, sinking the last of their money into a meal so grand that Prima would be overwhelmed, their restaurant, recognized, and their dreams fulfilled. At least that's the idea.

Both Tucci and Tony Shalhoub are wonderful as the two brothers, as is a supporting cast that includes Minnie Driver (once again playing an American), Isabella Rosselini and Allison Janney.

Babette's Feast

Next on my food movie ‘hit’ list, is the afore-mentioned Babette’s Feast. So popular was this movie at the time, that several restaurants opened around the country based on the movies' dishes. Like Big Night, the story is a simple one, though Babette's Feast has a surprise ending that adds a special richness to the tale.

It takes place in a remote, austere and highly religious Norwegian coastal town, where two elderly sisters are asked to take in a French woman named Babette. They know little about their new housekeeper, grateful that she has taken the burden off of their limited culinary skills, providing simple but tasty meals with the little food and funds they have available to them.

When Babette wins a bit of money in a French lottery, the plot unfolds in a most unusual and savory way, and changing the way the sisters and their neighbors view life and those around them.

While Babette's Feast is more of a drama than a comedy, the all-important dinner scene is a joy to behold. Don’t let a fear of subtitles keep you from so much pleasure. Remember, you can press “PAUSE” any time you want to catch up on the dialogue.

And now for some food-related movies that aren’t so much about food, as they are about the people who prepare, eat and enjoy it.

Dim Sum

This 1985 slice-of-life movie takes place in San Francisco’s China Town, where two generations of Chinese Americans co-exist, trying to adjust to the others way of life. There’s not much of a plot here, and yet the actors are so good at what I would call "non-acting," you forget that these are fictional characters.

There is much to smile about in this sweet drama. I loved every part of it, especially the scenes set around the dinner and mahjong tables. Chances are you’ll recognize your own family in some of the interactions.


301/302 refers to the apartment numbers of two facing condos in a South Korean high rise. One is occupied by a recently divorced female chef, while the other is home to a troubled young writer. Both are obsessed with food, but in totally different ways. When the troubled young journalist disappears, the plot heats up. You won’t find any fairy-tale ending in this 1995 flick, but if you like off-beat movies and have a taste for Korean cooking, this thought-provoking film just may be your cup of tea.

My Dinner with Andre

Nearly all of this 1981 movie takes place in a restaurant, and yet I feel a bit guilty including it in a list of food movies, as it is more about what they say than what they eat. Be forewarned that chances are you will either love it or hate it. All I can tell you is that after seeing it for the first time, I found myself referencing bits and pieces of dialogue for weeks―perhaps even months.

Written and starring Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn, and directed by Louise Malle, the movie allows the viewer to be the proverbial fly on the wall, as Shawn (an actor and playwright) and Gregory (a director of experimental theater) talk over dinner.

Shawn has instituted this meeting in order to check on his friend, who, some say has 'gone off on the deep end.'

And so the meal begins. They eat. They talk. We listen. A waiter brings one course and removes another and another as Andre tells these far out tales that remind Wally of something, which reminds Andre of something, which causes one or the other to comment, and go on to something else. Aside from a scene or two of Wally going and coming from the restaurant, the entire film takes place at the dinner table.

As I 'said' earlier, you will either find their observations fascinating or ridiculous. Insightful or absurd. I would suggest that you watch it with a small group of friends and then discuss it―where else, but over dinner.

Kitchen Stories

I can’t remember exactly how I discovered this odd little 2003 Scandinavian film, but I am so glad I did. Based on an actual study, this fictional drama is set in a remote section of Norway in the 1950s. At its core it is a tale of friendship, despite all odds.

In an effort to learn how to build a more efficient kitchen, researchers from the Swedish Home Research Institute are sent out to homes all across Sweden to observe people in their kitchens. Our story centers on one such researcher and his subject—an older bachelor/farmer living in a remote part of the country. In order to insure that the researcher doesn’t influence the subject’s behavior, the two are prohibited from talking or interacting with each other. And so the researcher sits in a ‘high’ chair (literally), day after day, watching the farmer move from counter to counter, chair to table, stove to pantry and so on. What happens, and how, makes what may sound like a dull subject, pretty darn interesting.

SIDE DISH - A look at a couple of egg-strodinary moments in film

No discussion on food on film would be complete without a word or two about two scenes involving the incredible, editable you-know-what.

One takes place at the very end of the previously-mentioned Big Night. The brothers have cooked for everyone else, the night is over, and they are alone together in their kitchen. Exhausted, Tucci's character silently removes a frying pan from it's place on the shelf, and scrambles some eggs for the two of them. Not a word is spoken, and yet you know exactly what they are feeling, and saying. And the eggs look so darn good! I have to wonder how many people grabbed the olive oil instead of the butter, and made eggs for dinner that night.

The second egg-strodinary scene comes from 1987's Moonstruck: a movie mentioned in my last entry. While the film is about a baker, there are no beauty shots of crusty loaves of bread, although there is a scene late in the movie, where Cher as Italian/American Loretta Castorini, makes herself a little breakfast, taking a slice of fresh Italian bread, tearing a piece out of the center, and cracking an egg inside it. The fried concoction looks delicious, and I admit to making my own version, albeit poorly, soon after watching the film.

Wikipedia lists about twenty different names for the dish, from Toad in the hole, window or basket, to One-eyed Jacks and Gold diggers. Choose a favorite, watch the movie, and enjoy.

Other favorites

Other food movies on my all-time favorite list include such tasty tales as Chocolat, Eat, Drink Man Woman, Goodfellas and Mostly Martha (which was, to my mind, a better movie than it’s Americanized follow-up, No Reservations). You may have your own list including smart, witty and/or thoughtful titles like Water for Chocolate to Tom Jones, Tortilla Soup and Tampopo to Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe.

Defending Your Life

A final note. If you've never seen Defending Your Life, put it on your 'must see' list. Albert Brooks wrote, directed and starred in this 1991 movie about the after-life, and in the next month or two I plan to devote more time to it and other films dealing with that theme. But for now, let me say that in it, Brook's character dies and goes to a place called "Judgement City" where you can eat as much as you want without worrying about your blood pressure, cholesterol levels, weight or love handles. And everything you eat is the best you ever tasted. What a concept!

Till the next time...

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