From:The Straits Timesposted on 11 June at 3:55 PM
11 June at 3:55 PM

Five of the best food movies

By Tan Hsueh Yun, Food Editor 

In the movie Chef, now showing in cinemas, writer, director and star Jon Favreau plays self-absorbed chef Carl Casper who has a spectacular meltdown in front of his boss (Dustin Hoffman), diners and a food blogger (Oliver Platt) over a bad review that guarantees he will never work in Los Angeles again.

Scenes of the actor making carne asada or grilled beef; Cubanos, a Cuban- style sandwich filled with roast pork, ham, cheese and pickles then griddled; and making the best-looking grilled cheese sandwich I have ever seen for his son, are like watching food porn.

None of this, as wonderful as it is to watch, would amount to a hill of beans if the cooking was not in the service of something greater.

In this feel-good, sometimes moving film, the chef gets his cooking mojo back, finds salvation and rekindles his relationship with his son by leaving his professional kitchen, salvaging a dilapidated food truck and finally cooking what he wants.

There lies the success of a good food movie. It tells those of us who do not already know, or those who are sitting on the fence, that cooking goes beyond feeding the body.

It is deeply entwined with love, friendship, pain, joy, ambition and, I am not exaggerating here, salvation.

In Julie & Julia (2009), directed by the late Nora Ephron, cooking saves two lost souls. One is Julia Child (played by Meryl Streep), who taught Americans how to cook French food but who started out as an expatriate wife in Paris seeking something to do.

The second is Julie Powell (Amy Adams), whose writing career failed to take off until she sets herself the goal of cooking every recipe in Child's Mastering The Art Of French Cooking and blogging about it.

All that cooking and championship whining have paid off for Powell in real life. Her Julie/Julia Project became a book, then the movie and she has since published novels. Through cooking, she has succeeded in becoming the writer she has always wanted to be.

Jiro Dreams Of Sushi (2011), a documentary by American film-maker David Gelb, chronicles the lengths to which sushi chef Jiro Ono, who runs Sukiyabashi Jiro in Tokyo, goes to to make perfect sushi and his unwavering work ethic.

It serves as inspiration to chefs everywhere who are tempted to take shortcuts and to others who feel they can take their foot off the accelerator after a few years of working hard.

The animated feature Ratatouille (2007) is about a rodent who yearns to be a chef and makes it spectacularly. Yes, even rats dream of cooking.

Here is my pick of the best food movies I have watched. Never watch them on an empty stomach.


Set in present-day Mumbai, the movie pays tribute to the Dabbawalla system, a complex, laborious one in which about 5,000 men with limited literacy deliver 200,000 lunchboxes to office workers using a coding system and public transport, and reverse the delivery of empty boxes back to homes in the afternoon.

Depending on which study you read, mistakes are rare: one in six, eight or 16 million.

Yet, the movie, directed by Ritesh Batra, is built around one such mistake. Ila (Nimrat Kaur), a young, desperate housewife tries to regain the attention of her distant, sullen husband by cooking elaborate meals for him, with advice from her neighbour upstairs, the sage, unseen Auntie Deshpande (Bharati Achrekar).

Instead, Saajan Fernandez (Irrfan Khan), a pencil pusher who is retiring after working 35 years in an insurance company, is the one getting the meals.

Some gentle questioning soon reveals that her husband has not been getting the meals and she tucks a note under the chapatis to whoever is receiving her food.

Mr Fernandez, taken by the delicious food, writes back. Their notes are not filled with romantic pronouncements, but descriptions of their daily struggles.

Together with the dishes she sends him, Ila confides that she is unhappy and that she suspects her husband is having an affair.

He offers fatherly advice. As their friendship deepens, the dishes get less complicated because Ila has something real to hang on to and does not have to lose herself in cooking to forget her shaky marriage.

I will never forget the look on her face after her father's death from lung cancer, when her mother recites her daily routine and the young wife realises it is just like her own.

Her correspondence with Mr Fernandez, his appreciation of her food, their fleeting talk of going to Bhutan, where success is measured not by the Gross Domestic Product but by the Gross Happiness Index, gives her the courage to change her life.

Time seems to slow down as the story between the two play out. It is an anomaly in chaotic, noisy Mumbai, just like the very rare Dabbawalla mistake that ultimately saves Ila and Mr Fernandez.

Best lines
Auntie Deshpande: "A mouthful and he will build you a Taj Mahal."

Ila: "The Taj Mahal is a tomb."

Did you know?
British entrepreneur Richard Branson worked as a Dabbawalla for a day and Prince Charles went to watch how they work and later invited them to attend his wedding to Camilla Parker- Bowles.


BIG NIGHT (1996)

Any chef or artist who has ever struggled to make others appreciate authenticity will sympathise with Primo (Tony Shalhoub), who moves from Abruzzo in Italy to open an Italian restaurant with his brother Secondo (Stanley Tucci with hair) in the New Jersey Shore in the 1950s.

Primo wants to serve real Italian food, not the spaghetti and meatballs that red sauce joints in the United States served at the time. His more practical brother, who has adapted better to American life, begs him to make what customers want because their eatery is in danger of being foreclosed.

Their big chance to turn things around comes when a restaurateur friend says he will get singer Louis Prima to dine at the restaurant. Preparations go into overdrive as Secondo puts everything he has into the meal, roasting a piglet and making two Timpano, a drum-shaped pasta dish with penne made from scratch.

Of course, the singer never shows up, but in the midst of drinking, eating and merriment during dinner, lies and betrayals are exposed and the brothers slug it out on the beach.

The last 20 minutes play out almost wordlessly but goes right to the heart of the movie, directed by Tucci and Campbell Scott. After a tumultuous night, Secondo makes an omelette for Primo. They eat in silence, arms on each other's shoulders.

Whether they make a go of the restaurant or not is not known, but there must have been enough pioneers such as Primo who refused to dilute their culinary heritage, who figured that given enough time, people would learn to appreciate their food.

Looking at how Italian cuisine has evolved in the US and the rest of the world, these pioneers' efforts in sticking to their guns have paid off.

Best line
"Sometimes, spaghetti likes to be alone," Secondo tells a diner who is outraged when told the spaghetti does not come with meatballs.

Did you know?
Tucci knows his way around a kitchen in real life. His book, The Tucci Cookbook, written with his mother Joan, was published in 2012. It is available at for $57.25.



Widower Chu (Lung Sihung), a masterchef who worked in a Taipei restaurant for decades, is a man of few words.

Every Sunday, however, he prepares a banquet-standard dinner for his three daughters. There is more food than four people can possibly eat, signalling perhaps the boundless love he has for them, something he cannot quite bring himself to say aloud.

Not that they appreciate any of it, thinking it is torture.

But the weekly dinners are when the daughters, who defy many stereotypes of Asian women, make announcement about their lives or eat in silence.

This movie by Lee Ang, set in the mid-1990s, seems at first to be a clash between fast developing Taipei and the old ways that Mr Chu personifies: making food from scratch using age-old cooking methods.

But it defies simple categorisation. Old man Chu has some shocking secrets of his own. His middle daughter Jia-Chien (Wu Chien-lien), the one most like him and most eager to escape their sprawling home, has her life upended in an unexpected way.

Like her father, she sports a hard outer shell and uses cooking to communicate. It works, too, in the last scene of the film, showing yet again that food cooked with soul can communicate what words cannot.

The film is full of little ironies but the one that resonates most is how little Shan Shan, the daughter of a family friend, and her classmates lap up the elaborate lunchboxes that Mr Chu prepares. She ends up taking orders, all faithfully executed by the chef, whose daughters barely touch his food.

Best line
"Your soup, Jia-Chien, I can taste it," Mr Chu, who has an epiphany during a dinner his second daughter has prepared.

Did you know?
The five-minute, dialogue-free opening scene in which Mr Chu prepares an elaborate banquet for his family, took a week to film.



Can dinner be a love affair? This film by Gabriel Axel shows that it can be, in the hands of a skilled chef.

Fleeing the civil war in France that had claimed her husband and son, Babette Hersant (Stephane Audran) arrives in the coast of Jutland in 19th-century Denmark. She is taken in by two spinster sisters who are continuing the austere religious sect their father started.

As years go by, the natives get restless and fractious, quarrelling over real and imagined slights. This is bound to happen when all they eat is bread soup cooked into a thick greenish goo and dried fish.

When Babette wins 10,000 francs in a lottery, her only link to France, she asks the sisters if she can fund and cook the congregation a proper French dinner to mark the 100th birth anniversary of the father.

Ingredients weird and alarming to the village folk start appearing: A huge turtle, live quail, parts of a cow, bottles of wine. One sister calls for an emergency meeting with the guests, worried that the meal is shaping up to be a witches' Sabbath. They agree to say nothing about the food.

Despite their best efforts, these "pious melancholics" lap up the exquisite turtle soup, quail in pastry and other dishes Babette whips up. Their stern faces soften, their cheeks become more ruddy with each course. They slurp wine, enjoy pineapple and figs, juices dripping down their chins.

By the end of the night, couples are kissing, former enemies make amends, a thwarted suitor from long ago regains hope.

The transformation on the congregation is beautiful to watch. It reaffirms my belief that even the most clueless diner can taste the chef's soul on the plate and that is the sort of food worth seeking out.

Best line
"An artist is never poor," says Babette to the sisters, after telling them she has blown her lottery winnings on the dinner.

Did you know?
The costumes for Audran were designed by Karl Lagerfeld.


TAMPOPO (1985)

This movie by Juzo Itami, a ramen version of a spaghetti western, with touches of slapstick and French nouvelle vague stylings, is still a joy to watch, almost 30 years after its release.

Two storylines anchor the movie.

There is the search of widow Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto) for the perfect bowl of ramen with help from a ragtag bunch of two truck drivers, a hobo who is also a gourmand, a noodle-making chauffeur and her comically thuggish childhood friend who is sweet on her.

Then there is the story of a rakish gangster, who seems to be on the run from someone, and who holes himself up in a hotel with his squeeze, playing sex games with food.

Other vignettes reflect Japanese society at the time, when its economy was booming and the country was captivated by the West. An office flunky shows up his grey-faced bosses by knowing more about French food than they do, a group of housewives learn to eat spaghetti elegantly. Quite out of the blue is an elderly woman who plays hide and seek with a grocery store employee, running around squeezing fruit, cheese and other produce with a perverse sort of pleasure and need.

What they all have in common is an obsession with food: how to respect it, how it enhances sex, how it inspires the quest for perfection, how it can prompt reckless abandon of societal norms and how knowledge of it can elevate a person's standing.

You have to love a movie in which a character's last words are not exhortations of love but the recitation of a sausage recipe.

When I first watched it, the characters seemed a little hysterical. Having been to Japan many times since then, I now understand why it is well nigh impossible to get a bad meal there.

Best line:
"It's the soup that animates the noodles," a ramen connoisseur critiquing a bowl.

Did you know?
The junior truck driver Gun is played by a young Ken Watanabe.


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