The Unfettered Critic – July 2014

You’ve seen a great food movie or two, right? One that teases your salivary glands the way a romance tugs at your heartstrings? Tampopo (1985) presents a bowl of noodles as more sensuous than sex. Babette’s Feast (1987) tempts with lustful terrapin soup, quail in vol-au-vents and blinis. Like Water For Chocolate (1994) offers an aphrodisiac level honey and almond roasted quail. Chocolat (2000) raises the title confection to the status of a sacrament promising religious redemption. These aren’t movies you bring a tissue to. They require napkins.
What is it about these movies that seduces us so? It’s those images of delectable delicacies being prepared in intimate close-up, the tantalizing juices and lovingly ladled sauces carefully composed into culinary cinematography that overwhelms our appetites. Think of it as “food porn.”
The latest offering in this genre is Chef, written, directed by and starring Jon Favreau. It’s about a guy who quits his demeaning job at a fancy L.A. restaurant and rekindles his passion for cooking by setting up shop in a rundown food truck. Taking a delicious trek through Miami, New Orleans, Austin and L.A., the story gains a dash of spice from big name actors—including Dustin Hoffman, Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey Jr.—who shine in small roles. Critically speaking, Favreau could have gotten to the meat of the story a little sooner, and maybe he resolves the conflicts too easily, but that doesn’t matter. What matters about Chef is that food porn thing.
And that made us happy, because our usual source of culinary satisfaction, The Food Network, has been starving us lately. We often tune in for close-ups of dishes prepared in mouthwatering detail. Remember the good old days when Emeril Lagasse, Mario Batali and the Iron Chef hit us with a “Bam?” Sadly, network powers-that-be seem to think their audience is bored with shows about Good Eats (one of our favorites). Every new offering is a game show-like “contest.” This trend started with the entertaining Chopped, where contestants have a limited amount of time to create tasty dishes from a basket of seemingly incompatible components. Chopped has, unfortunately, inspired a bunch of lesser contest shows, where food takes a back seat to silly shenanigans. Cutthroat Kitchen encourages contestants to sabotage each other’s culinary efforts by, say, taking away a chef’s knives and forcing him to bone a chicken with a plastic butter knife, or by making him cook a complicated dish in a child’s Easy-Bake Oven. Kitchen Casino challenges contestants to quickly make a lovely meal, but then—mid-dish—the cooking area spins like a roulette wheel, sending Joe’s half-prepared dish to Tina, and Tina’s dish to Fred. Tina diligently tries to cook Joe’s goose while Fred pours a lot of hot sauce on Tina’s delicate dish. Having fun yet? Guy’s Grocery Games sends chefs running through the aisles of a pretend grocery store, tasked with creating masterpieces from ingredients that may or may not be available, or are too expensive for their “budget.” These shows aren’t about cooking. They’re barely about food.
Can you blame us for wanting to cleanse our palates with a little cinematic food porn? The best of these movies is a savory l996 entry titled Big Night. It’ll make you hungry for food, for friendship, and for a second viewing. Tony Shalhoub (Monk) plays a masterful chef whose customers don’t want his gourmet seafood risotto; they want food they understand, like spaghetti and meatballs. When you see the food from his kitchen on your screen, you’ll order the risotto. And when you see Big Night—you’ll be seduced!
Paula and Terry each have long impressive-sounding resumes implying that they are battle-scarred veterans of life within the Hollywood studios. They’re now happily relaxed into Jacksonville.