For fear perhaps of making that bag of popcorn in your lap feel inadequate, food isn’t as luxuriously realized on the big screen as it is on the small one, usually taking a supporting role to dialogue in a dinner table sequence or during a date. But with the recent success of “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” the documentary about Japanese master chef Jiro Ono that’s a visual feast in every aspect of the term, we were reminded of those films where the cuisine took a starring role, if only for a moment. Because we’re on a little bit of diet, we stayed away from the obvious allure of anything having to do with cacao beans and stuck to main courses, hopefully offering up what a sumptuous serving of some of the most appetizing food in films that we’ve ever seen.
We applaud “In Her Shoes,” if for nothing else, introducing the term “foodie” into the cinematic lexicon. That comes courtesy of Mark Feuerstein, an actor who obviously likes his food movies since he also appeared in Penelope Cruz’s cooking show comedy “Woman on Top.” However, he plays Simon, the eternally hungry love interest to Toni Collette’s indecisive Rose. During a sushi lunch where Simon dispenses the advice “wasabi makes everything better” after Rose learns her affair with her boss has become public, he also describes a meal of foie gras with rochefort suffed fig, Scottish wood pigeon with cabbage and porcini cassoulet and the chocolate mousse with raspberries and hazelnut macaroon at Le Bec-Fin with the same aplomb as a good phone sex operator. When Simon says, “You’ll want to eat with me for the rest of your life,” you know you should follow.
“My Best Friend’s Wedding”
We concede that Julia Roberts might’ve had a little something to do with the success of My Best Friend’s Wedding, but gourmands know it was really the film’s opening sequence that really sold the romantic comedy. It isn’t unusual that men find themselves falling over Roberts, but the film ushers us into a whirlwind tour through a frantic kitchen where chefs are raging over the plating of the veal over polenta and spinach for Roberts’ food critic Julianne Potter. After one chef threatens to kill the sous chef’s family if he doesn’t get the dish right, the plate makes its way to Potter’s table where a waiter anxiously awaits her response. Roberts, not one to disguise herself like former Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl, hands down the verdict of “inventive and confident.”
Before he made torturous “Captivity,” Roland Joffe directed something far more appetizing with 2000’s “Vatel,” a sumptuous historical drama about François Vatel, the French chef who invented chantilly cream during his time as a servant to Prince de Condé in 1671. None other than Gerard Depardieu plays the big cream cheese, which the actor did a variation of as a wish fulfilling hotel chef in the Queen Latifah comedy “Last Holiday.” In preparation for a visit by Louis XIV, Depardieu’s Vatel tries various ingredients in the whipped cream before settling on vanilla and Joffe fills the screen with such elegant tracking shots of fruits and vegetables, you’d think this is how Martin Scorsese views a trip to the supermarket. When one of the chef’s many hired hands asks what kind of meat is in one of the dishes, the response is “unicorn.” Indeed, something magical happens in Vatel’s kitchen.
There are many memorable and mouthwatering scenes in Tampopo, a wildly eccentric 1985 comedy from Japan that takes the concept of a western and applies it to one lone gun’s efforts to open his own ramen shop in a small town. From an early scene in the film where a noodle master instructs his young disciple to “caress the surface [of his bowl of noodles] with the chopstick tips to express affection,” we know this film is interested in exploring delights beyond a 35 cent package of Top Ramen. But the moment that pleases us to no end is Tampopo’s training sequence, a blood, sweat and tears montage that rivals “Rocky IV”’s side trip to the Soviet Union when Goro, the cowboy hat coiffed taskmaster, clocks in his noodlemaking naïf Tampopo at three minutes and fifteen seconds for an order of ramen. Not fast enough according to Goro, but utterly delicious nonetheless. In order to understand the context, here’s the right way to eat ramen:
“Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen’s”
It seemed like an April Fools joke to many in Hollywood when the legendary eatery Chasen’s, home to many of Tinseltown’s toniest affairs during the golden age of Hollywood, closed on April 1st, 1995. Fortunately, “American Splendor” filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini turned their camera on landmark restaurant in its final few months to preserve the memory of the place where Elizabeth Taylor liked the chili so much, she reportedly had it shipped to Rome while she was filming Cleopatra. Yet it’s midway through the documentary when we first lay eyes on Chasen’s most cherished item, “the hobo steak,” a beautifully marbled cut of meat that’s finished in butter in a chafing dish by Claude, a Munich-born restaurant captain who served the likes of Kirk Douglas. He tells Berman and Pulcini of his clientele, “you want to make their evening the most special of their life.” The sizzle of the steak is a good start.
After middling box office for the Adam Sandler dramedy, Columbia wisely corrected course on the marketing campaign for the “Spanglish” DVD by putting this satisfyingly savory sandwich from French Laundry master chef Thomas Keller front and center. In fact, even the disc’s special features show more TLC for the BLT than Sandler by devoting a making of documentary to the late night snack, a gourmet take on the classic bacon, lettuce and tomato with two slices of Monterey jack cheese and a fried egg, which Keller insists on keeping the yolk runny. Thankfully, the DVD also includes the recipe, and we trust the film’s director James L. Brooks when he says, “No kidding. It’s the best sandwich ever.”
“Fried Green Tomatoes”
Food often seems to take a backseat to the drama at the Whistle Stop Café in the adaptation of Fannie Flagg’s tale of Idgie and Ruth, two best friends who run a restaurant in Alabama during the 1920s and deal with racism, murder and The Great Depression. Even when the movie does take a time out to show Idgie and Ruth engaged in a food fight, which according to director Jon Avnet on the DVD’s audio commentary, was meant to” physicalize in fun the relationship between [stars] Mary Stuart [Masterson] and Mary Louise [Parker],” it’s a substitute for the lesbian subtext in the book that didn’t make it into the film version. Avnet also skimped on the shots of food in “Fried Green Tomatoes” because he simply didn’t have the budget, but shortly before the food fight, he did shoot this one ogling glance at the titular tomatoes, which according to the recipe supplied by the DVD has the secret ingredient of bacon drippings to make those cornmeal confections extra brown.
“Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle”
The slyder may be the most pedestrian food on this list, but after a night when you’re stoned and “hungry as balls” for that midnight munchie, as the two best buds in this film are, nothing hits the spot quite like the Chicago baby burgers with finely cut onions that burst in your mouth. Is it worth getting your car stolen by Neil Patrick Harris, a night in prison, and an additional $46.75 to get your hands on 30 slyders, five orders of fries and four large Cherry Cokes? Harold and Kumar would tell you it is for a meal so perfect that it brings them to tears. We’re inclined to agree.
Given that food is one of the most easily conveyed currencies besides language and money across cultures, it’s not all that surprising that more than a handful of films on this list have already been remade, often retrofitted for a different culture. “Like Water for Chocolate” was given an American redo by Sarah Michelle Gellar in “Simply Irresistible” and the Mexican-American comedy “Tortilla Soup” substituted dumplings for enchiladas as an adaptation of “Eat Drink Man Woman,” so following in that tradition, it was only a matter of time after the German romance “Mostly Martha” became a hit on the 2002 festival circuit that Warner Brothers seized the opportunity to pair Catherine Zeta-Jones and Aaron Eckhart in an American version of the tale of a gifted, controlling chef who learns to loosen up when she has to take custody of her niece.
“No Reservations” director Scott Hicks used soft focus to give warmth to the film’s climactic scene in which the female chef lets her male co-worker pick out the ingredients for a meal he’ll prepare with the young girl, but the sparks really fly in Sandra Nettelbeck’s original, scored by Paolo Conte’s “Via con me,” where the seeds of a future family are planted over plates of pasta, asparagus and prosciutto and crescents of zucchini. The resulting mess in the kitchen sends the German version’s Martha into a hyperventilating panic, but the beauty of the scene is a breath of fresh air.
“Like Water for Chocolate”
Considering that the film’s title is a Latin American euphemism for sexual arousal, it’s not surprising that the climax, no pun intended, of “Like Water for Chocolate” is when Tita, a woman bound by familial obligations never to wed, channels her passion for a man into a plate of the traditional chilies en nogada at her niece’s wedding. Tita teases the chilies with flames and then bathes them in a walnut sauce comprised of such ingredients as sour cream and cinnamon and then tops the dish with pomegranate seeds. It only takes one bite of the aphrodisiac-pumped peppers for guests of the bride and groom to hurry home after the chilies inspire a kind of heat even habaneros aren’t capable of.
Since decadence ultimately got the famed monarch killed, it was Sofia Coppola’s job in the offbeat 2006 biopic to make a film that would be rich and excessive, not unlike, say, a grand dessert and it’s an analogy the filmmaker makes herself on the film’s DVD when she describes the “whole palette [for the film as] very cookies and cake.” Naturally, the cookies and cake had to look incredible and with her biggest budget to date, Coppola had the wherewithal to hire the French luxury pastry chefs at Ladurée, who literally are credited with inventing the macaron, for her “cake department.” Although some of the 18th century delicacies in the film may not appear to be all that mouthwatering – peas, carrots and pork in a gelatinous mold, for instance – the sweets look to die for, as history proved they should.
A horror story to some and a laugh riot to others, Anne Bancroft’s criminally underappreciated 1980 directorial debut “Fatso” remains the only film ever to deal with food addiction. Naturally, every food item in the film is tempting to Dom DeLuise’s Dominick DiNapoli, an overweight Italian-American who gets a reality check when his similarly rotund cousin checks into the big pizza parlor in the sky. Although he tries to control his impulses around lasagna and big breakfasts, DiNapoli falls off the wagon when he is sent to retrieve his nephew Anthony’s birthday cake and comes back with only two-thirds of the cake. When his sister, played by Bancroft, opens the box, she screams the classic line, “You ate the -Ony!” before chasing him around with a knife. A Mouthwatering moment? Perhaps not, but definitely funny.
If culinary cinema had a queen, it would be Penelope Cruz. Not only did the actress star as a television chef in “Woman on Top,” as mentioned before, but in the 1992 Spanish sex comedy “Jamon Jamon,” she played a woman with ham-flavored nipples. Still, our favorite food moment of Cruz’s comes in Pedro Almodovar’s “Volver” where she plays Raimunda, a woman desperate to hide the body of her abusive ex-boyfriend in the freezer of an abandoned restaurant and unexpectedly finds herself reopening the place for business when a local film crew needs to eat. Spotting friends on the street, she shamelessly guilts them into selling their pork, sausages and cookies to her for what becomes the basis for a makeshift menu of omelet and blood sausage, carne de cerdo, salad and dessert. Granted, it’s not gourmet, but Cruz’s creation looks edifyingly edible.
“Eat Drink Man Woman”
It can be considered a film for foodies when within the first five minutes it’s established that one of the greatest tragedies to befall the central family in Ang Lee’s 1994 dramedy arguably isn’t the death of its matriarch that has left a father (and celebrated master chef) to try to keep the Sunday dinner tradition alive for his three adult daughters, but that one of the three works at a Wendy’s. Respected more by his peers who marvel at his preparation skills than his daughters who worry he’s oversmoked the ham in their soup, Chef Chu finds his zen in the most humble of circumstances – by making lunch for his granddaughter comprised of sparerib and bitter melon soup and crab with vegetables that would be fit for emperors. Still, the film’s opening sequence where Chu quietly but assuredly filets a fish and makes dumplings is the most enticing, the preparation and the love of the process something that Lee credited to having been a househusband for six years before pursuing his filmmaking career. The director brought in five different chefs to achieve the master chef’s culinary expertise onscreen, with a different pair of hands making the pancakes and braising the duck, though actor Sihung Lung did a considerable amount himself.
This 1987 drama from Denmark may have won the Academy Award for best foreign language film, but seems to be aiming more for a James Beard Award than an Oscar. Babette is a French chef who finds political asylum during the 1800s in the Danish town of Frederikshavn with two devoutly religious sisters who take her in as their maid. When Babette unexpectedly comes into some money, she repays the sisters and members of their congregation with a glorious feast consisting of blinis Demidof (pancakes with caviar), Cailles en sarcophages (the figuratively titled quails in “coffins”, made of puff pastry), and Soupe a la tortue a la Louisianne (green turtle soup). Unadventurous Americans might shy away from the food upon hearing the description, but director Gabriel Axel’s loving lens makes Babette’s feast fit for a king.
Before Marlon Brando asked Maria Schneider to bring the butter in “Last Tango in Paris” and Mickey Rourke fed marachino cherries and cold macaroni to Kim Basinger in “9 ½ Weeks,” Albert Finney and Joyce Redman set the precedent for gastronomic seduction in Tony Richardson’s 1963 farce. Finney and York brandish lobster tails and pears as if they were starved for centuries and slurp soup and oysters, keeping their gaze firmly on each other. Even though the film takes place in the late 1700s, the scene is positively primal, as Finney consumes a glistening turkey thigh with all the decorum of Tarzan – which is only appropriate for two characters who intend to do a different kind of swinging once they finish their food.
Nearly everything about the 2007 comedy that starred Keri Russell as a single woman looking to escape a dead-end life with her penchant for pie-baking was bittersweet, from the dark edges around its humor to the tragic death of the actress/writer/director Adrienne Shelly before the film’s triumphant premiere at Sundance. So it can’t be all that surprising that some of the film’s most beautiful imagery, including its lush opening sequence of peaches chopped, chocolate chips poured, cherries ladeled and bananas mashed all into awaiting tins filled with crust, were done after the filmmakers had already exhausted themselves on long days of shooting and most of the cast had gone home.
“It’s beautiful, kind of fairy tale-like” Russell says on the film’s DVD commentary, not having been there herself, but clearly admiring the fact that Shelly poured as much love into the filming of such unique plot-driven creations as “Baby Screaming Its Head Off and Ruining My Night Pie,” made of cheesecake filling topped with brandy, pecans and nutmeg, and “Earl Murders Me Because I’m Having an Affair Pie,” with smashed berries into a chocolate crust, as Jenna did making them. Co-star Cheryl Hines confessed she may have gained five pounds on the shoot as a result, but unlike audiences, she wouldn’t have to know the frustration of not being able to reach through a screen to enjoy the confections.
There’s a history of delicious looking food in animation from the glistening poisoned apple that Snow White couldn’t be faulted for wanting to take a bite out of through the the nose-nuzzling of meatballs in “Lady and the Tramp.” But for Brad Bird’s 2007 tale of a rat who could cook, the precision of computer animation and the protagonist’s pursuit of perfection meant nothing short of photo-real would suffice when at the film’s climax when the titular character prepares the French stewed dish of the same name.
After testing out more traditional recipes for the classic dish, or “more rustic-looking” as production designer Harley Jessup says on the film’s DVD, Bird suggested the best model might be from — where else? — the nearby French Laundry in northern California where Thomas Keller had already perfected a plate of paper thin slices of tomato, zucchini and eggplant. However, when Keller was brought on to consult for the film, he changed the arrangement of the dish for a more cinematically satisfying effect, not to mention one that would impress even the indomitable fictional restaurant critic Anton Ego, by stacking the ratatouille into a tower swirl. While this took Keller only minutes, animators spent months getting the texture right, taking photos from every angle. Ultimately, it didn’t just look good enough to be convincing. It looked good enough to eat.
For the same reason that a film such as “My Dinner With Andre” wouldn’t appear on a list like this, Michael Winterbottom’s loosely constructed road trip comedy following Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon around to the best dining establishments in Northern England might be considered more appetizing for the company rather than the food. However, “The Trip” is a landmark of sorts, a film born out of Winterbottom’s desire to make the simplest film possible to reunite his “Tristam Shandy” stars, but results in just the third film after “In Her Shoes” and Nora Ephron’s adaptation of food blogger Julie Powell’s “Julie & Julia” to reflect modern foodie culture.
Of course, Coogan, playing a fictionalized version of himself, admits upfront to Brydon he only took a newspaper assignment to compile a restaurant revue to impress a girlfriend, simultaneously demonstrating the sophistication of his palette by tasting the soup du jour and surmising, “It’s a taste of tomatoes.” But as the film wears on, Winterbottom’s own love of fine cuisine begins to show as he sneaks behind the scenes of the kitchens, showing chefs intricately preparing langoustine with sea radish and rilette of rabbit with a truffle cream vinaigrette and in fact, on the film’s DVD, there’s a “food cut” specifically devoted to all this footage and every dish Coogan and Brydon ordered. In this film, every moment Coogan and Brydon sit down to eat, it’s worth savoring, and not only because they can both do killer Michael Caine impressions.
Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott’s bubbly comedy about two Italian brothers who open a restaurant along the New Jersey shore is the definitive food film of its generation – a true feast of a film in a world of cinematic appetizers. As the brothers struggle to save the restaurant, they stage an evening where jazz music is played, but the main entertainment is the unveiling of zuppa, beet salad, tricolor risotto, and suckling pig. Yet it is the timpani, a concoction from the home country consisting of handmade pasta, tiny meatballs and obviously plenty of love, that prompts the owner of a rival restaurant, played by Ian Holm, to get up and complain to the chef, “It’s so fucking good I should kill you.” And that’s before the second course is served.
Any other tastebud tantalizing films you thought we missed? Let us know in the comments below.