Food

The Missing Ingredient: Why Aren’t There Any Good Food Films Anymore?

We spoke to a few local foodies to get to the bottom of what makes a good food film -- and why we haven't seen any for a while.

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The trailer for Burnt, a new drama about a self-destructive genius chef (Bradley Cooper), shows us a lot of things in quick succession: Knives. Motorbikes. Leather jackets. Bruises. Over a percussive score reminiscent of chopping blocks and oven timers, we hear Cooper talk about dreams, about failure, about longing. We hear about how he loves everything about the kitchen — “the heat, the pressure, the violence”.

Uh, dude, I think you’ve forgotten something here. Where’s the food?

In the privileged western world, it often feels that the culinary arts have become an obligatory skill set for any functioning adult. We both demystify and give weight to the glamour of high pressure, performative cooking through reality shows like Top Chef, My Kitchen Rules, and MasterChef. The junior edition of the latter program has meant that the next nine-year-old you meet is just as likely to be able to list every variety of spice as they are Pokemon. An awareness of ‘health’, and ‘organic’, and ‘local’ — and the ever growing commercialisation of ‘health’, and ‘organic’, and ‘local’ – has surrounded us with an intense culture of foodiness.

Culinary celebs come in every flavour, from your artisanal dude favourite David Chang to perennial mum’s boy Jamie Oliver; from Ottolenghi, the champion of discerning dinner partiers, to Paula Dean, whose butter-fried racism is still lapped up by millions. Celebrity chefs have been elevated to the level of rock stars, tech gurus, and aspirational life figures.

So where are the fictional counterparts to match?

chef

“Waddaya mean no one watched my movie? It’s called CHEF, for fuck’s sake! I put food trucks in it and everything!”

If you are someone who likes to romanticise what it might be like to work in a kitchen, there’s surprisingly few films that capture the experience — and even fewer that are good movies. Mostly Martha, and its American remake No Reservations, are more romcom than nom-nom. Haute Cuisine, about the French Prime Minister’s personal chef, is left dry and stringy thanks to biopic conventions. Meryl certainly embraces the joy of cooking, but Julie and Julia is a mess of a movie. Also, Spanglish exists.

Of course, Burnt might turn out to pay as much attention to braised veal as bravado — but the marketing certainly hints at a film that’s heavy on the white-male-genius-angst, with only a seasoning of insight into the world of cuisine. It’s already been subject to a pretty hilarious live-tweet take down from Helen Rosner, editor at Eater.com.

“It seems to have a real jock-level obsession with perfection,” says food critic and podcaster Lee Tran Lam, “maybe more about ego than the joy of food. In fact, it reminds me a lot of Whiplash, a film I totally hated, because it really had nothing to do with a love of music. It was so easily transplanted into any other landscape about bullying and being a jerk and it had such phoney ‘laudable’ claims about art and aspiring to be great.”

Lam, who spends a lot of time thinking about how to take food from one sensory experience to another, is just as puzzled as to why we don’t have more examples of chefs on the big screen. “There are definitely lots of unsatisfying films about chefs [and their restaurants],” she tells me. “The el Bulli doco was underwhelming. Even a doco like Step Up To The Plate, which I was very excited about, because Bras is such a legendary restaurant, is inexplicably full of shots of Michel and Sebastien Bras jogging at really early hours. Maybe flavour and the sensation of eating food — which is, really, its key appeal — is just too hard to translate to film.”

Fellow foodie podcaster, writer, and chef Andrew Levins is happy with our celluloid depictions of cooks, as long as they stay humorous. “I love the archetype of ‘crazy chef’. From The Muppets’ Swedish Chef to the psychopathic chef who tries to cook Sebastian for the entirety of The Little Mermaid, to my favourite cinema chef of all time: Christopher Meloni’s ‘Gene’, the chef at the summer camp in Wet Hot American Summer.

“I think it’s hard for dialogue about food (beyond lines like “next time bring more cheese pizzas”) to take place in a film without sounding wanky. I guess I don’t love when chefs are taken very seriously in movies.”

I don’t know what part of this wouldn’t be taken very seriously.

And maybe that’s the issue: the mythos of the chef that we currently have is a very serious one. Whether they’re a molecular maestro or an enfant terrible, they tend to be exacting, pedantic, and kind of an asshole.

The script for Burnt first showed up in 2007 on the Blacklist, an annual collection of Hollywood’s best unproduced screenplays. It’s clearly influenced by Anthony Bourdain’s 2000 autobiography Kitchen Confidential. In it, Bourdain shares a few inside tips on the industry, reminisces in one lovely scene about eating his first oyster, and then mainly catalogues the misbehaviours and mistakes that occur during his years abusing substances while on the job. It’s the rock’n’roll stereotype of the chef that has partly overtaken the traditional tropes of fussiness and monk-like devotion to flavour and craft, maybe best seen in the 2012 doco Jiro Dreams of SushiBurnt, on the other hand, seems to play right into the hard-living, genius anti-hero that we’ve all become a little tired of, and as a result might just miss the entire point of food on film.

“Most of my favourite food scenes in movies are pretty inconsequential to the overall film,” says Levins. “The prison scene in Goodfellas where they talk about Pauly’s wonderful system of slicing garlic with a razor so thin that it liquefies in the pan. The feast of chilled monkey brains and bugs in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom made more of an impact on me than all the action scenes. The Blues Brothers ordering toasted white bread, four whole fried chickens and Coke.”

These scenes he lists have everything to do with shared experience, be it the deep breaths, just-go-with-it cross cultural dining of the adventurous doctor, or the Goodfella’s penitentiary pasta club.

The films that I hungrily come back to likewise use food as an expression of what brings us together. Mendl’s pastries in Grand Budapest Hotel, a tribute to the small sweet pleasures of beauty amongst despair. The gorging gelatinous feast that sums up Chihiro’s relationship with her parents in Spirited Away. That first date excitement of eating in bed from Heartburn, or the awkward courtship dance of loose lobsters from Annie Hall.

And of course the titular dish from the best food movie ever made: Ratatouille.

Lee Tran Lam agrees: [Ratatouille] is fundamentally about a love of food, a pure concentrated joyousness about food. You could not change it into a sports movie. A rat that loves football would not be the same movie.”

Even though Remy does end up successful, the journey we follow is about longing for inclusion – he just wants to be let into the kitchen. When the majority of us think about food and cooking it’s rarely about the best meal ever eaten, but about the communality of it. So while there might be a lack of great chef films, there are many examples of great movies about eating. The gold standards of the genre are about food and family – Babette’s Feast, Eat Drink Man Woman, Soul Food. Each is about a culture of tradition and family, rather than individual exceptionalism.

My favourite food film is Big Night. Brothers Tony Shaloub and Stanley Tucci have opened an Italian restaurant in 1950s America. Yes, they have a dream of success, but what they struggle and strive to maintain is a connection through food. There’s a feast. There’s the unveiling of a momentous dish. There are plans and dreams gone awry.

And, in the end, sagging with hangover and disappointment, there’s a scene in which one brother cooks the other a little omelette, and shares some bread. It’s the least impressive meal cooked in the film, and the most important moment.

Burnt is released in Australian cinemas tomorrow.

Matt Roden works at non-profit writing centre Sydney Story Factory, and co-hosts Confession Booth. His illustration and design work can be seen here.