Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo and Sofia Vergara living the food-truck life in 2014 film Chef
Chef Alex Rushmer on why so many films try and fail to capture the delicious magic of food on scree
Food is notoriously difficult to get right on screen. Cooking and eating are multisensory disciplines and to successfully render that in two dimensions is no small feat. There is barely a handful of truly great movies on the subject; films that genuinely manage to capture the reality of the creation and consumption of food. Many fall woefully short for any one of many reasons: myopic direction, misguided consultant chefs, lack of realism, faux sincerity and the practicalities of filming all present challenges to the gastronomically minded producer. To witness all this in one neat package, simply sit through the terrible Bradley Cooper vehicle Burnt, which is, in my view, the worst representation of the hospitality industry ever committed to celluloid.
“Cooking and eating are multisensory disciplines”
There are, obviously, some exceptions to this rule. 2014 seems to have been a vintage year: Jon Favreau’s offering, Chef, has no doubt given birth to more than a few food-truck businesses and, despite a few minor missteps along the way, Helen Mirren manages to navigate The Hundred-Foot Journey in a relatively accomplished fashion. The best from that year though is a wonderful Bollywood offering called The Lunchbox, in which a relationship blossoms via the medium of notes sent back and forth in a tiffin box.
When extending the list to include individual scenes as opposed to entire films, the list grows further. I remain dazzled by the banquet sequence in Hook where a previously empty table is revealed to be groaning under the weight of a fantastical array of dishes crafted in the imaginations of the assembled diners. And I was gloriously appalled and amazed in equal measure at Indiana Jones’s notorious ‘dinner of doom’. An honourable mention, too, to the magically expanding takeout pizza in Back to the Future Part II.
Animation also offers us tantalising imagery of the edible, from Disney’s bowl of shared spaghetti to Studio Ghibli’s steaming bowl of ramen in Ponyo, the Japanese studio’s take on The Little Mermaid. Noodles are also a key plot line in the rather wonderful Kung Fu Panda, and we’ve not yet even mentioned Ratatouille, which remains the single best film about food to date. What these renditions have in common is that they make no attempts at realism. Clever directors know that only the imagined and fantastical can hope to compete with reality: so why bother trying to painstakingly create actual food, which can only suffer under studio lights and multiple takes? Far better to craft something that goes beyond what we can know and experience empirically, and delve into the realm of the fictional to cook up delights that no real kitchen can compete with.
If realism, however, is what you are searching for, look instead at the works of the documentarian. Recent years have been a golden age for food documentary, fuelled primarily by streaming platforms. A Matter of Taste, released in 2011, follows pioneering British chef Paul Liebrandt for well over a decade, charting the ups and downs of his career in pre- and post-9/11 New York City. The Last Magnificent, meanwhile, takes an even wider look at the life and work of another trailblazer, Jeremiah Tower, who cooked at Chez Panisse during the 1970s and was described by The New Yorker as ‘the forgotten father of the American food revolution’. Finally, for some true insights into the passion and hard work required at the very top of the culinary world I can wholly recommend a trilogy of documentaries – Somm, Noma: My Perfect Storm and For Grace, which should be required viewing for anyone who has ever cooked at, or indeed eaten in, a restaurant.