Food for films

The new French film ‘Haute Cuisine’ joins the roster of movies that deal with fine dining.

Food for films (photo credit: courtesy)
Food for films
(photo credit: courtesy)
The latest in a tradition of mouth-watering movies about gourmet cooks has just opened in Israel. Called Haute Cuisine or Les Saveurs du Palais, the film stars Catherine Frot as Hortense, who becomes the personal chef to the late French president Francois Mitterand.
Hortense is a stubborn, back-tobasics woman who brings real, topnotch French cuisine back to the presidential palace. She uses the force of her personality to make sure that she will never have to compromise in the pursuit of the perfect dish.
The character of Hortense joins a proud roster of movie chefs. Some of these master chefs are based on real people and others are purely fictitious, but they all share a talent for making audiences’ mouths water.
In recent years, the most popular chef movie is undoubtedly Nora Ephron’s Julie and Julia (2009). Meryl Streep stars as Julia Child, the famous eccentric American chef who popularized French cooking in the US. For her, perfecting and popularizing the art of French cuisine was a vehicle for self-expression. Like Hortense, who is an outsider at the palace, Julia is a fish out of water when her husband is sent to France for his work. She proves herself to some Frenchwomen who doubt her ability when she starts learning to cook, then spends years perfecting her cookbook. In a parallel story, Julie (Amy Adams) struggles with her feeling that she is not as professionally accomplished as her peers in present-day New York. She feels most alive when she cooks, and she decides to prove herself by creating a blog in which she records her efforts to cook a recipe from Julia Child’s cookbook every day.
The most acclaimed cooking movie of all time is arguably Babette’s Feast, an Oscar-winning 1987 film about a Frenchwoman (Stephane Audran) who cooks the feast of a lifetime for two elderly Danish sisters who have never known such sensual delight.
But while many European films have featured cooking as a plot device (most recently, Mostly Martha, a German film that was remade into the American romcom called No Reservations), two Asian comedy/dramas have tempted movie-goers with noodles and rice dishes. The first was the Japanese film, now a modern classic, Juzo Itami’s Tampopo (1987). Modeled on samurai movies, it’s about how two truckers help the proprietress of a noodle shop improve the food she serves. This story is interspersed with sexy and absurd vignettes about food.
Ang Lee is currently an Oscar nominee for The Life of Pi, in which a boy on a lifeboat hopes a tiger will not make him its last meal. In the 1994 film Eat Drink Man Woman, set in Lee’s native Taiwan, a father insists that his daughters’ lives revolve around the elaborate family dinners he prepares for them.
Latin America has produced its share of good movie cooking as well. Although slim actress Penelope Cruz may not look as if she eats much (most of the chefs in these food films are suspiciously thin), she played a Brazilian chef in the 2000 comedy Woman on Top. And the wildly popular 1992 Mexican film Like Water for Chocolate is about a young woman forced to stay single and discovers that her cooking has magical power over people.
The cooking movie often overlaps with the restaurant movie, and one of best-loved restaurant films of all time is the 1996 Big Night. It stars Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub as two brothers who try to save their family’s failing Italian restaurant.
Israel has also had a chef/cooking movie, the 2004 comedy-drama Something Sweet, which stars Ayelet Zurer as a pastry chef who is attracted to her sister’s fiancé. Zurer’s graceful fingers as she rolled out mouth-watering culinary creations in this film helped launch her Hollywood career.
But it’s not only humans who are interested in good eating. In the 2007 Pixar animated film Ratatouille, a Parisian rodent who disdains garbage for fine dining teaches an aspiring chef how to cook things his way.
But while a rat in the kitchen may not sound too appetizing, foodies will oooh and ahhh over the concoctions prepared by Hortense for M. le President in Haute Cuisine. Food has never looked more gorgeous, and the raspberry/blueberry tart in particular may well haunt your dreams.