What's better than cooking up a storm? Watching other people slaving away of course ...
But while some films that focus on life in the kitchen are bona fide masterpieces, others are No Reservations and Fast Food Nation. In no particular order, here's the 10 best according to me.
"First, observe the whole bowl."
On its shimmering, fat-jewelled surface, Tampopo is the tale of a cowboy who comes to town and sets about transforming a widow's ramen restaurant into the number one eatery on the block. Prod deeper into the proverbial soup and you find musings on sex, human nature and selfless quests for perfection. It also features the definitive guide on how to eat ramen (always apologise to the pork).
"Mark of a chef: messy apron, clean sleeves."
When the animation gods at Pixar released the tale of a rat named Remy who turns the Parisian culinary world on its head, Anthony Bourdain called it "the best restaurant movie ever made". He wasn't wrong. Ratatouille perfectly captures the hot, sharp-edged frenzy of a working kitchen, the joy of food and the age-old truth that anyone can cook. The final word from snooty food writer Anton Ego is one of the most poignant comments on criticism ever committed to art.
Babette's Feast (1987)
"An artist is never poor."
Babette (Stephane Audran) is a former Parisian chef taking refuge from counter-revolution bloodshed in tiny Danish village. She wins the lottery and, in an act of self-sacrifice, spends her new fortune on creating a seven-course "real French dinner" for the Protestant sisters and congregation who have been kind enough to take her in. Parts of this foreign production make The Piano look like Predator II it's that slow, but the feast sequence is worth the price of admission. Even the most of pious of Danes can't say no to buckwheat pikelets with caviar.
Eat Drink Man Woman (1994)
"Raising daughters is like cooking a meal. You lose your appetite by the time you're finished."
If the opening scene of Ang Lee's classic was played on a loop for two hours it would still make this list: a master chef calmly preparing a Chinese banquet for his daughters. Every move he makes is fluid, every dish he creates delicious. Perhaps the best part is the sounds of the kitchen – meditative beats of chopping, filleting, frying, basting and slicing that turn the kitchen into a sanctuary from the Taipei traffic outside. (The rest of the film isn't bad either.)
Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)
"Once you decide on your occupation... you must immerse yourself in your work."
Japanese national treasure Jiro Ono was the first sushi chef to receive three Michelin stars. Eighty-five years young when this documentary was made, Ono was still making sushi in a 10-seat Tokyo subway bar with all the hunger and dedication of a young apprentice. This is not just a film about raw fish and rice; it's a film about work ethic, expectations and the cost of perfection.
Super Size Me (2004)
"My body... officially hates me."
Morgan Spurlock's Academy Award-nominated documentary caused a serious kerfuffle in the land of Happy Meals. To bring attention to the growing burden of obesity created by fast food companies, Spurlock eats nothing but McDonald's for 30 days and in the process gains 11 kilograms, experiences mood swings and suffers from sexual dysfunction. Macca's denies the film affected its decision to put healthier options on the menu around the same time but the coincidence is hard to ignore.
Like Water for Chocolate (1992)
"She understood exactly how raw dough must feel when it comes into contact with boiling oil."
The food-as-a-sexual-metaphor genre is a big one and this Mexican entry sits at the top of the DVD stack. It's the story of forbidden love, quail, roses, honey, more quail, and a woman's cooking that is so magical it inspires other women to run naked from the house in a fit of passion. Or something. Sure, it plays a like a mid-90s Nescafe commercial on repeat viewing, but the food scenes remain as gorgeous as ever.
Big Night (1996)
"Give people what they want, then later you can give them what you want."
Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (Stanley Tucci) are Italian brothers who have migrated to the US to open the restaurant of their dreams. Unfortunately, punters in 1950s New Jersey don't want finely crafted risotto. They want heaving plates of Americanised spaghetti and meatballs, and the brothers find themselves in financial strife. Anyone who has spent hours cooking a dish only for someone at the table to drown it in Fountain tomato sauce will relate.
"If anyone orders merlot, I'm leaving."
It's wine-focused, yes, but wine and food are practically inseparable so this sharply scripted tale of obsession makes the list. An emotional, frequently hilarious road-trip yarn featuring two mates driving around Californian wine country, drinking pinot and picking up girls, Sideways celebrates wine while also poking fun at the pretension surrounding it.
The Trip (2010)
"You're only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!"
Actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play themselves in a fictitious film reviewing real-life Michelin-starred restaurants in northern England. The Lakes District vistas are stunning, the fly-on-the-wall kitchen scenes strangely captivating and the improvised celebrity impressions from two leads priceless. Followed by the equally excellent The Trip to Italy (bring on an Australian three-quel, I say).
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