Culinary films are not simply about what’s served on the plate. The relationship between cuisine, love and life, they tell us, is a somewhat complex one.
Films such as Like Water for Chocolate (Alfonso Arau, 1992) and Eat Drink Man Woman (Ang Lee, 1994) do not simply evoke the old chestnuts that if oysters are served one may get lucky, or that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.
Rather these movies often tell us that the relationship between cuisine – especially fine cuisine – sex, love and life is far more complex and more pervasive.
As old man Chu says, “Eat, drink, man, woman are basic human desires you can’t live without.”
From Babette’s Feast (Gabriel Axel, 1987) through to Chocolat (Lasse Hallstrom, 2000) we’re informed that food can be a substitute for sex, an aphrodisiac or analogous with lovemaking.
In Big Night (Stanley Tucci & Campbell Scott, 1995) the links between food, music and love are shown to be an intrinsic, inevitable and sometimes combative one in life.
Two Italian immigrant brothers, Primo (Tony Shaloub) and Secondo (Stanley Tucci), are partners in a New Jersey restaurant in the 1950s. Primo is a purist. A gastronome. He takes care with exquisite food he prepares, buying only the best ingredients that are transformed adroitly into works of art.
Yet while he’s a virtuoso in the kitchen, without his apron he’s often bereft of his formidable powers. He’s shy, unsure, and awkward around women. And compounded by the fact he’s speaking a second language, Primo is tongue-tired.
Secondo is something of an impresario, emcee and front-of-house man, a sharply dressed lothario who desperately wants his piece of the American dream to come true.
Unfortunately, the brothers’ restaurant is failing miserably. Few customers show up, and those that do either have no appreciation for authentic Italian cuisine, such as the couple who smoke over their meal, demand excessive amounts of flavour-masking cheese, and want a side order of pasta with risotto.
Meanwhile, down the street impresario Pascal’s (Ian Holm) restaurant jumps every night of the week.
Despite the fact he serves at best pedestrian food, the locals can’t get enough of it. There are waiters gliding all about and flaming meals presented to chockfull tables. Pascquale is everywhere, greeting guests, giving directions to staff, dispensing advice.
When Secondo asks Pasquale for money to keep his own modest restaurant going, the wealthy owner knocks him back, offering this nugget of wisdom: “Bite your teeth into the arse of life.”
It’s as if to say life itself is a meal that we prepare for ourselves and then consume as we like.
We can eat daintily, sparingly, blandly or suck the marrow from it every day.
But for Primo, food is life.
When describing a dish he is preparing for a feast, Primo says, “Timpano is pasta shaped liked a drum … and inside only the most important things.”
The use of the word “things” is key, bestowing upon the contents of his dishes far more significance than mere “ingredients”.
It’s when talking about food that Primo becomes most animated and most passionate.
After it is revealed to him that it is Pasquale who has organised for famous musician Louis Prima to attend a party at the restaurant, the big night of the title, he is incensed.
“Do you know what goes on in that man’s restaurant every night? Rape! Rape! The rape of cuisine!”
To a man for whom food is all, its mistreatment is akin to the most heinous, intrusive and violent of crimes.
As it becomes increasingly obvious that Louis Prima will not show up, the focus for the evening shifts to the food itself.
Indeed, one of the implications of the gradual transformation of things culinary-related into gastro porn has been the fetishising of the preparation, presentation and consumption of food.
Because the serving of food has been delayed by Prima’s no-show, the guests drink and dance up a storm, and the soiree becomes increasingly unruly.
Yet once the decision to eat is made, dish after succulent dish is paraded out and then presented to the guests.
The feast is so fantastic and tastes so good that it elicits tears and groans of pleasure and satisfaction from the restaurants occupants.
In the moments after the meal is concluded, the camera pans across a restaurant where the guests are too spent from the gorging of food to begin to speak to one another, almost as if it was an orgy that had just wound up and not a dinner.
“It was the best ever,” one guest says.
By serving food into which he has poured all his skill, devotion, and indeed life, Primo has communicated his credo: “To eat good food is to know God.”
By juxtaposing Primo’s preparation of food with that of the hastily prepared fare served by Pasquale, we can see the most glaring difference between the two.
To be sure, Primo takes care with his cooking – he’s an artist – and uses only the freshest of ingredients.
But by far the most important component of his cooking is love. He loves to cook, he’s passionate about food, and that emotion is evident in the meals he prepares.
The idea that food can somehow be a medium for love to be expressed is a powerful recurring theme in culinary-themed films.
So potent is the love Tita (Lumi Cavazos) feels for Pedro (Marco Leonardi) in Like Water for Chocolate that through some magical-realist alchemy, it actually physically passes into the food she’s preparing.
According to family tradition, Tita, one of three sisters, is forbidden to marry, and is slated to spend her life attending to the needs of her mother.
When she meets Pedro, however, it’s love at first sight for both. Not permitted to marry his true love, Pedro agrees to wed Tita’s disagreeable sister Rosaura (Yareli Arizmendi) simply so he can be close to Tita.
Tita, who has spent most of life mastering cooking skills at the side of old cook Nacha (Nada Carrassco) in the kitchen, is assigned to prepare the wedding feast.
As she slaves over the wedding cake, a lachrymose Tita cries tears of heartbreak into the dish.
When the guests at the wedding consume the cake they become overwhelmed with sorrow.
On another occasion Tita prepares a dish of quail cooked in rose petals prepared from flowers given to her by Pedro.
Tita cuts herself on one of the rose thorns and bleeds into the dish, which consequently infuses the intense passion she feels for Pedro into the meal.
Middle sister Gertrudis (Claudette Maille) consumes the food, which is so full of the ardour Tita feels for Pedro that it actually causes her to catch aflame.
Alive with passion, she absconds naked onto the waiting horse of a mounted guerrilla.
In Eat Drink Man Woman, restaurant master chef Chu (Sihung Lung) is a widower and head of a household of three headstrong daughters whose respective love lives are in varying degrees of tumult.
The film opens with Chu preparing his family’s traditional Sunday meal.
Though they spend little time together, the family gathers once a week for a lavish banquet-sized meal that Chu spends hours preparing.
With painstaking precision he rolls dumplings, boils soups and plucks and smokes chickens until an oriental cornucopia is on hand.
Just as it is in the west, fast food is the flavour of the month in Taipei. In fact, Chu’s youngest daughter Jia-Ning (Yu-Wen Wang) actually has a mcjob flipping burgers and frying chips in a greasy spoon.
Yet the food that Chu prepares isn’t mere fuel but a way for him to express both his creativity to the outside world and his love for his daughters, from whom he’s becoming increasingly estranged.
Like Primo, Chu isn’t a great communicator. In fact, he’s gruff with his daughters, short of temper, and judgemental – so food is the medium through which he connects with them.
As one of the daughters says of the karaoke-addicted family next door: “We communicate by eating and they communicate by singing.”
Meanwhile, life seems to be becoming increasingly complex for Chu and his clan.
The oldest daughter, Jia-Jen (Kuei-Mei Yang) claims to be heartbroken from a romance that went sour a decade before. Jia-Chen (Chien-Lien Wu), the modern thinking middle daughter, is a frustrated chef who was forbidden from a life in the kitchen by Chu and instead has embarked on a career as a fast paced executive.
Jia-Ning spends most of her times thinking about boys.
Chu himself is frustrated by the fact he is losing his sense of taste, a serious affliction for a chef.
By the end of the film all the central characters’ lives are spun in different directions, each one using the occasion of the Sunday meal to make important announcements regarding decisions they’ve made about the path they will take.
When Chu ultimately stands to make a speech of his own, he says life is not like cooking. That is, in cooking all the ingredients are on hand and all necessary tools are at ready disposal. With the right skills and a good recipe, a successful meal can be made.
Life on the hand is unpredictable, whimsical, changeable, and that’s the way it should be. Food is not like life and it is not life. But good food is a part of life.
As the film moves towards its conclusion, Chu announces he’s going to sell the family home and move elsewhere with his new young fiancé and her daughter.
One final gourmet meal will be consumed in the house, only this time it’s prepared by Jia-Chen.
Just like the elaborate meals created by her father, Jia-Chen’s banquet is one that demonstrates consummate skill in the kitchen at the same time as being filled with the love she has of the art itself and for her father.
As Chu sips at soup, he suggests it has too much ginger, instantly realising he’s regained his sense of taste.
Through her love and her food, Jia-Chen has given her father what is for him the most precious of gifts.
Chocolat continues the tradition established in earlier foody films of pitting the sensuous pleasures of food against the restrictive and ascetic practices of religious zealotry.
In this sense it revisits themes explored in Babette’s Feast, which is set in a strict Calvinist community on an isolated and tempest-swept coast of Denmark in the 19th century.
The religious leader of the sect is a charismatic and stern minister, who is also the father of two beautiful daughters: Martina (Vibeke Hastrup) and Philippa (Hanne Stebsgaard).
Though they each attract suitors – a distinguished army officer and an opera singer most notably – the sisters eschew earthly love, which their father preaches is an illusion and not worth very much.
Years pass and the sisters remain as pillars of the community, spinsters who spend their time attending to the needs of others.
One stormy night a cloaked figure knocks on the door of the sisters’ cottage.
After escaping from a suddenly violent and dangerous Paris, Babette becomes a volunteer housekeeper for the sisters, preparing the boiled fish and ale bread that constitutes their bland daily diet.
Babette has been in the service of the two sisters for 14 years when she suddenly announces she’s won a Paris lottery and wishes to use some of the proceeds to host a celebratory dinner.
The meal is supposed to be a modest repast to acknowledge the anniversary of the birth of the sisters’ father and religious leader of the community.
Babette, however, asks the sisters if the dinner can be a “proper” French meal, and in her hands it becomes a feast in honour of the art and potency of cuisine itself.
The sisters agree to Babette’s request but then become increasingly aghast at the exotic ingredients brought to the house in preparation for the meal. There’s a giant turtle for soup, plenty of wine, cages of quail, champagne.
As the date for the dinner approaches, the guests, who are local villagers, become concerned that the high style of the meal will detract from its original meaning.
Even worse, its elaborateness is so far removed from their normal simple, Spartan meals and abstemious lifestyle they feel it might be ungodly to actually enjoy what will be a feast for the senses. Eating the meal might even mean committing the sin of gluttony. They pledge not to utter a sound of appreciation.
On the day of the feast the aforementioned army officer, now a distinguished general, returns as a guest. Though everyone at the table obviously is enraptured by the food, he’s the only one who offers any praise.
So enamoured is he of the food that he compares it to a meal he long ago enjoyed at the famous Parisian eatery Cafe Anglais, whose renowned chef (a woman!) was said to have the extraordinary power of filling her dishes with the power of love.
Of course, it is revealed that Babette and this maestro are one in the same. And rather than regarding her cooking ability as a sin, the guests realise that she’s been accorded God-given artistic talents to produce sumptuous meals.
The townsfolk guests, who had been tetchy and argumentative before the feast, conclude it by holding hands and singing hymns.
Babette then reveals she spent her entire lottery windfall on the feast both as an expression of gratitude but also from a need to create artistically.
Chocolat opens with two cloaked figures battling a forbidding wind on their way to a rural French town, thus echoing the manner in which Babette entered into her frigid environment.
Vianne (Juliette Binoche), a peripatetic bohemian confectionary maker who combines an earthy sensualism with a plucky entrepreneurial spirit, has come to town to open a chocolaterie. Her daughter Anouk (Victoire Thivisol) is in tow.
Just like its culinary predecessors, Chocolat’s gaze dwells voyeuristically on the food Vianne mixes up in her shop. And like Primo, Chu and Babette she’s a genius in the kitchen, whipping up chocolate in various forms: biscuits, sweets, brownies, desserts, hot chocolate and more.
Unfortunately, just as it was for Babette, Vianne operates in a tough environment. The town is presided over by the rigidly sanctimonious Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina), who writes sermons for the local priest, and considers a store that profits from the sale of pleasure – even culinary pleasure – a blasphemy. This is especially the case for a shop that dares operate in Lent.
And yes, because Vianne has an intriguing lineage, her mother being a member of a rare South American indigenous race that possessed much arcane knowledge, her recipes have a special aphrodisiacal property.
So in a similar manner to Like Water For Chocolate’s Tita, Vianne has the ability, through her cooking, to transform lives.
Yet unlike Primo or Chu, Vianne combines her wonderful cooking skills with a warm personality. Yes, she can whip up chocolate masterpieces, but her cooking isn’t the only manner in which she engages the outside world.
In fact, Vianne’s shop is something of a beacon for lost causes and lonely souls. There’s a kleptomaniac battered wife (Lena Olin), a diabetic termagant (Judi Dench), who is estranged from her icy daughter (Carrie-Anne Moss) and grandson, and of course a whole raft of townsfolk who need matchmaking.
Vianne also does a line in divining customers’ favourite sweet treats.
There is of course the problem of the mayor and his strict ways, but Chocolat being a fairy-tale, there are no insurmountable impediments to a Hollywood ending.
The diabetic dies, but goes out with a party (shot in slomo!), Vianne finds love with a charismatic river rat (Johnny Depp) and even the stubborn mayor succumbs to the lure of the chocolate temptation.
Happy ever after indeed.
Of course most mainstream films conclude in this manner, with obstacles overcome and closure achieved. Like Water for Chocolate and Babette’s Feast are other examples.
Yet the ultimate fairy tale might just be the kinds of gastronomic TV shows served up by Jamie Oliver, Rachel Khoo, or Nigella Lawson, outrageously camera flirts all.
Nothing ever gets burnt or works out badly. No one ever fails to show up. Everyone is strikingly beautiful, and at the centre of the lifestyle is the magnificent food.
It’s just too perfect.
Far more satisfying is the conclusion of Big Night.
In the final scene, Primo and Secondo meet in the kitchen. They have fought the night before. The restaurant is finished.
Secondo makes an omelette for his brother and their waiter. They hug. Not a word is exchanged.
Throughout the film we have always seen Primo communicating through cooking.
This time it’s Secondo expressing himself through his simple culinary skills, and the emotion he’s communicating is love.
Many culinary-themed films have appeared since this article was first written. Burnt, No Reservations, Chef, and Ratatouille come quickly to mind. Interestingly, they are all about sublimely gifted cooks, but not just about food.
This article first appeared in issue 26/27 of Australian Screen Education.