1. Babette’s Feast (1987): Two aged 19th century Danish spinster sisters have taken in a French refugee as their housekeeper. The sisters carry on their father’s severe religious sect, which rejects earthly pleasures. After fourteen years, the housekeeper wins the lottery and, in gratitude, spends all her winnings on the ingredients for a banquet that she prepares for the sisters and their friends. As the dinner builds, the colors of the film become warmer and brighter, reflecting the sheer carnality of the repast. The smugly ascetic and humorless guests become less and less able to resist pleasure of the epicurean delights.The feast’s visual highlights are Caille en Sarcophage avec Sauce Perigourdine (quail in puff pastry shell with foie gras and truffle sauce) and Savarin au Rhum avec des Figues et Fruit Glacée (rum sponge cake with figs and glacéed fruits). This was the first Danish film to win Best Foreign Language Oscar.
2. Big Night (1996): Frustrated by the spaghetti-and-meatballs expectations of his post-war American customer base, a chef and his front-of-the-house brother try rescue a failing eatery with a superb banquet of authentic Italian regional food. They are tricked into believing that a celebrity will visit, so they invest all their capital in this one last PR splash. The rissotto is important to the plot, but the food porn highlight is the timpano, a spectacular baked pasta dish.
3. Julie and Julia (2009): This film chronicles Julia Child’s introduction to cuisine francais, her formal study of French cooking and then writing her landmark Mastering the Art of French Cooking. There are many good cooking and eating scenes, but my favorite is Julia’s almost orgasmic reaction to her first sole meuniere in France – ah, the magic that is clarified butter! Julie is the contemporary blogger in the second plot thread who cooks her way through Julia’s book with the some humorous lobster and boeuf bourguignon fiascos; but the better half of the movie is the Julia story.
4. My Dinner with Andre (1981): This film makes the list because a meal is one of the lead characters – the entire story is a conversation over a dinner in real time. Wallace Shawn’s Wally meets a recently reacquired acquaintance, Andre Gregory’s Andre for dinner.
The assured and polished Andre guides the awkward Wally through the menu:
ANDRE: …And then, to begin with, a terrine de poisson.
WALLACE: What is that?
ANDRE: It’s, uh, a pâté, light, made of fish.
WALLACE: Does it have bones in it?
ANDRE: No bones.
WALLACE: Well, um, what is the, uh, bramborová polévka?
WAITER: It’s a potato soup. It’s quite delicious.
WALLACE: Oh. Well, great. I’ll have that.
Wally greets the quail with “I didn’t know they were so small”. Throughout the meal, the silent reaction shots of the waiter are exquisite. Andre self-approvingly holds forth with an ever more absurd monologue of new age experimentalism as Wally contains his ever more irrepressible compulsion to cry “Bullshit!”
5. Eat Drink Man Woman (1994): This is Ang Lee’s story of the retired chef who cooks a gourmet feast every week for his three adult daughters, who also are all seeking relationships and independence from their dad in their own ways. This clip of the film’s first four minutes – with the dad prepping his meal – sets the tone.
6. Tortilla Soup (2001): In this remake of Eat Drink Man Woman, Hector Elizondo plays the retired chef who cooks a gourmet feast every Sunday for his three adult daughters, who also are all seeking relationships and independence from their dad in their own ways. There are lots of romance and lots of laughs and lots of amazing-looking Mexican food – both traditional and fusion. Elizabeth Pena and Paul Rodriguez give noteworthy performances. The yummy-looking food was prepared by celebrity chefs Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger (Too Hot Tamales).
7. Chocolat (2000): Juliette Binoche owns the village chocolaterie in in the Dordogne. She and her chocolate symbolize human sensuality in a battle against the devout and uptight mayor for the hearts of the villagers.
8. Waitress (2007): A waitress hopes to escape to a freer, richer life by selling her spectacular pies.
9. Like Water for Chocolate (1992): The main character’s cooking has, at times literally, aphrodisiac qualities. The dish of rose petals and quail is the most
10. I Am Love (Io sono l’amore) (2010): This is the operatic tale of a zillionaire Milan family, whose members struggle to find happiness in different ways. In another fearless performance, Tilda Swinton is the matriarch who falls in lust for her son’s chef buddy. When the chef says, “I made your mother prawns”, he could be saying, “I made your mother prawns and she became my love slave”. Those glazed prawns highlight the food porn. The food was prepared by two star Michelin chef Carlo Cracco.
Note: Stanley Tucci stars in two of these films (Big Night and Julie and Julia). Quail is featured in three of them (Babette’s Feast, My Dinner With Andre and Like Water for Chocolate).
Documentary Selection: Kings of Pastry (2010): This documentary chronicles the physically grueling and emotionally draining three-day competition for the MOF, the highest designation for French pastry chefs. Amid impossibly towering sugar sculptures and delectable cream puffs and layer cakes, we see the essential cores of competition – aspiration, ambition, perseverance, commitment, desperation, heartbreak and victory. Kings of Pastry is directed by the brilliant documentarians Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker (The War Room).
Another Documentary Selection: Hey Bartender (2013) explores the new wave of Craft Bartending. This is not about watching guys cry in their boilermakers at the neighborhood dive. It’s about the new application of culinary sensibilities – fresh ingredients, creativity, presentation and hospitality – to the cocktail. If you enjoy striking a blow for liberty now and again, this movie is cocktail porn – in fact, I’ve added it to my Best Food Porn Movies.
Hey Bartender takes us to the Museum of American Cocktail, and we learn that there is such a thing as a Cocktail Historian. We spend time at the New York City’s Employees Only, recognized as the world’s best cocktail bar. We meet the nation’s current celebrity bartenders and contrast them with the proprietor of a struggling family owned joint in Westport, Connecticut. We tag along with attendees at the major craft bartending convention, Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. And we see the featrured bartenders mix some delectable looking concoctions.
And Another Documentary Selection: Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011): This is the story of the octogenarian chef/owner of Japan’s best sushi restaurant. If you reserve a month in advance, he will serve you a 20-piece chef’s menu for about $360. The sushi is amazingly simple and almost unadorned, expertly made from obsessively sourced ingredients. Jiro’s son, in his late 50s, is a master sushi chef in his own right, but waits patiently (on the outside, at least) for his father’s retirement.
Bonus: Mid-August Lunch (2010): This is a wry Italian comedy about a contemporary Roman bachelor in his 50s who is saddled with housing his mother AND the mothers of three friends in his ordinary apartment during a getaway weekend. The old gals relish his attention and the freshly caught fish, the baked eggplant and, especially, the macaroni casserole. Here are recipes from the movie.
Another Bonus: Here is the noodle-making scene from A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle House (2010).
And Another Bonus: Who’s Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? (1978): Pastry chef Jacqueline Bisset prepares an enormous bombe glacee.
Haute Cuisine is the French foodie saga of the woman who rose to work as personal chef to France’s president, based on the true story of Daniele Mazet-Delpeuch. She is remarkably obsessed with sourcing premium ingredients, and it’s not hard for her to satisfy the President, who prefers simple country cooking. But palace intrigue takes its toll as she battles both sexism in the downstairs kitchens and a soul-killing bureaucracy upstairs. Veteran French actress Catherine Frot successfully portrays the chef’s determination and moxy. Haute Cuisine is watchable, but not particularly compelling. The food, however, is outrageously tantalizing.