Yes, "Big Night" is a big winner, but when Bethany Jean Clement asked the academy of Seattle chefs and restaurateurs about excellence in culinary cinematic achievement, some unexpected food films also got high honors. Prepare for a lot of Netflix!
Does the adorable animated Pixar short “Bao” count as a food film? It’s as close as this year’s Oscar contenders get — though I’d nominate “The Favourite” for its starkly gorgeous castle kitchen scenes, an ugly/amazing let-me-eat-cake sequence, some fine bacchanalia and the arguably erotic throwing of fruit at a capering naked man.
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- In honor of the Oscars, we asked Seattle chefs to name their picks for all-time Best Food Film
For the very best food pictures, one must look to cinema past. In my view, the quietly eloquent, occasionally very funny, philosophical and craving-inducing “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” should have gotten all the gold-plated statuettes. And Meryl Streep’s Oscar-nominated performance as Julia Child in “Julie & Julia” — chortling like she swallowed Kermit the Frog, beautifully ungainly — is quite possibly the best performance of all time by an actor of any gender in a leading role. Also: Stanley Tucci! (Just fast-forward through the “Julie” parts — love Amy Adams in other stuff, but not this whiny blogger role.) In the category of outstanding performance by food in a supporting role: Who isn’t completely fascinated by the space cuisine in “2001: A Space Odyssey”? Something to dread — but don’t you really, really want to taste it all?
I asked the academy of Seattle chefs and restaurateurs about excellence in culinary cinematic achievements, and they loved the question. (Some also named an all-time worst food film, and those who selected the charmless, offensive “Burnt” with Bradley Cooper are correct.)
“Big Night,” “Tampopo” and “Ratatouille” are the big winners here, but some unexpected food movies also get chefs’ love — prepare for a lot of Netflix.
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Seattle chefs’ nominees for Best-Ever Food Film are …
Jason Stratton, Mbar:
Does “Let the Right One In” count? Haha. I’d have to say “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.” Despite all of its sinister kid-endangering, it fed into my wonder at the secrets of a good recipe, the lengths we go to for a delicious bite and the greed of the food industry. Also shoutout to the snail man in “Delicatessen”!
My all-time favorite food movie is “Tampopo” — food should be emotional and crazy — it should move you every time you make or eat food. Also: “Wasted!” — I hate that this movie has to exist, but everybody should watch it.
Monica Dimas, Little Neon Taco, Westman’s and more:
“Big Night” — it’s funny and real-life stressful without showing that #cheflife in a hackneyed sort of way. The anxiety is real, and so is having to have a particular kind of confidence to believe in what you are cooking. On the outside, it’s a swagger and bitching about that person who has a complaint, and on the inside, you’re at that moment of unveiling the timpano, but like all the time. The love and tenderness for the food resonated, because I was taught to know and love good food. That’s also in “Tampopo” — the reverence for what you are serving guests, the process and work to get to the food you are willing to stand by. “Tampopo” is sweaty and totally nuts. Last but definitely not least, “Like Water for Chocolate” — sexier on every level, with the intense, deep want/need to be loved and seen through cooking. LWFC is sweaty with dust, lust and bitchiness.
Heather Earnhardt, The Wandering Goose and Tokeland Hotel:
“Big Night” — the scene where Stanley Tucci makes scrambled eggs in the morning after the drunken shitshow is one of my all-time favorite scenes. Cooking to heal is the best kind of cooking. “Like Water for Chocolate” — because I’ve definitely cried into a batch of biscuits or two, and for sure my customers cried too. Never bake or cook when you are upset or angry — your food never works out.
Sun Hong, By Tae:
“The Age of Innocence” — when I’m cooking at home, playing that scene in the background, when the oysters come in, the salmon is portioned, the dessert is framed — come on, it’s beautiful. I can see that the plateware, silverware, the flower arrangements, the clothes, the music, the people are just as important as the taste of food. The film puts you in that perspective. “Phantom Thread” — how Daniel Day-Lewis chews and breathes lets me know that what he is eating is [expletive] delicious. [SPOILER ALERT] How the poisonous mushrooms are cooked and served — I would eat them too. It was out of love. Sometimes, love is evil.
Mike Easton, Il Corvo (and, soon, Il Nido):
“Big Night” — because Italy, of course, and Primo’s uncompromising commitment to the passion, quality and hospitality of the dinner party, not even caring about the [SPOILER ALERT] rumored guest of honor who never showed. It was all about the food for him. “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” because, well, it’s every child’s dream, and I looked a lot like Charlie as a child (although not quite as poor as his family) — I liked to imagine that it was me in the film. And: Gene Wilder!
“Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” And “Ratatouille” — the moment where the food critic is brought back to his childhood — that is what I hope to achieve every damn day. Favorite food movies inspire me, and yet also remind me that this is real work, too.
Jerry Traunfeld, Poppy and Lionhead:
I’d have to put “Babette’s Feast” at the top of my list. It’s such a beautiful film about what is meaningful in life: having a purpose, finding joy in a profession, the drive to create, the pleasures of indulgence, and how food brings people together. And “Ruggles of Red Gap” from 1935 — Charles Laughton plays an English butler who is “lost” as a wager in a poker game while in Paris and must travel back to a small town in Eastern Washington with his new employers. He eventually takes an interest in [ZaSu] Pitts, and when he cooks for her, she falls for him. He discovers he doesn’t have to be a servant all his life, and the movie ends with him opening his own restaurant. It’s a sweet and funny film about freedom and opportunity in America. And meat sauce.
Tom Douglas, Tom Douglas Restaurants:
The Harmonia Gardens restaurant scene from “Hello Dolly!” is my favorite vintage food scene — it harkens to a place and time when dining out included Louis Armstrong, dining-room captains and dancing waiters/chefs. A sleeper is “Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?” It’s the fancy chefs that end up on the platter instead of those poor farm animals. Yippee! Currently, “The Fighting Chefs” makes me think of Bruce Lee having dinner at Tai Tung. All-timer: “Tampopo” 4k restoration — OMG. Scene-stealer: Susan Sarandon bathing herself with lemons after working the oyster bar in “Atlantic City,” with the hidden eyes of Burt Lancaster enjoying the view — ooooh.
Holly Smith, Cafe Juanita:
I love documentaries, and “Step Up to the Plate,” about Michel and Sébastian Bras, was a quiet, beautiful movie. The story lines weave and reveal themselves just as people do. I don’t think it got the attention it deserved. Also, “A Place at the Table,” another documentary, about hunger in the U.S., lays out the issues in an honest and intelligent way. Not a fun cuddle-with-someone movie, per se, but …
“Shoplifters” — Hirokazu Kore-eda’s heart-wrenching meditation on chosen family and contemporary class struggles in Japan is the antithesis to “Call Me By Your Name,” trading perfect fruit and other luxury items accessible to the idle rich for relatable moments of togetherness — scarfing yaki-tomorokoshi after hitting the waves, munching korokke around a cramped table and slurping cold noodles to cool off on a scorching day. Bonus: at least one love scene involving a rogue leek!
Mitch Mayers, Sawyer:
Beyond being just a great animated movie, I love the way “Ratatouille” portrays Remy’s passion for food and flavor and the drive to push past his limitations. “Anyone can cook!” The movie “Chef” has it all — the hilarious kitchen banter, his intensity and need to cook food that means something to him. Also his rage at the reviewer — “It’s [expletive] molten!” — cracks me up every time.
Sara and Bruce Naftaly, Marmite and Amandine Bakeshop (and, formerly, Le Gourmand):
“Babette’s Feast” — devoting oneself to creating community and enhancing the lives of others and uplifting humanity through sacrifice and hard work and the sensual pleasure of fabulous French cuisine — what’s not to love?
“Ratatouille” — for all the action. And I loved the collaboration to create the perfect dish, and the act of chasing perfection, requiring the practice of doing something over and over, becoming a little better each time you do it. “Soul Food,” I loved! The act of using food to bring family together is a gift like no other.
Thierry Rautureau, Luc and Loulay:
“Big Night” — the last no-words, 10-minute scene of that movie is just so beautifully acted. Feel like I have been there before! And the soundtrack is totally incredible — I have listened to it so many times, and always get the reminder on how great and worth living life is. Not to be forgotten: “Babette’s Feast” — wonderful eating and cooking scene; “Tampopo” — fabulous food flick with great noodle slurping; “Eat Drink Man Woman” — awesome food shots, great eating and cooking with fun. More recently, I like “The Hundred-Foot Journey” and, of course, “Ratatouille.”
… And Chefs’ Least-Favorite Food Films
Hajime Sato, Mashiko: “Big Night” — it reminds me too much of struggling with everyday operations. I guess I love it and I hate it.
Brady Williams, Canlis: “Sideways” is an unfortunate rom-dram, unless you like films spotlighting an unlikely friendship between an Incel and a Chad who celebrate dual WSET [Wine & Spirit Education Trust] level 2 certification with a trip to Santa Barbara where they consume everything but merlot and hook up with women who are superior to them in every way. Hated it in ’04, and that take still holds up.
Thierry Rautureau, Luc and Loulay: Maybe “Eat Pray Love” — that was too Hollywood for me.
Sun Hong, By Tae: “Eat Pray Love” — Julia Roberts’ character and her story make food sad.
JJ Proville, L’Oursin: “Burnt” featuring Bradley Cooper. While Cooper himself is not usually a terrible actor, this film plays to the lowest common denominator, hitting every chef cliché like clockwork. I could only bear this box-office-profit-fueled abomination for 20 minutes.
Mitch Mayers, Sawyer: “Burnt” — it’s way too cliché, and it pushes bad stereotypes about substance abuse and egomania. Just over-the-top.
Melissa Miranda, Musang Seattle: “Burnt” with Bradley Cooper — I couldn’t even watch the whole thing.
Chefs’ quotes have been edited for brevity.