September 13, 2012 at 10:13 AM

Food in Film

"Movies dedicated solely to the subject of banquets, chefs, food safety issues and restaurant culture have captured our attention"

By Lynn Cline

Gourmet Girl

Lynn Cline is a former food editor and the author of two books – Romantic Days and Nights in Santa Fe and Literary Pilgrims: The Santa Fe and Taos Writers' Colonies, 1915-1950. She also loves to cook, when not dining out.

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Food has been featured in the world's art for centuries, from paintings and poems to photography, installations, novels and film. Movies dedicated solely to the subject of banquets, chefs, food safety issues and restaurant culture have captured our attention, celebrating an activity that we engage in daily—eating.

"Chocolat" stars Juliette Binoche as a sensual woman who moves to a strait-laced French town in 1960 with her daughter and opens a chocolate shop.  Johnny Depp plays an Irish gypsy passing through town, and the two take up together. Most of the townspeople love her decadent chocolates, but the evil mayor is out to shut her down.  

One of the most memorable movies honoring the act of dining is "Babette's Feast,"a 1987 Danish film based on a story by Isak Dinesen, author of the story that inspired the 1985 Academy Award-winning film, "Out of Africa."

"Babette's Feast" tells the story of Babette, a housekeeper working for two sisters in a remote coastal village in 19th-century Denmark. After winning 10,000 francs in a French lottery, she decides to spend it on a delicious dinner for the sisters and other town residents, who normally live a very pious and quiet life.

She prepares s a lavish feast of turtle soup, buckwheat cakes with caviar and cream, quail in a puff pastry shell with foie gras and trufle sauce; a salad of Belgian chicory and walnuts, and a cheese plate with papaya, figs, grapes, pineapple and pomegranates. As the guests dine on Babette's feast, they begin to lose their superstitions and mistrust,  old loves are rekindled and a sense of mystical redemption pervades the meal.

For the grand finale, Babette serves rum sponge cake with figs and glacéed fruits. Secrets are revealed, lives are changed and the movie leaves you marveling at the resiliency of the human spirit and hungry for a lavish meal.

"Big night," a 1996 comedy set in a small New Jersey shore town during the 1950s, follows two Italian brothers who run Paradise, a struggling restaurant. When a celebrity jazz musician comes to town, they hope to bring him to the restaurant and reinvigorate local interest in dining there.

The brothers, played by Tony Shalhoub and Stanley Tucci, invest all their savings in the "big night," inviting dozens of people to dine on an extravagant meal centered on timpano, a complicated pasta dish. The dinner is exquisite, but the expected guest never arrives and things break down from there. In one of the most beautiful cooking scenes ever filmed, Shalhoub's character wordlessly cooks a perfect omelet in the wee hours of the morning.

"Julie & Julia," which turned out to be director Nora Ephron's last film, is a valentine to one of the best-loved chefs of all time, Julia Child. Based on a blog by Julie Powell that chronicles how she cooked her way through the 524 recipes in Child's classic "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" cookbook, the film stars Meryl Streep masterfully channeling Child, earning her an Oscar award for Best Actress in 2009.

There are some wonderful food scenes in this film, including Child taking cooking classes at the formidable Cordon Bleu, preparing dinner for her husband and scenes that replicate her cooking show for PBS.

"Vatel," a French film that opened in 2000, is based on the life of 17-century French chef Francois Vatel, played by French actor Gerard Depardieu. Vate must prepare three days of feasting at Louis II Bourbon,  Prince de Conde's chateau in Chantilly for a visit by King Louis XIV. Scenes of food arriving in carriages then being prepared for banquets are interspersed with love scenes between the chef and the king's newest mistress, played by Uma Thurman.

"No Reservations," a 2007 comedy starring Catherina Zeta-Jones, Aaron Eckhart and Abigail Breslin, tells the story of an uptight chef whose life is transformed when she takes in her young niece following the death of her parents. A remake of the popular 2001 German film, "Mostly Martha," the film follows the relationship between the head chef of a New York restaurant and her new sous chef, who first have to overcome obstacles before realizing that they love each other.

While the film is more of a showcase vehicle for Zeta-Jones, there are some sweet scenes with the niece, and also some great food and action scenes in the restaurant's kitchen.

There are indeed many more movies devoted to the fine art of food. This is just a partial list, but it's designed to tempt your palate to find more.  Enjoy watching them, and don't forget the popcorn!

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