Film studies: Kitchen friction and critical fiction

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 August, 2007, 12:00am

Portrayals of chefs and professional cooks are most memorable when they're extreme.

Books such as Jacques Pepin's memoir, The Apprentice, and Michael Ruhlman's trilogy, The Making of a Chef, The Soul of a Chef and The Reach of a Chef, may be of interest to food professionals, but more people will remember Anthony Bourdain's best-selling Kitchen Confidential, in which chefs are typically bad boys fuelled by drugs, cigarettes and alcohol.

Likewise with cooking shows on television. What sticks in your mind longer: Rick Stein's tips on the correct way to make a beurre blanc, or Gordon Ramsay letting off a string of expletives at a cringing, incompetent minion?

As in real-life kitchens, most movie chefs are male. Exceptions include Tampopo, Babette's Feast and Mostly Martha - a German film remade this year as No Reservations, starring a temperamental Catherine Zeta-Jones.

What food films have in common is that the chefs - whether male, female or rat (in the case of the latest, Ratatouille) - are passionate about their craft, and have to fight to be able to cook what they want. In Big Night, an Italian immigrant chef cooks for clientele who prefer spaghetti and meatballs to authentic cuisine. He finally wows them with a no-holds-barred meal that includes an elaborate dome-shaped timbale.

In Babette's Feast, the members of an ascetic religious sect are so poor that there's not much to cook apart from unseasoned boiled dried fish. When Babette wins the lottery, she pours her repressed cooking skills (and her winnings) into the type of meal she cooked at her restaurant in Paris.

Ang Lee's Eat Drink Man Woman features a chef who loses his sense of smell (and, therefore, his taste). He gets both back when he falls in love.

And then there's the animated Ratatouille, whose would-be chef is a rat (above) - quite a handicap in a kitchen, where rodents tend to attract exterminators, not critical acclaim.

Unlike sex, professional cooking isn't easy to fake on the big screen. It's one thing to show an actor in a suburban home hacking away at an onion; it's something entirely different to accurately portray the complex dynamics of a restaurant.

Eat Drink Man Woman shows the controlled frenzy of a Chinese kitchen. In one of the best scenes, the chef's daughter - a successful businesswoman who wanted to follow in her father's footsteps - manipulates soft dough to make fresh spring roll wrappers. Babette's Feast is memorable for the focused intensity of the chef as she stuffs quail with foie gras and flips crepes.

Ratatouille is being hailed by chefs as one of the best food films, and not only because of the cooking scenes - the way lemon zest falls delicately from a rasp grater; the fiery whoosh as alcohol is added to a hot pan. The film also accurately portrays the relationships among the cooks. Bourdain is thanked in the credits, and Ratatouille's chefs show a bit of the bad boy he describes in Kitchen Confidential. And Colette - the sole female in the kitchen - delivers a marvellous diatribe about how much harder than the men she needs to work to get respect.

Being a food critic (and former pastry chef), I was less taken by the character of Anton Ego. Vulture-like and humourless, the critic revels in writing negative reviews. Asked how a food critic can be so thin, Ego says he doesn't swallow unless the food is good. Harrumph.

Susan Jung is the Post's food editor

Ratatouille opens today