A Chef, an Actor, a Restaurant Critic, a Food Stylist, and a Professor Walk into the Beard House: A Roundtable Discussion on Food and Film
The making of the timpano in Big Night. The edge-of-your-seat ending of Kings of Pastry. The food-as-foreplay scene in Tom Jones. As a prop, a plot device, and, more recently, the main subject, food has long played a pivotal role in some of our favorite cinematic experiences (not all of them appetizing: La Grande Bouffe, anyone?).
To gain insight into this cultural intersection in anticipation of the film-focused 2013 Beard Awards, our own Mitchell Davis moderated a lively roundtable discussion in the Beard House boardroom between actor and JBF Awards host Oliver Platt, New York magazine restaurant critic (and Oliver’s brother) Adam Platt, chef and film buff Paul Liebrandt, film food stylist and former Martha Stewart Living food editorial director Susan Spungen, and New School food studies professor Fabio Parasecoli.
Over the course of several hours—and an excellent dinner prepared by Philly-based chef Joe Cicala—the group discussed the history of food in cinema, debated whether Eat Drink Man Woman was in fact the first example of modern-day food porn, and settled on a startling pick for the best food movie of all time.
How has our current cultural fascination with food changed the way food is used in movies?
Oliver: Food is such a natural part of life. How do you make a movie without it?
Adam: There’s this whole generation that is obsessed with food on all sorts of different levels. Food is part of their culture; it’s part of their philosophy.
Oliver: Their identity.
Adam: It stands to reason that you would have this seeping into cinema, and the question is: do the movies meet the same standards as food in this culture?
Fabio: Food has actually been in movies since the beginning. If you look at silent movies, it was used mostly for physical action, because actors couldn’t speak. You could create great action by having them slip on a banana peel or throw pies in each other’s faces.
Paul: I think food is the new sex.
Adam: What happened to the old sex?
Paul: Sex is something that is used as the catalyst, as a driving theme in movies. Food has always been there, but now it has just replaced other forms of creativity. It’s now acceptable to make a movie based on food, like Julie & Julia.
Oliver: It’s such a natural thing for a meal to be a place to gather a bunch of people. And it’s also a dramatic device. The point of departure, the assumption about a meal is that it’s going to be a pleasant, civilized thing. So what better setting if you’re going to have something go awry?
What’s it like working with food behind the scenes?
Oliver: Ironically, table scenes are actually the most exhausting to shoot.
Susan: You shoot all day. All the actors have to do their lines over and over and over again. I have so much respect for what the actors do, because they have to make it seem fresh every single time.
Oliver: The worst is to be covered last in a big table scene, because it means you’ve done it seven thousand freaking times.
Fabio: Not only that, but when they’re editing all the takes, the food has to look the same; otherwise you lose the impression of reality.
Susan: That’s my job.
Adam: How does the food actually taste? Is the food hot? Cold?
Susan: When I have an eating scene, I try to make it warm and good. We had a poached egg scene in Julie & Julia and I had poached [the eggs] ahead of time and was warming them up. You want to make it pleasant for the actors—they have to eat the same thing maybe 20 or 25 times.
Oliver: God forbid you start to shoot the food scene right before lunch, when you’re actually hungry, because you really paint yourself into a corner there. Put it this way: the longer I do this, the less I try to eat in the scene. You want to use the spit buckets—
Mitchell: Spit buckets?
Oliver: Oh yeah. You can’t possibly digest all that.
Susan: Like in Julie & Julia, [there was] a scene that didn’t make the cut. The actor was eating navarin of lamb with a lot of nice vegetables on top. You go to the actor and say, “What part of this do you want to eat?” because you can eat 20 haricots verts and you’re fine, but you don’t want to eat the lamb every time.
Oliver: It’s become a very normal thing for a prop master to contact you three or four days before you shoot a scene and say, “There’s an unspecified food here. What would you like to eat? How do you like it cooked?” And that’s something that a lot of people take for granted, but it speaks to how good these people are at their jobs.
Susan: Well, you guys are king—if we’re giving you food, we want you to be happy and comfortable.
Adam: I like the spit bucket idea. Restaurant critics could use spit buckets.
Let’s talk about the difference between food movies and movies that have food in them. what makes a movie a “food movie”?
Susan: I think it’s a food movie when the food becomes more of a character.
Fabio: Until the 1960s, characters in movies would be around food, sort of touching food and interacting with food, but not really eating it. But suddenly around 1985 [we see] people actually eating food. In ’85 we have Tampopo, in ’87 Babette’s Feast, in ’89 The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, and then in ’92 Like Water for Chocolate.
Oliver: If [the movie is] just about food, it’s sort of boring. It’s got to work as a metaphor, it has to mean something. The final scene in Big Night [on which Platt was a producer], that’s a great scene. Not because it’s about cooking eggs, but because it’s about this quiet reconciliation between two brothers who have really been sort of at odds with each other the entire movie, and maybe all their lives. And even if it’s just a moment in time, what’s so moving about it is not the food. It’s about what the food is showing us.
Fabio: I think now there are movies that not only use food for emotional or character development—it becomes the narrative engine. So stuff happens in kitchens, and the protagonists define their characters around food in all sorts of different ways.
Oliver: For me there’s not a better, more moving example of cooking scenes as bookends than Kramer vs. Kramer, where you have Dustin Hoffman at the beginning do that incredibly harried, forced preparation of French toast for his kid, and then at the very end, when he thinks he’s about to say goodbye to him, sort of effortlessly [cook] with his kid watching on mournfully. It just rips you apart.
Fabio: And that has become a trope. You have it in Mrs. Doubtfire. You have it in Big Mama. The character that, in the beginning, has a very cavalier relationship with food. It’s not loving, it’s not nourishing.
Oliver: Right. And then you see them master it.
What about the look and feel of food in film?
Fabio: There is a different aesthetic in food films that borrows elements from food TV. Food porn, in a way. The close- ups, the texture, the lighting...
Susan: It’s in the script, food porn. In Eat Pray Love [director Ryan Murphy] was like, “I want food porn.” That was in the script. And we shot some things like that, very close-up.
Fabio: When I explain food porn to my students, I always use the opening sequence of Eat Drink Man Woman. I think it defines certain kinds of shots that have become traditional—the way the hands are shown, and then you have a larger shot, and then you have the kitchen. You have the lighting that has that texturing. You have the enhanced sounds. And I have the students notice how many of those techniques are actually developed in porn.
Adam: The trick is that you don’t make it seem like porn, and I think actually Eat Drink Man Woman is beautifully artful. It’s really about cooking—
Paul: It’s an ebb-and-flow. It’s a ballet, a rhythm.
Oliver: One of my favorite milliseconds in the opening of Eat Drink Man Woman is when the dad has the two big cleavers going and his head starts to dance. That moment of physical lyricism pops out at you and is so beautiful and sort of elevates the whole sequence. It really lets you know who that guy is and what makes him tick.
Adam: It’s beautiful. And it defines the guy’s character.
Mitchell: Then there’s that scene in Jiro Dreams of Sushi where the sushi lands on those trays to the beat of the music. I mean, people are gasping in the audience.
Adam: That is porn-y.
Let’s talk about gender and food in the world and gender and food in film.
Fabio: That’s a tough one. There’s the issue of women being almost absent in professional kitchens—that’s a good start.
Susan: I think it’s still challenging for women.
Paul: The typical role of a female in a professional kitchen was always in pastry, but I think that’s changed completely. Some of the best chefs on the planet are women: Sophie-Anne Pic, Elena Arzak. You’ve got some amazing talent. Honestly, I think women are far better cooks. In my kitchen I have more women than I do men. Women are not afraid to make mistakes and don’t try to cover them up like a guy would because there isn’t that ego thing there. Women will be like, “I made a mistake, what did I do wrong?”
Fabio: Ratatouille builds over this gender tension in the kitchen. You have Colette, who is given the task of training Linguine, and she hates that. She has a whole tirade about haute cuisine being created by old men. She reacts to that by becoming this very tough woman.
Mitchell: Any other examples?
Fabio: Woman on Top with Penelope Cruz. It’s about a woman in Brazil who is kept in the back of the house by this very gregarious husband. At a certain point he cheats on her and she leaves and goes to San Francisco and becomes a TV star. The movie is quite silly, but the way they use gender and also the power of TV and celebrity is interesting. Finally she wants to be the person in control.
Mitchell: Do you think that the narrative arc is different for men and women in movies? We were talking about the Dustin Hoffman scene in Kramer vs. Kramer. That was about him becoming more nurturing.
Oliver: Exactly. One of the things that’s so striking about it is precisely that role reversal.
Mitchell: So for women, is it the opposite? If you use food to show how men are becoming more nurturing in movies, do we see a different arc for women, where they’re gaining control?
Oliver: I think you’re sort of on the money there.
What’s one of your favorite food movies?
Adam: That’s the best food movie that’s been made. I think it’s really accurate about the way chefs operate. It’s also quite accurate about the way critics operate. It’s just a sophisticated, entertaining, great movie. I see a lot of food movies and most of them are teeny and one-dimensional. This one has got things going on the way a great movie does.
Oliver: The reason it’s a great movie is not because of the food. Like any great story, it’s actually incredibly simple. Because it’s so well executed you are able to pile all sorts of layers of thematic richness on top of it.
Mitchell: I remember sitting in the theater thinking, Could anyone in this theater get any of this? It’s so accurate.
Oliver: Ratatouille is just as much about restaurant culture as it is about food. It’s really about aspirations, wish fulfillment. It’s a Rocky movie, in a way.
Adam: It’s certainly the most successful food movie of all time.
Oliver: But what makes it a great movie is the fact that there are all kinds of people who could give a crap about the history of the croissant who just loved that movie. Because it’s a great story.
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