I am a person with two great passions in life: food and movies. When given the chance to watch a good movie where food is an integral aspect of the story, I'm in escapist heaven. I have compiled a list of the best foodie movies I’ve seen so far, though I'm always on the lookout for better ones. There are a handful of treasures in the world of foreign-language films that I have yet to explore and I'm bound to find great pieces there soon. A word of caution: don't dare watch without a full and content stomach.
1. Big Night (1996)
Set in the '50s, this is a story about two brothers who moved to the US from Italy with dreams of educating the dumbed-down American palate. Tony Shalhoub plays the perfectionist Primo, who never settles for second best — an attitude typical of most gifted chefs. Stanley Tucci, who wrote and directed the film, plays Secondo, the agreeable front man burdened by the bankruptcy their restaurant is facing, and which he feels Primo should care more about. To save their business from closure and themselves from defeat, Secondo orchestrates what can only be referred to as “the best meal of your life.” Timpano, a baked pasta dish said to contain all the best things; a sucking pig roasted to perfection; the most gorgeous spread of wine and cheese; risottos and omelets at their simplest and their finest are the dishes that make up Big Night. The movie is reminiscent of the classic Babette’s Feast where the food is the main character because without it, these wouldn’t be movies at all.
2. Like Water for Chocolate (1992)
A Mexican film based on a book of the same title. Set during the Mexican revolution, the story revolves around the life of Tita and her struggle to be happy. I consider this the most poetic and magical of foodie movies because of the metaphors present. Quail in rose petal marinade with chocolate sauce releases passion and lust, a wedding cake prepared with sorrow and regret brings people to tears, all made by the timid young Tita whose raw emotions overpower her — they overflow into the food that she makes and to those who eat it. I was also particularly impressed with the emphasis on generational influences and traditions that carried on by the meals that a family shares. How a cookbook can, like a photo album, narrate a family’s history with all its triumphs and failures. Another foodie feature was how the love of being in the kitchen is developed during the most formative years of life. This is basically why most good chefs could tell you their earliest food memory, which may well be the reason why they became chefs in the first place.
3. Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), Tortilla Soup (2001)
Eat Drink Man Woman, directed by Ang Lee, is set in Taiwan; the second is a remake directed by María Ripoll and is set in Mexico. Though similar in plot — a retired chef finds another life after single-handedly taking care of three daughters — the foods featured couldn't be any more different. Both chefs are immigrants, masters of the cuisines of their respective home countries, China and Mexico, a talent they use to lure their respective daughters not just to the dinner table but back to their familial roots as well. These movies painstakingly and beautifully recreate the traditional recipes of these great cultures which probably get more camera time than the actors in the film. Some of Chinese dishes prepared include lotus flower soup, chicken wrapped in clay, steamed chicken and mushrooms, and chicken-cucumber salad. The Mexican recipes include squash bottom blossom, porcupine cookies, panuchos, cactus salad, and, of course, the movie’s namesake, tortilla soup. A critic might claim that the food gets more story development than the characters, but I think that is exactly what these movies intend — that the cooking and eating of food in itself can make memorable movies. And that is exactly what these are.
4. Babette's Feast (1987)
A Danish film considered by many to be the best foodie movie prior to Big Night. The film is about two pious sisters living a life set by their pastor father who founded his own Christian sect. One night of an extraordinary French dinner prepared by their helper Babette breaks down ancient rivalries, re-awakens old loves, and removes biased superstitions and distrust. Being set in 19th century rural Europe somehow makes this film a bit of a drag in the beginning, but all the pieces of the story carefully culminate in the climax of the film which is Babette's feast, where she ceremoniously gives up everything in the name of luxury and high taste. What can be more French than that?
5. Chocolat (2000)
Probably the first foodie movie I saw at an early age, Chocolat is about a nomadic gypsy chocolatier and her struggles to be accepted in a town with a strict and traditional moral framework. The love for food is oftentimes frowned upon by the most conservative and religious, who claim that such devotion to the most sensual of human creations leads to sins of the mind (greed) and of the flesh (lust). Chocolate has a long history of such a reputation. Using this most infamous delicacy as a metaphor for the blurring lines between good versus evil is the reason why this movie is successful. If you ever thought less about chocolates, seeing this would probably change your mind. The film is a visual feast of mouth-watering confections made beautifully using artisanal tools and techniques. What a shame most people think of Willy Wonka for chocolates in film when this jewel is much more tasteful.
6. Delicatessen (1991)
Set in an undisclosed post-apocalyptic period in France, when food is so rare grain is the currency. This is a story about a group of people living in an apartment building managed by a butcher who feeds them and manages their lives and their dinner table. This is not a film with shots of appetizing food, nor is this a film with a passionate chef. Then why is it included in this movie list? Because for once, and probably never again, vegetarians are the heroes, a premise you may never see in any French film, much less in a foodie one. It would be difficult to discuss the movie’s details without spoilers so I won’t go into that. You may not like what it suggests, but for sure you will love watching it.
7. Waitress (2007)
If you love Keri Russell, then you’ll immediately fall for this film. It’s witty, heartwarming, simple, and endearing, the perfect comfort food that nourishes a tired soul. Russell plays Jenna, a waitress in a small town diner who also has the responsibility of making an original pie everyday, a responsibility usually inspired by her frequently crummy life. She comes up with the best possible combination of ingredients and brands them with an unusual and silly name like “I Hate My Husband Pie” or “Pregnant Miserable Self-Pitying Loser Pie.” This may not be a movie that celebrates food and eating, but I adore how the pies are woven into the storyline, making them an integral and memorable part of the film. A lot of Hollywood-based movies have tried doing that in the past but they have never succeeded the way Waitress does. How this romantic comedy comes to its ending is both charming and realistic — it’s a must see for everyone.
8. Mostly Martha (2001)
The American film No Reservations with Catherine Zeta-Jones is a direct adaptation of this German film about a chef without a life other than her work, which she is devoted to. Mostly Martha, like most foreign-language movies, does not rely on the typical derivative Hollywood characters and is vastly superior to the American remake. The script is conversational, the plot as real as what life often throws your way, and the characters are relatable, yet the film is still as entertaining. Recently I've been watching a lot of foreign language movies and have learned to appreciate them for their simplistic beauty, for how the art imitates life instead of embellishing it. Mostly Martha is that kind of film. On the foodie angle, it will help you understand (if you haven't yet) that being a good chef is not simply creating that one fabulous meal. It is a profession that requires consistent perfection, crazy-like dedication, precision and mastery. It may be a prestigious career these days, but it is not easy labor.
A great movie which either makes you want to know more about wine or hate all the pretentious talk about it. I loved it but since it was more into wines than food…
Woman on Top (2000)
Probably the best food porn ever made, especially with Penelope Cruz in it adding to the sizzle. I salivated over the Brazilian food featured but the storyline was too dull for my taste. Too much rubbing also created serious doubts about whether I'd enjoy my fish baked in banana leaves despite its being gorgeous on my plate.