In Season: Food Movies

By Mary Bailey.

Hunker down with a bowl of truffled popcorn or steaming hot borscht and revel in food stories on screen.

This is what got me thinking about food movies.

Wonder and delight at the news that Gabrielle Hamilton’s gritty and complicated memoir Blood Bones and Butter will be a movie turned to bewilderment upon learning that the chef/memoirist is to be played by an actor known for not eating blood, bones nor butter, Gynneth Paltrow.

Such is Hollywood.

Good food stories and food people make great food movies — fictional, contemporary, historical documentaries with food as the subject, or the wonderfully delicious films where food is metaphor, we love them all.

It takes more than being set in a kitchen or a restaurant — like Waitress or Mystic Pizza — to be a good food movie. I’m talking movies where food or the relationship we have with food is the reason for being; movies that get the details right; movies where the food looks good enough to eat.

Truffled popcorn

I use an old-fashioned stovetop popcorn maker (the Whirley-Pop is similar). It’s entirely mechanical and requires constant attention, but it’s quick and the results are worth it.

  • 1-3 T white truffle oil*
  • 1 T canola oil
  • 1 T unsalted butter
  • 2 T fine-grained sea salt
  • 1 c popping corn

Place the truffle oil in a large bowl (large enough to hold all the popcorn) and keep warm, but not hot. Place oil, butter and salt in the bottom of a stove-top popcorn maker. Pour in some of the corn, stir to coat, until it spits a bit. Pour in the rest of the corn and cover with the lid. As soon as you hear the first pops start turning the crank, and continue to turn until the corn stops popping and it becomes difficult to move the handle. Take off the heat and empty into the bowl containing the truffle oil. Toss well and check for seasoning. Serve with a good food movie and a glass of Barbera.

*Don’t try to cook the popcorn in the truffle oil. Truffle oil is not really oil of the truffle. It’s an aromatized oil, not heat stable and is quite unattractive if allowed to get too hot.

Soup Sisters Eva’s heritage borscht

The Soup Sisters Cookbook, (Appetite by Random House, 2012).

It’s hard to beat a steaming bowl of soup on movie night. We’re featuring this recipe as we love the whole idea of the Soup Sisters/Broth Brothers and what they do — find out more at, but borscht is infinitely adaptable to any pantry and style of cooking. I make a massive batch of chunky all-vegetable borscht in late summer when the beets are still small and tender, needing a good scrub and trimming only, with loads of just picked carrots, new potatoes and a panful of slowly-caramelized onion for depth of flavour. Give it all a good smoosh with an immersion blender for a smooth/chunky texture, throw in a lavish handful of dill at the end, and garnish with crumbled smoky bacon and a dollop of sour cream or yogurt if desired. Freeze in serving size containers and you’ll always have good soup to share.

The key to beautiful, ruby-hued borscht is something acidic — fresh lemon juice, vinegar (or in this recipe, tomato juice) to keep the colour vibrant. Serve with a shot of iced vodka.

  • 1 lb pork side ribs
  • 2-3 large beets, trimmed
  • 2 c peeled and diced carrots
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 c chopped fresh green beans
  • 1 c chopped cabbage
  • 1 c tomato juice
  • 2 t apple cider vinegar
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 c sour cream
  • 2 T finely chopped parsley or fresh dill

Put the ribs in a large pot and add enough water to cover. Bring to a boil over high heat and skim off scum. Reduce the heat to low. Simmer, uncovered, until the ribs are tender, about 1 hour. While the ribs are cooking, put the beets in a saucepan and add enough water to cover them. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer until tender, about 45 minutes. Drain the beets. Set aside until they are cool enough to handle. Peel and chop the beets, set aside.

Remove the ribs from the pot, reserving the cooking water in the pot. Using a fork or knife, pull or cut the meat from the bones and chop into bite-sized chunks. Return the pork to the pot.

Add the carrots, onion, green beans, cabbage, tomato juice and vinegar. Bring to a boil over high heat then reduce the heat to medium-low. Simmer, uncovered, until all the vegetables are tender, 20 to 30 minutes.

Add the boiled beets and salt and pepper to taste. Ladle the soup into bowls, and swirl in a few spoonfuls of sour cream.

Serves 6-8.

Vatel (2000, France/Belgium/Britain)

Is it Gerard Depardieu in the title role, the fascinating culinary and social history, or the tragic story? It’s hard to say which will be your most compelling reason to watch this gorgeous movie over and over. Visually sumptuous (it was nominated for an Academy Award for best art direction), rigorously researched and the attention to detail is faultless. Aspiring event planners will want to watch this film.

Dinner Rush (2000, USA)

Star chefs, gangsters, intrigue, highly believable restaurant setting, complicated relationships and gambling — Dinner Rush has it all. Former Edmonton restaurateur Lyle Beaugard suggested this gem of a movie. It’s intensity and rhythm mirrors the NYC setting — and you’ll love the macabre twist at the end. Fun trivia fact: Dinner Rush was directed by Pat Benatar’s husband.

Chocolat (2000, USA)

Johnny Depp, Juliette Binoche, chocolate, France, gypsies. What’s not to like?

Pranzo di Ferragosto (Mid-August Lunch, 2008, Italy)

Gianni is broke. Possessing only his cigarette dangling from his lip and a juice glass of white wine at his elbow, he makes a deal with the building manager — an exchange of favours, which will make all the condo bills go away.

He has to stay and cook mid-August lunch for his mother anyway, so what’s a few more old ladies? How much trouble could that be?

Gianni is about to find out. This lovely and appealing film is a rumination on aging, on cooking and on unlikely friendships. A must-see.

I Am Love (Io Sono L’amore, 2010, Italy)

Anna Karenina meets the September Issue. Watch Tilda Swinton’s upper-class Milanese character fall in mad dangerous love with an entirely unsuitable young man as she eats a shrimp dish he has prepared. The clothes are as drool worthy as any of the food shots. The film is old-fashioned Joan Crawford-style over-the-top melodrama — as lusciously bad for you, and as tasty, as tiramisu for breakfast.

Big Night (1996, USA)

Of course it’s on the list! What’s your favourite scene? Mine is the morning after where the brothers, played by Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub,
make eggs.

Tortilla Soup (2001, USA)

The opening credits mesmerize — a slow pan of two hands chopping tomatoes, placing peppers in ashes to blister, getting a fish ready for the grill, beautiful. The rest of the movie doesn’t disappoint, being a lyrical paean to food and family, colourful and believable. Tortilla Soup is a remake of Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman. I prefer Tortilla Soup — less intellectual, more believable, and funnier. The food, designed by chefs Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, looks amazing in every shot.

El Bulli: Cooking in Progress (2011, Holland)

Aspiring chefs would do well to watch this doc. It chronicles a year of El Bulli — the setting up and tearing down of the six month restaurant; the exploration of flavour and technique; the relentless quest for perfection. It’s a window on the genius of Ferran Adria, that modern cuisine cannot be dismissed as just molecular gastronomy or foam. Rather, it is an entirely new way of looking and practicing what we call gastronomy. Fascinating and compelling. Quiet and spare in its delivery, reflecting the almost monastic dedication of all involved.

The Kings of Pastry (2009, Holland)

This doc follows three chefs — Jacquy Pfeiffer, co-founder of Chicago’s French Pastry School, Regis Lazard, and Maison Pic’s Philippe Rigollot — as they vie for the title of Meilleur Ouvrier de France (Best Craftsman in France). Competitions have built-in drama and the Meilleur Ouvrier de France is no exception as chefs practise the most exacting of the culinary arts, pastry, at its highest levels. Described by one critic as the culinary Hurt Locker. Be warned, you will see men cry.

Rare Birds (2001, Canada)

William Hurt’s character drinks up what’s left of the Burgundy from the wine cellar of his failing resto while his neighbour Phonse (Codco’s Andy Jones) cooks up a scheme to make everybody rich. Hijinks ensue. The well-chosen cast includes Molly Parker. Rare Birds is moodily atmospheric, with just the right amount of kooky Newfoundlandishness, and they get the food and drink right. Underrrated and highly watchable.

Babette’s Feast (1987, Denmark)

This strange and beautiful film is from a story by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen). A political refugee from Paris ends up in a spookily quiet, ultra-religious Danish town, with unbending rules against pleasure of any sort. Her gift to the people of the town is a both a fantastical meal and the ability to enjoy it.

Bella Martha (Mostly Martha, 2001, Germany)

The taming of the shrew in the kitchen, with glorious food shots and scrupulous attention to detail. And everybody gets what they want in the end. Charming.

The 2007 American remake No Reservations is also fun, worth watching (it’s about time we see women portrayed on screen running important kitchens) but this version suffers from some grating food/wine missteps. For example, the sommelier uses the phrase California Brunello — Martha would have been appalled.

Christmas in Connecticut (1945, USA)

Charming screwball comedy featuring Barbara Stanwyck as a food writer who has lied about being the perfect housewife. Busted! Now she has to create a traditional family Christmas for her boss. Silly and fun, with baby-switching, bad accents, fast-paced repartee and S.Z. Sakall as Felix the cook.

Ratatouille (2007, USA)

The animated feature is not only the most lovable food movie ever made, it’s painstaking in its attention to detail. The producers hired several consultants including uber-chef Thomas Keller to get the details right from the design of the kitchen to the animated movements of Remi the rat who dreams of becoming a cook.

More Good Food Movies

  • Toast (2010, England): British food writer Nigel Slater’s memoir on screen.
  • Pieces of April (2003, USA): Families and holiday dinners; a recipe for disaster? Not always.
  • The Ramen Girl (2008, USA): Better than you’d think.
  • My Dinner with André (1981): Snore fest or intellectual romp? You decide.
  • Tampopo (1985, Japan): The original spaghetti western? A cowboy trucker comes to the rescue of a noodle shop owner — kooky but required watching.
  • Stranger Than Fiction (2006, USA): This is not really a food movie, but they do get the food right and there are charming bits; “I brought you some flours,” Will Farrell’s character says to his love, the baker.
  • Like Water for Chocolate (Como agua para chocolate, Mexico, 1992): Magical realism meets star-crossed lovers. Perfect for a Valentine’s night in — serve very good Champagne with the truffled popcorn.

Food Flicks to Look For:

  • Kitchen Stories (2004, Norway): is called completely charming and irresistible, touching and funny.
  • Perfectly Normal (1991, Canada): with Robbie Coltrane; involves restaurants, hockey and beer.
  • La Cuisine au Beurre (1963, France): Two French comic actors play chefs with radically different styles of cooking married to the same woman.
  • Eden (2006, Holland): A movie about food and family.
  • Nankyoku Ryourinin (The Chef of South Polar, 2009, Japan): Taking it far beyond Tampopo; there is a significant canon of Japansese food movies, in Japan.
  • A Chef in Love (1996, Georgia): This political satire about a French chef who falls in love with a Georgian woman, then ends up in jail after feeding crow to a Bolshevik was Georgia’s first Academy Award nomination.
  • The Trip (2010, Britian) British comics Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon take a gastronomic road trip.

Good Wine Movies

Alcoholic beverages make such succinct plot devices and product placement opportunities that few movies actually get to the heart of it. Vineyards are scenic backgrounds, the choice of whiskey, wine or beer a shortcut to explaining a character (aka Bond) or a plot device (expensive wine gets stolen by a ring of good looking thieves, or whatever). The following allow wine to be the protagonist.

Sideways (2004, USA)

A poignant story, with real drama coupled with laugh-out-loud-can’t-catch-your breath comedic bits. Feels authentic, and isn’t that what we hope to find in any film? You didn’t have to know wine to enjoy the movie but a lot of people started drinking more wine after they saw it. The ‘sideways effect’ created a massive uptick in sales for California Pinot Noir and a crash in Merlot sales as it became the wine everybody loved to hate — the blow from which Merlot is still recovering.

Bottle Shock (2008, USA)

Takes a lighthearted view of the new world/old world wine debate with it’s highly fictionalized retelling of the Judgement of Paris wine tasting. The cast, including the ineffable Dennis Farina, Alan Rickman at his “I’m British and you’re not” best, and masses of long blonde hair, is backed by a good times ‘70s soundtrack and luscious scenes of California wine country. Grab the zin and hit the couch.

Mondovino (2005, USA)

The doc about the dangers of the homogenization of taste is essential watching for wine geeks and sommeliers.

A Good Year (2006, Britain)

Russell Crowe, Marion Cotillard, Albert Finney, Abbie Cornish and Archie Panjabi romp in this gorgeous adaption of a fluffy Peter Mayle’s novel, the story of an unscrupulous London money man who inherits a broken down wine estate in southern France and finds love. Ridley Scott’s direction has a light touch and it’s a visual feast. Drink in the location footage of Gordes and the Luberon, it looks like heaven on earth. Required drinking is Côtes du Luberon, naturellement.

French Kiss (1995, USA)

Similar in tone to A Good Year with some humourous Canuck references.

The Earth is Mine (1959, USA)

Hollywood melodrama set during the Prohibition but prescient in its portrayal of the Napa Valley.