Hail to the Chef

Films that focus on the men and women behind the knives

The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014, still in theaters)
An Indian family opens a restaurant in the south of France at the most difficult location possible: directly across the road from a Michelin-starred restaurant owned by the formidable Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren). The resulting clash of two classic cooking traditions resounds throughout the small village. But as each family ventures across the road (the hundred-foot journey of the title), the horizons of each widen and Madame becomes able to recognize the extraordinary culinary talent of Hassan (Manish Dayal), the son of her rival proprietor.

Chef (2014, DVD to be released Sept. 30)
This unexpected summer hit (reviewed in full in June O&A) charmed moviegoers with its close-up food shots alternating with commentary on modern restaurant trends and social media. Jon Favreau stars as a celebrity chef whose career collapses after a spat with a food critic; he slowly rebuilds his reputation and his family life by rediscovering his love for food via a cross-country journey on a food truck.

Julie and Julia (2009)
The Julia of the title is Julia Child (Meryl Streep), the master chef who introduced French cuisine to America in the 1960s. Her joy in cooking and life are a delight. Not so much Julie (Amy Adams), a contemporary Julia Child wanna-be whose dissatisfaction with her dead-end job and her life are just irritating. But Julia’s enthusiasm trumps Julie’s dumps to rescue this movie.

Ratatouille (2007)
This Oscar-winner for Best Animated Feature tells a sweet story of a rat who loves to cook and a woefully inexperienced under-chef who meet accidentally in the kitchen of a famous restaurant. The unlikely duo achieves great success by working together to overcome the prejudices of the French cooking establishment.

What’s Cooking (2000)
This minor indie film from Gurinda Chadha, the director of the later Bend it Like Beckham, possesses that same hard-won awareness of minority cultures fighting for their place in a dominant society. Set in an ethnically diverse neighborhood of Los Angles, the movie follows four families’ relationships as they gather for Thanksgiving. Although the foods and accents may vary, all four groups must deal with the same issues of interpersonal conflict and familial misunderstanding.

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989)
A stellar cast—led by Helen Mirren, Michael Gambon and Tim Roth—evoke this uncompromising, even difficult story of a mob boss restaurateur and his bored, disenchanted wife. Director Peter Greenaway brings his cryptic, stylized approach to this vicious tale, set largely inside the gangster’s restaurant. If you are squeamish, leave before the chef serves the final dish. Hint: it’s an alternative protein.

Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? (1978)
George Segal, Jacqueline Bisset, and Robert Morley star in this offbeat comedy mystery set among the culinary luminaries of the continent. The chefs are dropping like flies but strangely, they are all being killed in the same manner in which their signature dishes were prepared. The movie is dated and mostly entertaining for its broad portrayals of snooty European celebri-chefs, at a time when cooks were not as overexposed in the media as they are now.

And for dessert, The Trip to Italy, a follow-up to The Trip (2010), promises to be another bracing mixture of food porn and British humor served up by Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. The recipe for the second film is the same as the first: take two comedian friends and attention hogs, send them on a tour of trendy restaurants, and watch as they hilariously entertain and taunt each other while being served a variety of appealing dishes. This variation has the two Englishmen traversing Italy, so the viewer can expect an additional flavoring of “fish out of water” hijinks.