Last Friday, we woke up to the tragic news that beloved chef / writer / traveler / movie-lover Anthony Bourdain had died. Among his other notable virtues and accomplishments, no one had ever put so many different meals on screen, or served them to us with such rich context.
In that spirit, we asked our panel of critics to name the most appetite-whetting meal they’ve ever seen in a movie (or, if they preferred, to reference the film that made them appreciate the power or tradition of food in a way they never had before).
In other words, this week’s question is: What’s your favorite “food movie?”
Kyle Turner (@TyleKurner), Paste Magazine
There are times when I return to Ang Lee’s “Eat Drink, Man Woman” just for the opening sequence, featuring a calvacade of delicious food being prepared by the Chu patriarch. It’s a parade of images that indicate the skill it takes to be a great chef, and the intimacy required to make a (large) family dinner. Lee’s framing is unfussy, letting Sihung Lung’s talent speak for itself. (WHen I was in the IB diploma program in high school, I had to take a Chinese IB exam, to be written in Chinese characters. I wrote an essay about the opening of “Eat Drink, Man Woman,” in English, instead, and I still passed).
Candice Frederick (@ReelTalker), Freelance for Harper’s Bazaar, Wear Your Voice Magazine, Mic
“Soul Food.” The images in the film represent the very definition of what soul food is–food for the soul that makes you feel good inside. Even more than that though, the film juxtaposes that sentiment with the idea that soul food is a way to bring a family together around a table, even when their own souls may have been ripped apart due to tragedy or betrayal. It’s that sense of unity and genuine compassion that catapults the movie to become something so much more than food porn.
Edward Douglas (@EDouglasWW), The Weekend Warrior
I’m betting I won’t be the only person who picks Ritesh Batra’s “The Lunchbox,” but I can’t think of any other movie that left me mouthwateringly hungry while watching it, particularly for Indian food (which I don’t eat very often). It’s a lovely film that seems to have found an audience long after it left theaters, as well as giving Bollywood superstar Irffan Khan a new career in Hollywood as more filmmakers discover his amazing talent.
Jacqueline Coley (@THATJacqueline), Rotten Tomatoes
There is a part of me that will always love Austin. I wasn’t born there but it is where I found my voice, my métier and my sense of belonging. Never has a film given me more of what Austin is like than Jon Favreau’s “Chef”. On his show, No Reservations Anthony Bourdain put Franklin’s BBQ on the map and is almost synonymous with the location to this day. In “Chef,” Favreau takes a look behind the curtain to what it really means to be a culinary or a person who simply loves serving good food. Franklin’s, the local Austin BBQ joint was and remains something worth lining up for hours to consume. Parking his food truck on Congress Ave just blocks away from my house, Favreau perfectly captured the vibe of laid-back Austin food.
Austin is a town where some of the best dishes you can put to your lips come from a trailer. Adding the music from Gary Clark, Jr. Chef married the two greatest parts of the Austin Ascetic. When Franklin’s founder Aaron Franklin pulls out two briskets you can almost smell the smoky goodness. 44 hours of flavor, salt and pepper, and meat, that’s all it is but the goodness leaps of the screen. And that is just one of the mouthwatering meal that Favreau featured. Each meal was done without ceremony or pretention. “Chef” is quintessentially Austin: Southern, Scrumptious, and just a bit weird.
Carlos Aguilar (@Carlos_Film), Freelance
Set in the separatist region of Abkhazia during the 90s war between its Russian-backed forces and Georgia, Zaza Urushadze’s Oscar-nominated “Tangerines” examines the political, economic, and spiritual ties between people, their land, and the food it provides. Ivo (Lembit Ulsak), and elderly carpenter living in this ravaged but fertile territory, and his friend Margus (Elmo Nüganen), a resolute farmer, are the only two Estonians still there. One refuses to leave until he can harvest his large tangerine crop, while the other is hard at work making crates to hold the fruit.
Their goal is clear, but when a Chechen fighter and a Georgian soldier – mortal enemies in combat – fall under Ivo’s care, the complexity of this conflict is unearthed. Known as The Citrus War, given that whoever was triumphant would benefit from the product grown in the area, the clash evidenced how the identity of a place and a group of people is inevitably linked to what they produce and consume. Like the roots of the trees that hold the precious tangerines, Ivo and Margus are fixed to their homeland beyond anything that geopolitical warfare attempts to impose on them.
Ella Kemp (@Ella_Kemp), Freelance for Little White Lies, Vague Visages
“There’s no film that makes me dream about food like “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” does. I did a lot of research about the movie’s origins at university, and found out that it was originally commissioned as a promotional film for Nestlé’s real-life Wonka bars – which is why the chocolatier’s name is in the title, for promotional purposes, over the golden ticket winner’s.
Food is shown as a necessity and a distant dream at the same time in the film, somehow completely alien and garish in its salivating appeal. My favourite scene will always be the moment where they all open the doors and Wonka starts singing ‘Pure Imagination’ while his visitors devour the trees and flowers, crumbling with chocolate and gorged in cream. It’s gross and animalistic without losing the frivolous magic and imagination of the book. I love it, in all of its brightly coloured, delicious perversion.”
Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker
Whether the sumptuous feast or the modest pleasure, food is also a matter of money and need, and a primordially ingenious food movie displays culinary delight through the power—and the lack—of wealth, namely, Murnau’s “The Last Laugh,” from 1924, in a riotously ironic tag ending that both sets and breaks the template. A formerly proud, now elderly hotel bell captain (Emil Jannings) broken in soul by his demotion to bathroom attendant suddenly comes into a colossal fortune—and celebrates with a gargantuan meal in the hotel restaurant, where his hearty assault on the ceremoniously proffered delicacies finds its counterpart in the humble glee of his guest, the hotel’s elderly night watchman, who is having his first introduction to fine dining.
Murnau films the slicing of rich meats with a heady close-up intensity that matches Jannings’ exuberance and the watchmen’s sense of wonder, which is in turn overpowered by the arrival of a serving-bowl of caviar, which Jannings piles on his overwhelmed friend’s plate in great, glistening scoops. With a groundshakingly bitter humor, Murnau shatters the cruel veneer of heedless luxury while affirming refined pleasures—in terms of the self-awareness and the responsibilities that they impose.
Oliver Whitney (@cinemabite), ScreenCrush
There’s a dozen amazing movie meals that make my mouth water every time, from the flaky, cream-topped strudel in “Inglorious Basterds” to every single food moment in “Phantom Thread.” But in thinking about the experience of eating a perfect meal, something Anthony Bourdain wrote an entire book about, the first thing that comes to mind is the shrimp scene in “I Am Love.”
When Tilda Swinton’s Emma bites into the shrimp dish prepared by her soon-to-be-lover, the lights around her dim, the sounds muffle, the plate shines a golden light across her face, and she’s catapulted into a realm of total ecstasy. It’s as much a food scene as it is a sex scene, but then again, devouring an incredible meal is inherently an out-of-body, sensual experience anyway. (For more proof, see the rest of Luca Gudagnino career full of food-as-sex scenes.) I can only imagine this state of bliss is what Bourdain felt like every time he bit into a perfect dish; food so great it’s almost as good as sex, or maybe even better.
Matt Zoller Seitz (@mattzollerseitz), RogerEbert.com
[Ed. note: This is a video that Matt Zoller Seitz cut together for the Museum of the Moving Image. It’s a montage of great scenes from food movies, and he’s submitting it here as his answer]
Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@chrisreedfilm), Hammer to Nail / Film Festival Today
There are a lot of great food movies, including the usual suspects in lists like this: “Babette’s Feast” (1987), “Like Water for Chocolate” (1992), “Eat Drink Man Woman” (1994), “Big Nght” (1996), “Ratatouille” (2007), “The Trip” (2010) and its sequels, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” (2011), “The Lunchbox” (2013), “Chef” (2014) and “City of Gold” (2015). My personal favorite, for now, remains Juzo Itami’s “Tampopo” (1985), which combines the best of the culinary arts with cinematic romance (and sex). It’s not only a movie about eating, but also an homage to all great quest stories–especially Westerns–with actor Tsutomu Yamazaki swooping in as a mythical cowboy to help Nobuko Miyamoto, as the titular character, develop the perfect bowl of ramen. Along the way, we explore anecdotes both appetizing and erotic. Flamboyant and tantalizing in its aesthetic, “Tampopo” goes down with spice.
Q.V. Hough (@QVHough), Vague Visages
In 2009, I scheduled a month-long backpacking trip to conclude in Naples, Italy. The primary goal: to visit my ancestors’ village outside the city within Campania. Also, I wanted to eat some Neapolitan Margherita pizzas (check out this Anthony Bourdain clip). And that I did, even though I never made it to the famous L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele.
Before an extended 2012 trip to Italy, in which I worked on organic farms throughout the southern region, I discovered that Julia Roberts visits L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele in “Eat Pray Love” (2010). I watched the film and damn near cried (because of the pizza scene, I swear). Sure, “Eat Pray Love” doesn’t focus entirely on food, but it planted an idea in my head, one that consumed my thoughts every time I ate some ‘za. When I finally returned to Naples, I walked directly to L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele and had the best pizza-eating experience of my life. So, thank you, “Eat Pray Love”?
Todd Gilchrist (@mtgilchrist), Freelance
Given the artery-clogging monstrosity that’s served during the film’s climactic feast, it would be negligent not to mention Stanley Tucci’s “Big Night,” a remarkable film about Italians and their cuisine. But Ang Lee’s “Eat Drink Man Woman” remains my gold standard for the depiction of food as a barometer of the emotional tenor of a family. Though it’s been a few years since I’ve seen it, I’ll never forget how lovingly each meal is photographed, or how each time Mr. Chu and his daughters gather, his meticulous preparation is disrupted by their “announcements,” and more broadly, the inescapable passage of time. Ang Lee certainly has directed films equal to this one, but it was precisely “Eat Drink Man Woman’s” combination of delicate storytelling and delectable-looking food that made me a fan of his for life.
Rafael Motamayor (@GeekWithAnAfro), Flickering Myth
The first appetite-whetting meal I remember seeing in a movie was the welcoming feast in Hogwarts from “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”. Specially when I remembered the poor choice of sustenance offered at my school’s cafeteria. Seeing table after table filled with all kinds of culinary wizardry was the most magical thing to my young eyes. I did not care whether it was real or if it even tasted good, it just appeared out of number and in vast quantities – it was enough for me.
Christian Blauvelt (@Ctblauvelt), BBC Culture Watch
Watch any Alfred Hitchcock film and you’ll find a fantastic food scene. Sometimes the food is appealing, like the Moroccan feast presented to Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day in “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” Sometimes decidedly not, as in the succession of ghastly meals presented to the lead inspector character in “Frenzy” by his wife, who’s taking a Continental cooking cuisine. (Very proud of herself, she’s even discovered this exotic new drink called “a mah-guh-reeta.”) But, though I wouldn’t call it a “food movie,” my favorite “food scene” of all time has to be in Hitch’s 1941 masterpiece, “Suspicion.” Joan Fontaine suspects her husband Cary Grant may be a murderer and may be intending to murder her. The two of them have dinner at the home of a friend and neighbor, a mystery writer named Isobel Sedbusk, who’s clearly an Agatha Christie stand-in.
This dinner scene is perfect. I mean, in every possible way, including the presence of another woman, androgynously dressed in a man’s suit and tie, who is certainly Sedbusk’s lover. But the greatest moment is when Sedbusk’s brother, who’s a local coroner, describes an autopsy he’s conducted while Hitch cuts to a close-up of his knife slicing through the Cornish hen on his plate. The food is delicious, the act macabre. In one image Hitchcock found a way to capture the delectable murderousness underlying carnivorousness – something Anthony Bourdain, a passionate cinephile whose show featured as shocking a death rate for members of the animal kingdom as any ever on TV, would have appreciated.
Danielle Solzman (@DanielleSATM), Solzy at the Movies
The most appetite-whetting meal I’ve seen in a movie is by far the classic spaghetti scene in the animated Disney film, “The Lady and The Tramp.” The scene offers a nice mixture of both food and romance in a way that I don’t feel can be replicated in the same way by another film. In my book, one can’t go wrong with dogs so to see the aforementioned scene include two dogs just adds a nice touch.
Outside of that, my next favorite would have to be “Chef.” Not only is the film about a chef who starts a food truck but inviting his son on board makes for a nice bonding opportunity.