There are a few movies that go further and could almost be said to be about food — its preparation, presentation and consumption is a basic part of the story. Here are my four favorite Foodie Movies.
Big Night. A neglected American masterpiece, written and directed by Stanley Tucci, who’s better known as an actor. Two Italian immigrant brothers run a failing restaurant in 1950s New Jersey. Primo, the unworldly older brother, cares only about the authenticity and quality of the food they serve. Meanwhile the unashamedly commercial Italian restaurant across the street is booming, to the chagrin of the younger brother, Segundo, who bears all the burdens of trying to make a success of their business. The brothers get what they think is their big break when they are told that band leader Louis Prima will be dining at their restaurant, so they spend all their remaining money to put on an unforgettable meal. It’s a beautifully-acted look at the eternal tension between art and commerce, and at the immigrant experience. Ian Holm has an over-the-top role as the annoyingly successful restaurateur across the street. The first-rate cast also includes Tucci, Tony Shalhoub, Minnie Driver and Isabella Rossellini.
Eat Drink Man Woman. An early Ang Lee movie, before he went Hollywood. A widowed Chinese master chef deals with the complications of his own life and those of his three grown daughters. Funny and touching. A running gag is that he’s unable to produce a simple family meal for his daughters, or a normal school lunch for a friend’s daughter: everything he tries turns into a multi-course gourmet feast.
Bella Martha (Mostly Martha). The German film Bella Martha was for some reason released in the US as Mostly Martha. Martha, a brilliant but solitary chef in Hamburg, suddenly becomes the foster-mother of her young niece when her sister — who seems to be her only friend — dies in a car crash. The owner of the restaurant where she works hires an Italian chef to help the overwhelmed Martha. Predictable conflicts ensue, and romance follows, slowly and delicately. Bella Martha is a bit heavy on the ethnic stereotypes — rigid, controlling German learns about life from warm, intuitive Italian — but is quite touching anyway. This movie was later re-made into a copycat American version, No Reservations. Be sure to watch this one instead.
Babette’s Feast. Maybe the best of the bunch. Two pious sisters living in an isolated Danish village take in a desperate refugee, Babette, from the civil wars in France. After serving as their housemaid for years, Babette takes advantage of some unexpected money to thank the sisters by preparing a fine French meal for them and their friends. The meal is the occasion for some beautiful reflections on love, disappointment, destiny and faith.
If you look around online you can find actual recipes for the “Quail in a Coffin” in Babette’s Feast, but I think I’d rather just enjoy it onscreen.