Restaurant Movies to Binge Watch

I needed to get my mind off the trash fire known as this election, so I’ve been watching movies.  I’ve recently taken refuge in films that appeal to at least some part of the restaurant milieu and felt, basically, why the hell not?  Have blog, will listicle.  In no particular order, here goes:

1. Dinner Rush is me, was me, and speaks to the dark 1990s pre-fame heavy drinking Anthony Bourdain in all service professionals.  From the perfection of its narrative arc, which covers one chaotic dinner shift at the restaurant (which also happened to be owned by the director – talk about no need for location scouting), the above-the-fray bartender, the crew’s polyamory, and demanding guests, I remember leaving the theater with a warm feeling.  It was similar to the warm feeling I got as a kid watching the Charlie Brown Christmas special, where they sang carols together at the end.  I also wanted a drink, a cigarette, and to call my bookie after I saw the movie, but that’s another story.

2. Big Night boils down to, Team Primo or Team Secondo?  As someone who’s spent most of his career in the front of the house, but who also knows enough about the back to have established bona fides with my chef friends, I’m firmly Team Secondo.  The figurative somersaults both brothers had to execute to save their restaurant spoke to me, particularly as a failed independent restauranteur myself.  But, sadly, without either Isabella Rosellini or Minnie Driver.

Quick story for the Team Primo people, especially those who, like me, loved the risotto scene at the beginning; close second, Chef Udo in Dinner Rush saying sausage and peppers were not on his menu.  I once worked at a seafood restaurant near Union Square, working every station from prep to pantry (cold apps, desserts) to sauté and grill.  We were a small crew, but we worked our asses off and believed in our chef’s vision for the place: namely, be a consistently good upscale fish shack.  Consequently, buerre blanc in its many and depredated forms was verboten.

Enter the Dowager Empress, whom I’ll call D for simplicity’s sake.  D was a Kip’s Bay divorcee in her 60s with a rat dwarf dog in a carrier, thick plastic framed glasses straight out of an episode of Rhoda, and firm ideas about what she did and didn’t like in food.  Among the more PG-rated bets the staff took were what 1970s pseudo-French “classic” D would ask for each Friday, when she dined at a table towards the back with her companion furball.  Our salmon dish had a pistachio crust, was seared on a screaming hot pan then finished in the oven, then served with a schmear of pesto and lemon-rosemary roasted fingerling potatoes.  Nope.  D wanted plainly grilled salmon (okay so far) with mashed potatoes (nope, and she did not like our parsnip puree either, so we had to break out the ricer) and haricots verts (double nope, but we did have Austrian winter peas that would suffice); finally, she wanted it with (gasp, choke) buerre blanc.  I would’ve been proud to serve a dish like this if, let’s say, I worked in a banquet hall serving 100 people at a time.  But an 80-seat neighborhood restaurant?  Thankfully, D and the server couldn’t hear the chef invite them to have carnal relations with themselves, then barrage the crew with orders: “Fire table 31!  Sam, get some grill marks on a salmon, then kill it in the oven.  Dan, you’re on mashed potatoes and veg.  Do any of you remember how to make fuckin’ buerre blanc from culinary school – you do? – awesome, new guy, you just volunteered, get wine from the bar.  Order 3 salmon, 2 filet med-rare, and 1 crab burger after that.”  And so it went.  We didn’t have to like it, but ultimately, like Primo and Secondo, we just had to execute as best we could.

3.The Blues Brothers makes the list for this scene, which distills the risks and rewards of working the front door of any high end restaurant with demanding guests.  Until I joined a company with a strict social media policy, I roasted staff and guests alike on Twitter with the hashtag #restauranting.

4. Eat Drink Man Woman and its American remake, Tortilla Soup, both of which I appreciate far more now as a parent, than I did as a single unattached man.  At first, I just enjoyed watching the loving care these films’ protagonists put into their food.  The quiet tension at the dinner table, things left unsaid, and love shown through food rather than verbally, could have been taken from the home of any old-school chef.  In my recent viewings, I saw Chefs Chu and Martin attempt to reach out to their grown daughters after being absent for most of their lives (an occupational hazard for those of us who work nights, weekends, and most major holidays), the chefs needing to lean on their daughters after being widowed, but not knowing how to ask for help; and so, like many older chefs, they express themselves the only way they know, with food.

I worked with a chef who never had a kind word for anyone in either the front or back of the house, save the owner.  If Chef questioned your parentage, insulted your intelligence and/or manhood, or threatened to rip out your eyes and skull-fuck you when you messed up an order, that meant he liked you.  Whenever Chef’s wife called the restaurant, his responses were invariably monosyllabic (yeah, no, hmm, oh), the calls seldom lasting more than about thirty seconds.  Then on Christmas Eve, she brought their kids for dinner, and every member of the team nudged each other: did you slip a mickey in Chef’s coffee or something?  This isn’t the same ornery cuss we’ve worked with.  This chef allowed his son to take over the sauté station for a bit, teaching the boy how to flip the contents of a pan and catch them again.  This chef expedited the busy first part of dinner with one infant daughter in his arms, his older daughter next to him and calling orders to the cooks like her old man.  And, because Christmas is for miracles, we saw him smile.  The whole scene would’ve been heart-rending if his smile weren’t so damn scary.

5. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover.  Heyy, Helen Mirren.  How you doin’?  I mean, she’s still striking, and this film was made almost 30 years ago.  It also boasts two of my favorite actors, Michael Gambon and Ciarán Hinds, long before they became Lyndon Johnson and Julius Caesar, respectively.  I worked for an Albert Spica, though not nearly as sadistic or thuggish; his nightly retinue of wannabe Mafiosi, tough guys who’d probably weep at the first sign of blood, and brainless sycophants, reminded me of several scenes from this film.  What gets conveyed in the earlier restaurant scenes, if stylistically, is the pride the staff takes in hospitality.  When any restaurant runs well, there is a buzzing.  That buzzing is hospitality, making sure guests’ needs are fulfilled, hopefully in as seamless a manner as possible and without guests’ noticing many overt acts of service.  As much as I gripe about this business, that buzzing of hospitality is the dopamine that keeps me hooked.

6. Tampopo and The Ramen Girl will jog any restaurant pro’s memory to the time when they underwent some painstaking apprenticeship, whether as a stage or extern in a kitchen, or a busboy hoping to be promoted to waiter.  At this stage of my career, I’ve become Goro or Maezumi, than Tampopo or Abby, training every front-of-house position from busboy to manager, but the sentiment is the same.  You take pleasure, and no small pride, seeing that neophyte succeed.  Tampopo also has a ridiculously young Ken Watanabe as a sidekick, which I hardly appreciated until my last viewing.  Watch for the noodles.  Stay for the sappy ending of the Brittany Murphy film.

7. No list like this could be complete without Ratatouille, the Pixar classic of the cooking rat.  Another film about striving in the restaurant business, with the added benefit of the late, great Peter O’Toole as a restaurant critic.  And Sheriff Cobb Brian Dennehy as Remy’s father.  When a Korean child turns one year old, a doljabi is the main attraction towards the end of the birthday fete.  A number of items are laid out in front of the child, and the first item the child grabs may guide the child’s destiny.  The items vary, but often include a string for long life, a judge’s mallet, a book, money, or a hammer.  When my son turned one, and because I have a warped sense of humor, I borrowed a serving spoon from the banquet hall and added that to the other items.  When it came time for my son’s doljabi, with both grandmothers waving $20 bills at him in the hopes that he’d be rich someday, he proved to be a chip off the old block and took the spoon.  His grandmothers looked crestfallen.  I smiled with quiet pride until my wife smacked me in the arm.  And wouldn’t you know, my son’s favorite pastime – besides Minecraft, duh – is helping me cook dinner on my days off.

And now for some of the least favorite, both in terms of realism and general watchability.  With that said, however, these are also films I’ll readily admit to hate-watching, but like a date with an ex, I’ll feel bad about myself the next day.

1.  Spanglish

2. No Reservations

3. Burnt

4. Simply Irresistible




I hate that big purple MF

We hardly watched TV with him his first year, but the last year and a half have been a revelation.  I’ve gotten to know everyone from Barney and Dora to Thomas and Caillou, though unlike Ryan, I don’t think the sun will rise based on what Diego has in his rescue pack.  I have little doubt that there are PhD candidates out there, parsing the happy-smile shows of today vs. the perfidious violence of Tom & Jerry (which I can’t wait to introduce him to).  They’ll probably come to the same conclusion as someone without a doctorate (me): under all the sugar-sweet smiles and kumbaya-we-love-the-world songs, some of today’s kid-show characters are out to wussify our children.  That includes the Korean show Ryan has been watching lately, whose hosts are so saccharine sweet they make me wish I’d never sold my guns.

I think it all started with Barney, when my generation started spawning and unleashing Gen X sensibilities into children’s programming.  Even if some of the latchkey-kid generation might need bucking up, we all knew at an early age that everything was not perfectly okay, so why pretend otherwise?  I’d rather have Ryan watch TV and learn that yes, my son, there are limits in life, but it’s up to us to overcome them.  Not, let’s just sing and play, and pretend that we’re one big I-love-you-you-love-me.  Besides, no dinosaur’s teeth could be that straight or that white.  No well meaning dinosaur would have so many young sidekicks who look like they’ll be doing hard time in Rahway or San Quentin later on in life.

Just before Christmas years back, one of my soldiers had spent most of his $1,300 monthly base pay (before taxes) on Barney presents and his mother in-law’s plane ticket.  He came in for duty looking like he hadn’t slept.  I asked him what was wrong and he said, without the remotest trace of irony, “Sar’nt K, let me tell you, I hate that big purple MF.”  I now know what he meant, and couldn’t agree more, but that didn’t stop us from playing with his son and his new Barney bounty.

My son loves the Backyardigans to no end, but Tasha seriously needs to get voted off the island.  Why is she always the queen/princess/captain?  Uniqua and Tyrone are just waiting for the right moment to unleash all their pent-up passive aggressiveness, while meek Pablo and Austin gleefully watch the beatdown.  Wouldn’t that be more educational for its realism?

The Little Einsteins probably all got together because none of them could stand stultifying silver-spoon lives that included $20k a year private schools, nannies, and helicopter parents.  Can we get an episode that tackles anger management, so that kids learn how to control their outbursts?  Or how to confront bullies?  Or how to share when someone in class or day care doesn’t want to?  Or anything that doesn’t force-feed him sugar and pretends it’s nutrition?  Sesame Street can – witness Grover being able to accomplish anything despite countless setbacks – why can’t anyone else?

What do I know?  We were watching Ice Age 3, and when Sid almost gets swallowed by the lava, Ryan was rooted in place looking like he was going to cry or scream or both.  We changed the channel to Nick Jr. so that Kai Lan can blur the nascent distinctions in his mind between English, Korean, and Mandarin.  He didn’t care, it was Kai Lan.

Appa needs a whiskey and someone to explain why no one shows Woody Woodpecker cartoons on TV anymore.

Adventures in potty training – part 2

I was told that I’ve been too serious lately.  Please note that I didn’t start this as another look-at-what-an-awesome-funny-dad-I-am blog.  Maybe I did when I first read through other dad blogs, some of which actually are great, links to which you’ll find to the right.  I didn’t want to pigeonhole myself, though, and I’m a heck of a lot funnier in a forum like this than in real life.  I wanted a medium where I could also tackle more serious current issues, because writing historical fiction doesn’t allow me to explore events besides the advice and policy of a horrible Secretary of Defense, or Executive Order 9066, which were monumental but not as germane to America ca. 2011.

I’ve been trying to teach him how to control the muscles around his bladder, the ones he needs to learn to control so that I’m not still buying diapers when we send him off to kindergarten.  This usually involves a lot of grunting to demonstrate, but that only cracks him up like Monty Python did for me back in the day.  At the very least, he’s been using the Sesame Street toddler toilet seat a few times a day, and he now says “potty training,” to warn us he has to go – well, most of the time.

One night last week was pretty typical in that I only had him in a t-shirt, no diaper.  My wife was running some errands, so I figured I could handle just about anything short of what he did at my mom’s place.  No worries.  Sure, the Knicks or Mets will win another championship in my lifetime, and the check is in the mail.  The TV was on, set to Nick Jr., his sippy cup was full of organic apple juice, and all was good in our world.

And then it wasn’t.

I thought he was watching the Fresh Beat Band (does any other parent want them dead, or is it just me?), and I was too busy typing away at this blog, so I let my attention lag.  Like any other red-blooded toddler, he sensed this and took full advantage.  From the kitchen, right around the corner from my line of sight, he let out his new laugh, a mean-spirited “I got you, Appa” that reminds me of Nelson the bully from the Simpsons.  I moseyed on over, and of course, there was a small yellowish puddle on the kitchen tile.  My  beautiful son pointed at it, said “Tchi-tchi,” Korean for filthy.  I asked him who did it, and got a disturbing shrug that meant “don’t know, don’t care.”  I could almost see that little shoulder movement working if he weren’t any only child, but sorry, my little man, you’re it for now.  It wasn’t Appa, who would need about ten shots of tequila before he does that on the kitchen floor.  Last I checked, I’m not going to be doing that while watching you… wait a minute, that might not be a bad idea, but I can definitely see your mom vetoing that forthwith.

Because I consider the dialogue I have with my son to be of some value to him, I naturally spoke to him as if he were a high functioning adult.  “No, Ryan, you need to tell Appa when you have to go potty training.  We don’t shee on the kitchen tile, okay?”  He eventually couldn’t help himself, and started cracking up so hard that he blew snot bubbles.  It truly warms my heart that I amuse you, son.  Please use the potty, or Omma will be mad at Appa, and Appa really really doesn’t want that to happen.

About half an hour later, while working on this post, he came up to me and grabbed my arm.  “Appa, come on!”  I know an order when I hear one, so I let him lead me to the hallway.  Mind you, we have wall-to-wall carpeting.  Right outside his bedroom door, he’d sharted on the floor.  There was brand new trail of wet brown spots like some nasty trick by Hansel and Gretel – a spot there, a spot here, all leading to a larger and final spot next to his kiddy table, which coincidentally doubles as our coffee table.  My blood pressure spiked, and I busted out half a roll of paper towels and a bottle of Simple Green.  “Ryan, why didn’t you tell Appa you needed to go?”

I got the shrug and another order: “Appa, clean!”

Do the Dew!

Here’s my quandary: I love me some Irish whiskey.  Since my wife introduced me to Tullamore Dew (quick back-story: a year before she became Mrs. Kim, Winnie Ranigan’s in Bayside, mid-afternoon, it was too hot for Guinness), I’ll hardly drink any other whiskey if that’s available.  I’ll stoop to Jameson when the Dew isn’t on the back-bar, or if the store doesn’t have it, but begrudgingly.  Quick nod to KR, my bartender buddy from DC back in the day, who fed me enough Jameson to embalm a dozen morbidly obese corpses.

Forgive me for this blasphemy, but there are always some instances when it’s (gasp!) better to drink something else.  Case in point: when it’s hotter than 85 or 90 outside, there’s almost nothing better than a Hendrick’s and tonic.  Problem is, gin tends to severely dislike me after the second cocktail.

Then there’s beer.  I’m not talking about some hand-crafted, amber, huckleberry-wheat germ pale ale that was blessed by the Pope before it was bottled.  No, let’s get into a bottle of something yellow, brewed in some gi-normous factory in Milwaukee or St. Louis, with a depressingly low alcohol content that would require me to drink a 12-pack to get the same warm buzz as three Dews.

Weak yellow American beer brings back great memories.  A stand of cypress woods right next to I-45 in Houston, back in high school.  Choosing between laundry and a pitcher of Beast at the Red Lion when I was in college.  Keystone Light at the PX or Class VI store, because I couldn’t afford Coors Light or Bud Light – or I was just too cheap, and wanted to save a dollar per six-pack.  Bottles of Budweiser with a Jameson or Jack Daniel’s neat at Bistro Bistro in Shirlington, or at the Subway bar on 61st while trying to not get into a fight, or an Irish bar in Queens.

Add to the quandary this: my tastes and professional experience have gone progressively more up-market over the years.  For example, I have a few thousand dollars’ worth of wine in the wine fridge in my living room.  I can tell the difference between a white Bordeaux and a California sauvignon blanc, and the subtle differences between cabernet sauvignons made in neighboring Northern California counties.  I’ve tasted wines from far-flung places like Virginia, Thailand, and the Texas Hill Country, and have settled on preferring any old red wine from California, preferably a pinot noir, but since the Mrs. is a cab fan… let’s just say that we drink a lot of cab at home.

So… what to drink on a balmy 70-degree beginning-of-summer evening?  Especially if I’m writing this while Mrs. Kim watches the DVR of the Oprah finale?

Miller Lite it is.