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.
2. No Reservations
4. Simply Irresistible