Once upon a time, there were movies about musicians down on their luck, underdog stories in which debonair but dejected guitar heroes would eventually emerge as the rock stars they truly were. Whether they failed to see their roguish appeal or had to check their egos in order to find redemption, it was all part of the classic Hollywood formula. Then, one day, someone decided to take this formula and apply it to other artists, eventually branching out into other fields (for example, computer programmers). Suddenly every math and computer genius started looking like David Bowie’s Nikola Tesla in The Prestige (2006) or Michael Fassbender’s Steve Jobs (2015). Recently, Hollywood has discovered yet another profession to misrepresent and exaggeratedly glamourize: the chef.
Food has always found a place in film, whether it’s a romantic dinner, à la Lady and the Tramp (1955), or the $200,000 pie fight scene in The Great Race (1965). However, it’s typically been isolated in single scenes, played a background role or served as a vehicle to present plot points and showcase more important themes.
Gathering for food is a perfect reason for getting people into the same room for a common purpose, but how many times have we seen characters sit down for a meal and actually make it through the entire scene without once consuming any food? The entire premise of Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) is friends gathering for food; however, in a series of interruptions and bizarre circumstances, no food is eaten.
The tide has turned over the years and the act of cooking, eating, and the admiration of food itself has gained importance, along with the goal of visually enticing movie-viewing audiences. It began with an increased importance of the role of food and the person who fashioned it. Films began to star central characters that created food, which was then used as a vehicle to guide viewers through the story.
In Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), patriarch Chu is a master chef who prepares a weekly dinner for his family, for which they gather. Through their conversations we witness the clash of old traditions and ideals with new, differing opinions of relationships, conduct and values. We drool over these scrumptious meals, which hold our attention as we accompany the Chu family through to the climax of the film.
Waitress (2007) and Julie & Julia (2009) focus on two young women’s lives as they discover their inner strengths through food, but deep down we know it’s not really about the foodstuff but their self-discovery and growth. The act of cooking helps them think, reason and attract others to them. Ultimately a catharsis is reached while they bake and cook.
The 100 Foot Journey (2014) encompasses some of Hollywood’s latest ideals about chefs and cooking, but overall uses cuisine to symbolize the differences between cultures. It’s also what mends the divide and leads its characters to acceptance and friendship. The film was backed by tinsel town heavyweights Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey, truly signifying food’s increasingly leading role in cinema.
Documentary filmmaking also deserves some recognition when it comes to the increased attention placed upon food and cooking. The popularity of documentaries about food has also risen over the years, gaining greater momentum ever since the success of Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me. What began as a growing collection of investigative documentaries now encompasses a number of films with a biographical slant, largely focused on celebrity chefs, such as Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011).
Of course, we have reality TV to thank for the entire notion of “celebrity chefs.” A category once synonymous with names such as cooking show heavyweights Wolfgang Puck and Julia Child, now there are dozens of competitive cooking reality series and the winner of each one — each season! — is slated for stardom. It feels like there is a new “it” chef, with his or her television series on the Food Network, every month.
Maybe it’s the increased screen time, but there are a growing number of chefs who are increasingly easy on the eyes. At some point, looks and personality started becoming as important as how well you could run a kitchen. Naked Chef Jamie Oliver was one of the first to benefit from his television fame (and looks), while the suave Anthony Bourdain has built not only a culinary empire, but a media one as well. His reformed bad boy, refined image even earned him a cameo in one of this year’s Oscar-nominated films, The Big Short (2015).
Jon Favreau created a sub-genre of film specifically targeted at foodies with Chef (2014). While Favreau may not resemble a fashion runway model, he created an environment around his character that personified “cool.” Chef Carl Casper (Favreau) is a tattooed hothead whose hands create magical-looking gastro porn. In addition to extended montages of Chef Casper making tantalizing dishes in the kitchen, we are supposed to believe this cook was married to knockout Sofia Vergara and now sleeps with restaurant hostess Scarlett Johansson. The character is a great deal harder to swallow than the Cubano sandwiches he makes, topped with fresh, grilled meats and melted cheese, pressed to perfection.
That said, Favreau’s Chef Casper is the boy-next-door compared to Hollywood’s latest offering, Burnt (2015), starring Bradley Cooper as Adam Jones, a pushy, inconsiderate, reformed drug addict who essentially schemes and blackmails his old colleagues into helping him realize his plan to regain his former glory and achieve a third Michelin star. What’s worse is that audiences are expected to root for him. The film is nothing more than a flimsy plot, Cooper’s hand double making food and a series of attractive (or, at least, edgy-looking) people somehow tied to the London food industry. However, Hollywood is keen to spoon-feed this to us because chefs are currently “in.”
Just how did we go from the overweight Gusteau and short, weaselly Skinner in Ratatouille (2007) to Bradley Cooper as the poster boy for kitchen staff everywhere? When did the look of food and the people who make it supersede quality and taste? Sadly, until Hollywood finds a new profession to capitalize upon, we may be subjected to cooking comeback stories and judging chefs based on their “cool factor” and the tattoos on their muscled arms for the next little while.