Filmmakers find we’re watching what we eat

08/18/2014 1:42 PM

08/18/2014 1:42 PM

The theater is dark, the film is rolling – and your mouth is watering.

Forget popcorn. This feast is for your eyes: sizzling green tomatoes, perfectly pink onions, a ripe zucchini being expertly chopped. At the helm of the knife? An actor you know and love.

Ogling food on the big screen has gotten easier and easier now that so many culinary-focused films are hitting theaters. In the past year alone we’ve seen “Haute Cuisine,” set in the kitchen of a French president; “Le Chef,” about a struggling French restaurant; “Final Recipe,” in which a boy enters a cooking contest in Shanghai to save his family restaurant; and “The Lunchbox,” about the relationship that begins when a woman’s appetizing creations are mistakenly delivered to a stranger in India.

This summer has seen two high-profile food movies: “Chef,” directed, written and starring Jon Favreau, and “The Hundred-Foot Journey” with Helen Mirren, which is now playing.

These aren’t just romantic comedies that happen to include chefs, a la “No Reservations” or “Spanglish.” In these films, the story lines depend on the food itself: who is cooking, what is being cooked and how the food will change the plot.

“The food is an important character itself,” said Juliet Blake, who produced “The Hundred-Foot Journey” with Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg. These movies let you see the dishes come to life, from the pouring of oil into an empty pan to the first bite. Blake said Mirren put it this way: Don’t eat before the movie, but make sure you have reservations afterward.

When the camera is focused on the kitchen, director and actors can no longer expect to fake their way through the culinary arts. The growing popularity of food television shows such as “Chopped” and “Top Chef” has heightened expectations for food movies as well. The films’ creators have to make a greater effort for the kitchens and the food itself to be believable – and delectable – on screen. Even the most talented actor couldn’t pretend to chop an onion.

For Manish Dayal, that meant going to culinary school. In “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” Dayal plays a young chef whose family moves to southern France to start an Indian restaurant (to the dismay of a French restaurateur across the street, played by Mirren). Just as Dayal’s character eventually trains with the French greats, the producers sent the actor to a strict Paris cooking institute where he learned the basics.

Favreau took a less conventional but more intensive route by following Los Angeles chef Roy Choi for more than two months. Choi is known for his Korean taco truck, Kogi, making him the perfect fit for a movie about a chef who leaves a high-profile restaurant and finds his mojo on a food truck.

Favreau learned every part of the business, Choi said. He dined with Wolfgang Puck at the Hotel Bel-Air, but also spent hours peeling shrimp in Puck’s prep kitchen.

“Jon’s whole objective from day one was to get it right,” Choi said. “And he was a man of his word.”

Choi was heavily involved in making the kitchens in “Chef” seem realistic. Instead of building a restaurant, as did the makers of “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” Choi and Favreau filmed in the kitchen of Hatfield’s in L.A.

In “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” script writers made a point of incorporating real traditions of French and Indian cuisine. One of the film’s key moments is when Mirren’s character uses the making of an omelet as the litmus test of a chef’s abilities.

“Although that is an uncommon practice now, it’s what many French chefs and restaurants might have done 30 years ago,” Michel Pradier, a former executive chef at the District’s Lion d’Or who now teaches French cooking at L’Academie de Cuisine, said after a recent screening.

As each ingredient of the omelet (chervil, tarragon, parsley) is lovingly tossed into the pan, it seems almost wrong that the theater isn’t serving eggs to you, too.

The food looks so good, the producers say, because it is good. Every morsel in “The Hundred-Foot Journey” and in “Chef” is edible. Production techniques often used in advertising, such as spraying the food to make it shinier or gluing it in place, were prohibited.

Chefs, not food stylists, cooked and plated each dish, often many times over, so when a “first bite” scene needed to be filmed more than once, there would always be an untouched meal for the fork to pierce – and for the staff to eat when the scene’s filming was complete, said “The Hundred-Foot Journey” actor Om Puri.

The dishes in Puri’s film were meticulously chosen to be most appealing to American audiences. The novel that inspired the movie included ingredients such as lamb’s feet, bull testicle and octopus, the last killed when its head was turned inside out.

In the movie, the Indian dishes are far more tame – and slightly geographically inaccurate. “Many of the dishes in the film are those that you would typically see in Indian restaurants in America,” Indian chef K.N. Vinod, of Indique in Washington, said after the screening.

The vast majority of Indian restaurants in America serve food that would be found in northern India, Vinod said. The family in the movie, however, is supposed to be from Mumbai, in western India.

Still, dishes like chicken tandoori, saag aloo and murgh masala make for a colorful and mouthwatering introduction to Indian cuisine. Given the “Chef”’ scenes of sugar drifting over berries, bread toasting in a grill and beef brisket releasing its juices onto a cutting board, it’s clear that the bar has been raised for what food should look like in films.

Apricot-Spiced Crepes

6 to 8 servings (six to eight 8-to-10-inch crepes)

For the crepes

1 cup flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 large eggs

1 cup whole milk, plus more as needed

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled

Vegetable oil, for frying

Sugar, for serving

Crème fraîche or sour cream, for serving (optional)

For the filling

8 ounces fresh apricots, pitted and cut into thin slices

8 ounces drained canned apricot halves

3 tablespoons crème fraîche or sour cream

1/4 teaspoon apple pie spice (may substitute a combination of ground allspice, cinnamon and freshly grated nutmeg)

For the crepes: Sift the flour and salt together into a mixing bowl. Make a well at the center; add the eggs and 1/2 cup of the milk. Whisk until smooth, then whisk in the remaining 1/2 cup of milk and the cooled butter. Cover loosely and let stand at room temperature for 1 to 2 hours; the consistency should be like that of heavy cream. If it’s too thick, stir in 2 to 3 tablespoons of milk.

Meanwhile, make the filling: Combine the fresh and canned apricots, the crème fraiche or sour cream and the apple pie spice blend in a blender or food processor; puree until smooth. Transfer to a liquid measuring cup (with a pour spout); refrigerate until ready to use. The yield is a scant 2 cups.

Heat the crepe pan or skillet over medium heat. Brush or wipe the inside surface with a small amount of the oil. The pan is ready when water flicked onto the cooking surface sizzles and evaporates in seconds. Pour in about 1/4 cup of the batter and immediately tilt the pan to spread the batter evenly over the bottom. Cook for about 90 seconds or until the top appears dry and the bottom is lightly browned. Flip the crepe over and cook for 30 seconds or until lightly browned. Transfer to a plate.

If the first crepe seems too thick, stir 1 or 2 tablespoons of milk into the remaining batter to achieve the desired consistency.

Repeat the crepe-making with the remaining batter.

To serve, spread 2 to 3 tablespoons of the apricot puree over half of each crepe, then fold the crepe into quarters. Arrange on plates; sprinkle lightly with sugar and add a dollop of crème fraîche or sour cream, if desired. Spoon any remaining puree over each portion.

Nutrition: Per serving (based on 8): 170 calories, 5 g protein, 19 g carbohydrates, 8 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 60 mg cholesterol, 105 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber, 6 g sugar

Adapted from a recipe developed by Le Creuset in honor of the film “The Hundred-Foot Journey.”

Onion Bhajis

4 to 5 servings (makes 12 to 15 fritters)

You’ll need an instant-read thermometer for monitoring the oil.

Awajain seed and chickpea flour are available at Indian markets.

1 1/2 to 2 quarts canola oil, for frying

2 to 3 red onions, cut into very thin slivers (about 4 cups total)

1 serrano chili pepper, seeded and minced

Leaves and tender stems from 10 cilantro stems, chopped

Pinch whole Awajain seed, crushed (may substitute dried thyme; see headnote)

1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric

Pinch salt

1 1/2 cups chickpea flour (also called besan or gram flour; see headnote)

Water

Tamarind chutney or mint-cilantro chutney, for serving

Pour the oil into a medium, heavy-bottomed pot to a depth of at least 3 inches and heat over medium-high heat to 350 degrees. Line a platter or baking sheet with several layers of paper towels.

Meanwhile, combine the onions, serrano, cilantro, Awajain seed, turmeric and salt in a mixing bowl; use your clean hands to toss together.

Place the flour in a separate bowl. Add a little water at a time, using your fingers to work just enough of it in to form a thick paste that does not move when the bowl is briefly inverted.

Add the paste to the onion mixture; use your hands to make sure the solids are evenly coated.

To test the oil, drop in a good pinch of the coated onion mixture; if it quickly bobs to the surface with bubbles around it, the oil’s ready.

Working in three or four batches (keeping in mind the goal of 12 to 15 bhajis), drop small handfuls of the onion mixture into the hot oil; fry for a few minutes, until golden brown. The bhajis will become crisped, crunchy tangles, soft on the inside. Transfer to the paper towels to drain.

Serve hot, with chutney for dipping.

Nutrition: Per serving (based on 5, without chutney): 180 calories, 7 g protein, 26 g carbohydrates, 6 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 80 mg sodium, 4 g dietary fiber, 7 g sugar

Adapted from a recipe by chef Floyd Cardoz for Richard C. Morais, author of “The Hundred-Foot Journey” (Scribner, 2011).

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