Petit Four:  noun (pl) petits fours (ˈpɛtɪ ˈfɔːz ; French) ( pəti fur)
any of various very small rich sweet cakes and biscuits, usually decorated with fancy icing, marzipan, etc.

So why do I begin with a definition of an old-fashioned dessert? Because at the age of seven, I had to sit and drizzle icing on these tiny cakes. Later, I learned how to clean and cook collards, fry okra so that it was crispy and not slimy, fry chicken, make a citrus fruit tree, and reduce two five-pound buckets of chitterlings into a little more than one. So why was that important? Because in order to cook chitterlings (chitlins) and not chase everyone out of the house, they had to be absolutely clean. Stinky chitlins means that someone was too lazy to clean them correctly or didn’t know how. And since chitlins are the intestines of a pig, that type of cleaning – if done correctly – takes hours and a real desire to do it right. Because poop. And I had to do it over and over until I got it right.

My grandmother, may she RIP, spent a lot of time working with me in the kitchen during the summers I would stay with her in North Carolina. I spent a lot of time at her side learning how things work in the kitchen.

Among her many other jobs, she was a caterer in the Deep South yet had never attended any kind of culinary school. Culinary schools were not available for daughters of ex-slaves in the Deep South in the middle of the 20th century. Everything she knew, she knew because she had a “feel” for food, a deft touch, a certain insight, and specific rules that could never be broken.
She was my Culinary Academy.

I say this because I am going to talk about these movies from the viewpoint of someone who genuinely, passionately, loves to cook. I’ve seen some of the reviews for a couple of these movies, and the critics were those who probably wouldn’t know a carbon steel pan from a sous vide bath.

Idiots.

Ratatouille
Pixar – 25th Anniversary Retrospective.” “RATATOUILLE,” (L-R) Remy, Linguini ©Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Although I have never attended culinary school, that doesn’t mean that I don’t have skills or appreciate what goes into creating great food, the value of a culinary education, and what it takes to run a wonderful kitchen. Once upon a time when I was the bar manager at a busy Southern California nightclub, a soul food restaurant opened up in the space next door. I spent a lot of time in that kitchen and had the joy of refreshing my cooking skills. To tell the truth, it was the first time I had ever worked in a professional kitchen, and I did it all for nothing. They didn’t realize that they paid me in a life experience that confirmed how much I truly love to cook. They loved the fact that I knew – really knew – how to clean chitlins.

That said, it was not a high-end haute cuisine type of kitchen. It was just a family trying to put together a really good soul food restaurant, and they actually did pretty well.

I’ve never worked in a high-end kitchen; just like most everybody else, I’ve only seen one on TV. Maybe I’m being naïve when I say this, but to me, a restaurant kitchen is a restaurant kitchen and only differs in the amount of stainless steel and the expected skill level of the workers in it.

Whether it’s haute cuisine or just a mom and pop, the difference isn’t that much. Passion is what counts.

Some of my favorite foodie movies – that is, movies about food, chefs, kitchens – have been released only in the last couple of years. I’m not talking about such latter day classics as Julie & Julia or Ratatouille, but I’m talking about those that really involve working in real kitchens. The common thread through each movie involves a down-and-out chef who eventually finds redemption through epiphanies and cooking.

I’m not reviewing the movies as much as I’m reviewing the reviewers. While I obviously could not read every single review, I discovered that many I did read showed an abysmal lack of knowledge when it came to knowing anything about the professional kitchen, the cooks who work in them, or the things that make foodies happy. In nearly every case, the critic focused on the people in the movies and talked about the plot, the character development, etc. In other words, things that you would expect critics to talk about. What they did not talk about, however, was the concept of food as one of the characters in the screenplay. They looked upon food as food but not as a part of a character being developed during the course of the movies, and they’d make the occasional snarky remark about a comment made by someone in the movie, usually the main character. More on that later.

As an extra note, I have to share that one of my hobbies is photography. In addition to the storylines – which are pretty simple and straightforward for the most part – there’s also the factor of the photography/videography. In these three movies, the imagery is awesome.

Chef

Chef Movie
Chef Movie

Undoubtedly the coolest soundtrack of the movies I watched. This was a highly rated movie at the end of 2014 when it was released. Jon Favreau was the down-and-out chef in this case. It was somewhat self inflicted; he made a couple of questionable career and relationship decisions which left him with a ruined reputation and jobless with zero prospects.

I think a lot of the appeal of this movie is that “Chef Carl” ultimately ended up with a food truck which was apparently where he started. Like all of the food in the movies, this one was rife with recipes ready for stealing. Okay. Not stealing. “Replicating.” Sounds better.

I understand that Mr. Favreau learned how to cook just for this movie and has decided to redo his home kitchen into one that reflects a professional one. In the many interviews he did when the movie was released, he indicated that the skills he acquired during the rehearsal and ultimate filming are his own. There’s no stand-in there. His character ultimately found redemption in a food truck, repaired relationships, and his own independence.

The videography was fine, the soundtrack was the best, and I liked – really liked – the storyline.

The Hundred Foot Journey

Hundred-Foot Journey
Hundred-Foot Journey

Believe it or not, I actually agree with some of the criticisms about the plot. Learning how to get along with others different from yourself is treated perhaps a bit too tritely, but that’s really the only negative, although it’s a substantial one that runs throughout the movie.

An Indian family is forced to flee their Mumbai restaurant and home when – the reasons aren’t made completely clear – a politically-motivated mob destroys everything that they have and kills the protagonist’s mother. The father and siblings eventually end up in a small town in France and open an Indian restaurant directly across the street (Hundred Foot – get it?) from a Michelin-starred restaurant. The proprietor of the restaurant is a haughty, unyielding, and arrogant woman who has continued to run the restaurant after the death of her husband.

In this case, the chef isn’t down and out, but up and coming. He has a gift for tasting that was nurtured by his mother, and he learned to cook under her tutelage (sound familiar?). He continued to try to cook well after the move to France, and eventually caught the attention of previously mentioned arrogant neighbor when she realized that he was truly gifted.

The food visuals in this movie are stunning. The closeups, the process of prepping the food, and the service are gorgeous. It almost makes me want to go eat some Indian food, this time with a new appreciation.

Burnt

Burnt Movie cast
Burnt Movie cast

More than one critic laughed at the phrase that Bradley Cooper’s Adam Jones character said when he said that he wanted people to be sick with longing. They called it trite, silly, eye-rolling, etc., etc., etc. What that showed to me is that these critics do not have a frigging clue about how important it is to serve food that makes people stop, emote, and yes, be sick with longing. (Side note: What’s wrong with having an Anton Ego moment?) When you cook food for people – be it your family or a restaurant full of guests – to have them stop, close their eyes, and have a culinary orgasm if you will, is the ultimate in cooking. These critics were clueless to that notion. When the Adam Jones character said that, I got it. They did not.

My vindication for my view of this movie came when I watched a few interviews with Marcus Wareing, the Michelin-starred chef consultant for the movie. He talked about all of the things that spoke to me: the level of detail, the skill of the chefs and line cooks, the hard work, and the mental state of anyone who truly loves to work in a kitchen. All of this, naturally, the critics missed.

Because I looked at the interactions with food as character development, I found that I loved the movie a lot more than most critics.  And not just because of Bradley Cooper’s baby blues.

Naturally, there are a few things that I don’t like about the movie.  One was Chef Adam’s (Bradley’s character) initial apparent ignorance of Sous Vide cooking. Really?

The other was the ever evolving beardlet that he wore.  Sometimes he’d look almost clean-shaven, and other times he looked like he had a week’s growth.  Those times occasionally occurred next to each other. That’s my inner movie critic speaking.

Celebrations

These movies have done several things for me. Aside from the plots – which are not complex, earth-changing scenarios by any means – the cooking aspect is what has touched my heart. Seeing people (okay, so what if they’re actors) passionately love food and work hard to give truly good food to their customers makes me wonder why the hell something like McDonald’s even exists at the level that it does.

The visuals are amazing. The close-ups of people cooking, the food porn photos, and the restaurants themselves are arresting. Where do you see that in a fast-food joint? Answer? You don’t.

Don’t get me wrong – even fast food “restaurants” have a place. But what you won’t see in a such a restaurant is food presented as if the cook respects the person who will be eating it.

Human beings, unlike animals, don’t eat to live.  We live to eat. We live to eat during our celebrations, our festivals, our funerals, our holidays, our rites, and more.  We look forward to each holiday because of the food that we’ll prepare, share, and eat.  I’m glad that we’re the way we are.

And I love the movies that showcase food as the important part of our lives that is. Not just for physical nourishment, but for emotional, psychological, and spiritual sustenance as well.

Thanks, Grandmom, for the start that you gave me.

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