Skip to main content

1. Ratatouille, 2007

This animated tale about a food-obsessed rat who teams up with a clueless garbage boy to restore the reputation of a once-great Parisian restaurant may be the most precisely rendered depiction of a professional kitchen of all time. Thanks to meticulous research, drawn from cooking classes, field trips to famed kitchens in France and such esteemed culinary consultants as Guy Savoy and Thomas Keller, the film nails every tiny detail - from fancy wrist flips to the discriminatory gender politics behind the copper-bottomed pans.

Gastro highlight: The rarefied ratatouille, a slow-roasted vegetable confit delectably fanned out accordion-style, which wins the crusty heart of food critic Anton Ego.

Story continues below advertisement

Gastro lowlight: Disbelief can only be suspended so far. There is no food critic in the world who would so casually order a 1947 Cheval Blanc, which sells for about $14,000 a bottle.

2. Eat Drink Man Woman, 1994

Director Ang Lee deserves a culinary Oscar for this mouth-watering film about a master Taiwanese chef who slaves over his "Sunday night torture ritual," as his three grown daughters call the elaborate family dinners. Unlike most food flicks, which lazily rely on quick cut before-and-after cooking shots, this smorgasbord of Chinese delights gives all the grunt work of chopping, poaching and frying their own exhilarating close-ups.

Gastro highlight: The opening scene follows a fish on its entire journey from water bucket to serving platter, building a hearty appetite as it is realistically killed with two chop sticks through the eyes, scaled, gutted, scored, dusted in flour, blanched and steamed.

Gastro lowlight: Taking pity on a young family friend whose divorced mother can't cook to save her life, chef Chu begins swapping lunches with the school girl (and finishes every last flavourless bite). How heartbreaking to see this passionate gourmet gnawing on dry, gristly spareribs.

3. Babette's Feast, 1987

A tour de force for the taste buds set in 19th-century Denmark, where a Parisian exile delivers a magnificent French meal to the simple home of two pious spinster sisters. The detail devoted to the preparation and devouring of this transcendent repast allows us to overlook the egregious historical error of making a woman the head chef in a high-society restaurant.

Story continues below advertisement

Gastro highlight: The entire climactic dinner scene, which cuts back and forth between the kitchen and the table. The camera closes in on Babette's hands as she cuts rounds of puff pastry and stuffs quail with foie gras, then later turns to an astonished guest as he crunches into the little bird's head and enthusiastically sucks out its brains.

Gastro lowlight: The melodramatic nightmare caused by a hissing soup-bound turtle.

4. Big Night, 1996

Two immigrant brothers running a restaurant in 1950s New Jersey are having trouble convincing their philistine customers that there's more to Italian food than spaghetti and meatballs. Nearly bankrupt, they decide to risk everything on a huge feast for a special guest. Skilled cooking takes centre stage throughout the film, but the final, uninterrupted take of the younger brother silently preparing a simple omelette easily ranks as one of the most profound - and authentically culinary - moments in foodie cinema.

Gastro highlight: The woman sprawled on top of the table smoking a cigarette at the end of the big night perfectly captures the blissful post-coital feeling that an extravagant meal with good friends and great music can induce. Gastro lowlight: The timpano, a deep-dish pie that includes layers of pasta, salami, provolone, meatballs, egg and tomato sauce is the star of the film. But would a chef who considers his food "the bread of angels" really resort to this home-style, peasant dish for such an important occasion? Although impressive to look at, timpano isn't any more difficult to make than lasagna.

5. Julie & Julia, 2009

Story continues below advertisement

The delightful new comedy intertwines the true stories of Julia Child, the legendary cookbook author and television personality, and Julie Powell, a 30-year-old "renegade foodie" from Queens, N.Y., who blogged her way to fame while attempting to cook all 524 recipes in Ms. Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. But aside from the occasional glimpse of dimpled trussed chickens and burnt boeuf bourguignon, there are surprisingly few cooking scenes. Meryl Streep, who plays Ms. Child, obviously spent more time practising her pitch-perfect vocal impersonation than her kitchen skills. Even after her character has supposedly aced the technique of dicing onions, she still wields her chef's knife like an axe.

Gastro highlight: A toss-up between Julia's squeals of delight during the tableside deboning of a beautifully browned sole meunière and Julie's screams of horror when three thermidor-bound lobsters refuse to go quietly into a pot of boiling water.

Gastro lowlight: Dan Aykroyd bleeding to death after slicing a chicken - and a thumb - during his famous impersonation of Ms. Child on Saturday Night Live .

6. La Grande Bouffe, 1973

Marco Ferreri's quintessential gross-out food film about four gastronomes who retreat to a Parisian villa with the intent of eating themselves to death is perverted, nauseating and unforgettable. The turkey massacre, sautéing of kidneys and basic food preparations are all convincingly veritable, but it's the realism of the truly gluttonous scenes - the cake fight, the force feeding or the moulding of tart pastry with a naked bottom - that makes them all the more disturbing.

Gastro highlight: Ugo the chef gorging on a paté cathedral while Andrea, the insatiable schoolteacher, pleasures him to his disgusting end.

Gastro lowlight: The toilet explosion.

7. Vatel, 2000

Gérard Depardieu shines as the fastidious yet sensitive "master of pleasure and festivities" in this French period film loosely based on the true story of François Vatel, the master steward for the Prince of Condé. But the real star of this story about an intrigue-filled visit from King Louis XIV is the sumptuous food itself. In a grotty palace kitchen brimming with cartloads of fresh produce and scores of limp-feathered birds, delicate confections are blown from sugar, melons are intricately carved into lanterns and oranges rest inside twirled peels that drop like dressing robes. Ultimately, however, these opulent bonbons leave you hungry for more cooking scenes.

Gastro highlight: When the eggs for custard spoil, the master steward ingeniously improvises by beating sugar into cream to create a fluffy crème Chantilly - which the real Mr. Vatel, who allegedly killed himself after receiving an inadequate supply of fish for this historic royal feast, is said to have invented.

Gastro lowlight: During a grossly decadent dinner set to a spectacular explosion of fireworks, a groomsman behind the scenes gets caught in a rope and is hanged to death. A close runner-up is the scene in which Mr. Vatel's beloved pet parrots are sacrificed for their bloody, beating hearts to relieve the prince's gout.

8. Like Water for Chocolatee, 1992

Although the story is enchanting, the cooking scenes in this magical-realist Mexican fable about thwarted love are disappointingly static. Whether the heartbroken Tita is pouring sadness into a wedding cake batter or shelling walnuts, the kitchen action is as fleeting as her passion is long-lasting.

Gastro highlight: An aphrodisiacal quail in rose petal sauce that lights a fire under Tita's feverish sister.

Gastro lowlight: The chronically flatulent Rosaura, lying in bed with her purple lips and bloated body, as she gasps a last putrid breath.

9. No Reservations, 2007

This insipid remake of the intoxicating German film Mostly Martha stars Catherine Zeta-Jones as an emotionally repressed, control-freak executive chef whose life is turned upside down when she becomes her niece's guardian. Whereas the original German film lingered over sensuous tableaus of sizzling fish, steaming stocks and dreamy puffs of flour, these cameras are firmly focused on the pouty lips and doleful brown eyes of the perfectly poised chef who never once breaks a sweat, soils her apron or has a single strand of hair out of place.

Gastro highlight: The ice queen finally drops her guard when her niece and soon-to-be boyfriend prepare an indoor pizza picnic that she must eat - mon dieu - with her hands!

Gastro lowlight: Wrinkling her nose, the niece tosses three fist-sized black truffles in the garbage.

10. Simply Irresistable, 1999

Sarah Michelle Gellar was a hell of a lot more plausible as a vampire slayer than the spellbinding chef she attempts to portray in this simply indigestible turkey of a romantic fantasy. Tottering around her kitchen in high-heel, open-toe sandals and glittery tank tops, the petite actress (who appears to be using a wooden spoon for the very first time) can barely lift a sauce pan, let alone make us believe that she's suddenly capable of whipping up crab napoleon and caramel profiteroles that reduce diners to tears of joy and heights of ecstasy.

Gastro highlight: When the snooty French chef of a splashy new department-store restaurant bails on opening night (because Air France lost his knives), Ms. Gellar's character is called in to save the day - only to discover that the chef has bolted with his white truffles. The dismissive sous-chef's smug grin is deliciously deserved.

Gastro lowlight: A magical chicken payard compels the love interest's ex-girlfriend to fling food and smash plates all over the restaurant. Only 20 minutes into the film, viewers will be tempted to do the same thing with the DVD.

Special to The Globe and Mail.

Report an error
About the Author
Vancouver restaurant critic

Alexandra Gill has been The Globe and Mail’s Vancouver restaurant critic since 2005. She joined the paper as a summer intern in 1997 and was hired full-time as an entertainment columnist the following year. In 2001, she moved to Vancouver as the Western Arts Correspondent, a position she held until 2007. More

Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.