Chefs and restaurants are increasingly taking over visual pop culture. Why can't we stop watching these sizzling storylines?
MADRID — Fernando and Alberto were saved by food. Or, rather, they were saved by their talent for turning ingredients into gastronomic works of art.
The story begins in 1974. Fernando is a dedicated sous-chef in a French restaurant in Barcelona and Alberto, his brother, is a cook, more interested in political struggles than in soufflés.
A confrontation with the police drives them to flee the city, take refuge in the small town of Cadaqués, Spain, and take charge of the kitchen in a surrealist restaurant whose owner's one obsession is to get Dalí to dine at one of his tables.
This story is not exactly real – Dalí is, of course, and so are his culinary tastes at the time in Cadaqués – but it all serves as the basis for a culinary comedy, one of this summer's Spanish film highlights, Waiting for Dalí (Esperando a Dalí).
Anyone who sees the film, directed by David Pujol, can linger on many things — its obsession with Dalí, the romantic plot, the eternal summer feel of its shots — but, above all, they will remember the food. The film shows the brothers cooking, choosing the best raw materials and discovering delicious tastes in the port's bars, and we also see them plating dishes with an almost avant-la-lettre art of culinary sophistication.
It is no coincidence: behind the fictional food by the sibling chefs is the truly inspired Ferrán Adrià, former head chef of celebrated restaurant El Bulli.
The kitchen is not a rare setting for series and movies. Chefs, recipes and the world of cooking star in films of all ranges and ambitions, from the animated cartoon Ratatouille to the disconcerting film The Menu, as well as an avalanche of afternoon movies in which the protagonists set up surprisingly profitable cupcake stores and endearing cafés. The same is true of television, where some of the most talked-about releases in recent years have been connected to the culinary arts.
A young rat living within the walls of a famous Paris bistro wishes to become a chef (Ratatouille Disney movie).
Entertainment Pictures via ZUMA
But why are we fascinated by shots of food, or montages in which chefs create art with sea bass and citrus foams, or the minutes of suspense waiting for the diners to pass judgment and confirm that everything is "delicious"?
Just think of The Bear, the viral hit series which just released its second season. It's one of those series that critics love and that those who have seen highly recommend, and yet a large part of the conflicts – minutes and minutes of plot – are spent on culinary drama. Once you get to the final episode of the first season, you might as well have a degree in food management.
Perhaps, these kinds of stories fascinate us because they allow us to enter a world that is recognizable but not always accessible. You could not pay for a Michelin-starred restaurant's tasting menu for the price of a movie ticket, but you can see the audiovisual version.
Perhaps we all are a little bit like Tyler, a character in The Menu, obsessed with seeing his culinary idol firsthand. Or maybe these movies – as The New York Times noted a few weeks ago; films about the horrors of fine dining are having their moment – work because they make us feel a little better about the fact that those meals aren't available to everyone. No one would want to be one of the select guests on The Menu.
We are fascinated by food because we know it first hand; we recognize it and we taste it.
In part, maybe they also function because these stories rely on drama within a space – the kitchen – in which everything is even more emotionally charged. As an article in Esquire points out, culinary-based dramas are the theme of the decade. It's seen as an "intense" profession, but it's also perceived as a much deeper story than the equally intense dramas of other professions convey.
It may be that the steam and high temperatures of the kitchen "magnify everything," as was said of the "Big Brother" house in the early 2000s, at least in the eyes of its viewers.
Ralph Fiennes and Anya Taylor-Joy for the movie Le Menu.
themenufilm via Instagram
We all eat food
On the contrary, perhaps the reason why all these stories fascinate us has nothing to do with drama or haute cuisine, but rather to do with being relatable and identifiable.
"Food has become sophisticated," Laurie Colwin said back in the 1980s in A Writer in the Kitchen. This is "the era of haute couture food," when in reality human beings can't feed themselves on tiny portions and dreams of Friday night dinners.
We are fascinated by food because we know it first hand; we recognize it and we taste it. It is something that, no matter how sophisticated and elevated it may appear to us, nevertheless remains personal. Remy, the rat protagonist of Ratatouille, who learned from television broadcasts starring a famous chef that anyone could do wonderful things in the kitchen if they put their mind to it, knew this well. All you have to do is follow the instructions and enjoy the food.
And that is ultimately the key to everything. If we're fascinated by watching hours and minutes of eating in TV series and movies, it's because, deep down, we want to be like Anton Ego, that evil antagonist in Ratatouille, won over by the most delicious ratatouille he'd tasted in a long time — or like Salvador Dalí in Waiting for Dalí, seduced by delicious treats.