5. Ratatouille (2007)
Made in Pixar’s heyday, when the majestic animation studio seemed incapable of producing anything but modern masterpieces, Brad Bird’s love letter to art for art’s sake was a glorious tribute to the muse of ingredient combination. The hero is a country rat called Remy whose unlikely kitchen skills lead him to guide an imbecilic chef to national celebrity and re-establish a second-tier Paris restaurant back to its former glory.
The film makers sought the advice of one of America’s greatest chefs, Thomas Keller who provided Pixar with dishes so visually sumptuous that the only possible response was to let a tear roll respectfully down one’s left cheek.
However, the dish that sends the much-feared food critic Anton Ego whizzing back on a Proustian journey to the first spoonful that made his taste-buds stand to attention is a simple country-style vegetable stew: ratatouille. Actually, not as simple as it looks in this case: the recipe was based upon Keller’s celebrated and highly intricate Confit Byaldi.
Wine recommendation: If the speed at which Linguini gets drunk is anything to go by, you won’t need much of the 1964 Château Latour he drinks with Chef Skinner to have a good night.
4. Sideways (2004)
But where are my manners? You’ll need some wine with your meal, surely, and your sommelier tonight is noted cork-master and un-noted writer Miles, played by (the disgracefully un-Oscar-nominated) Paul Giamatti in Alexander Payne’s bittersweet comedy. He takes his best friend, the dim-witted, habitually unfaithful Jack (Thomas Haden Church) on a stag-weekend to the Napa valley to enjoy a few days of wine appreciation.
Being the kind of chap that chews gum during a tasting, it isn’t long before Jack’s unquenchable libido tears them away from the world of excellent Pinot Noirs and disappointing Cabernet Franc, and into a world of trouble instead.
The almost metaphysical allure of the perfect glass of wine is described perfectly by Miles’s friend Maya (Virginia Madsen). “I like how wine continues to evolve, like if I opened a bottle of wine today it would taste different than if I’d opened it on any other day, because a bottle of wine is actually alive.”
Having learned to cast off the shackles of his own making and live life in the moment, Miles eventually ends up drinking his prized possession – a 1961 Chevel Blanc – from a plastic cup alongside a burger and fries.
Wine recommendation. Anything but a fucking merlot.
3. Eat Drink Man Woman (1994)
Ang Lee’s break-out film is the ultimate example of a movie that should never be watched on an empty stomach. In this case, you’d barely make it through the first five minutes. With knife-wielding skills verging on the supernatural, Lee opens the film with a vignette of dishes being painstakingly prepared with balletic mastery by elderly chef, Mr Chu (Sihung Lung) – the recipes themselves were created by food consultant Lin Huei-Yi).
From whole chicken boiled in a light broth, to the scoring of the squid hood and the delicate preparation of the dim sum, this is a portrait of the chef as artist and master of his craft.
Mr Chu’s three volatile and combative daughters seemingly spend their lives trying their best to irritate each other, but every single Sunday, religiously, they return to the family table where their father spoils them rotten with jaw-dropping creations.
Lee’s fascination with family in all its forms is much in evidence here, and food is the great unifier. His daughters might be modern, cosmopolitan ‘90s gals with disdain for the old ways, but they return without fail to eat food that bridges generations and pulls them together, if only for one meal a week.
Wine recommendation: While Mr Chu’s generosity knows no bounds in the kitchen, his cellar is disappointingly bare. Perhaps he feels that food this good doesn’t need wine. Spoilsport.
2. Big Night (1996)
Along with Babette’s Feast, Big Night is probably one the most beloved Food Films ever made. Set in the 1950s, Stanley Tucci co-directed this tale of two brothers Secondo and Primo (Tucci and Tony Shalhoub) whose New Jersey Italian restaurant is threatened with closure.
The infuriating irony is that while Secondo’s food is pure Ambrosia, it is the gaudy, flashy faux-Italian restaurant down the road, with its average food and curiously-accented boss (Ian Holm) that is bringing in the big bucks. (Fine food is a subject close to Tucci’s heart: his cook-book The Tucci Table has just been published to great acclaim.)
The centrepiece of Big Night, and the reason for its unchallenged status as the ultimate food-porno is the banquet that Primo creates to set before jazz legend Louis Prima and thus save the restaurant. The star of the show is the timpano, a mosaic-layered pasta, sausage and egg dish set in a drum-like bowl. The moment that Primo and Secondo tease it out of the container is as tense as any bomb-diffusing scene you could name.
For all the extravagance that has been lavished upon their guests, the most sublime meal in the film might just be the simple omelette that Secondo cooks up in the beautiful wordless coda that ends with the two brothers arm in arm. Sometimes, food can be so perfect that words just become superfluous.
Wine recommendation: By this stage, you’re best off with a strong coffee, Berocca and a good lie-down.
1. Babette’s Feast (1987)
Probably the most celebrated film about food ever made, Gabriel Axel’s Oscar-winning Danish smorgasbord is, like Lasse Hallström’s Chocolat (2000)m, a hymn to the power of sensuality to overcome society’s desire to oppress and contain such dangerous, soul-troubling notions.
The diners, guests of a pair of devotedly Christian sisters paying tribute to their late pastor father in 19th Century Jutland, make a pledge that they will not even mention the meal that housekeeper Babette has just spent her entire lottery win to create. Indeed, the sight of the luxurious ingredients arriving from France (including a soup-destined turtle) makes the good but pious sisters think that witchcraft may be involved.
Little do the guests realise but the woman they know to be a lowly housekeeper was once the head chef at the celebrated Café Anglais in Paris, and the meal is such a remorselessly mouth-watering experience that by the time the cheeses have arrived, the level of intense good feeling has left old scores and rivalries forever forgiven.
After a lifetime of denial and bland soups, many of the dishes presented to the townsfolk seem like pure science-fiction. Happily one of the sisters’ old suitors is paying a visit, and General Lorens Löwenheim is on hand to show them how best to tackle Cailles en Sarcophage, or quail stuffed with foie gras and truffle baked in puff pastry – start with the beak.
Wine recommendation: Clos de Vougeot Pinot Noir (an 1840 if you have one lying around) and a Sauternes to accompany the cheese.
Author Bio: Cai is a food and film writer, with articles published in The Chap, Fire & Knives, Gin & It and Cinema Retro. He is a features writer for HeyUGuys.co.uk and has yet to get over the Jaws obsession which consumed him as a callow youth.