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Bite Me

Dinner and a Movie

Movies and food, food and movies. Would I have enjoyed Julia Blackbird's New Mexican Cafe(see review, page 61) had it not been for the unfortunate mention of Like Water for Chocolate on the menu? Not likely. Still, there should be a rule in the restaurant business about not setting yourself up for a fall by misusing a movie like that. For example, don't hang a picture of the guys in GoodFellas in your Italian restaurant's lobby if you're not going to slice your garlic properly.

Most cooks I know are serious -- though sometimes secretive -- film geeks, and obsessive about what they like. I remember (or don't, as the case may be) many dawns seen through the slatted blinds of some cook's studio apartment, the scattered remnants of a half-dozen kitchen crews in the terminal stages of total physical and chemical collapse watching The Godfather on some dinky pawnshop TV, and all of us coming around just in time to bark back Clemenza's best line: "Leave the gun, take the cannoli."

Or better yet, the time in Buffalo when one of the restaurant's owners came barging into my kitchen in a snit over having to shell out the green to have our chef coats laundered. He stood there in the doorway, waving the bill at me, my partner, our sous and dishwashers, and he was bug-eye pissed over the twenty bucks a week we were costing him by getting blood and sweat and gravy on our sleeves while we worked. And then this hinky prick -- this penny-pinching, bean-counting douche bag who thought nothing of corking a $300 Lafitte for his friends at the bar but made us cook with Gallo wine out of a box -- actually said, "I watched Big Night yesterday, and those guys, they spend the whole movie cooking, and they never get a spot on their jackets!"

Now I grant you, Big Night is one of the all-time great food movies, and there's not a cook alive who doesn't love it for a hundred reasons (some of which are detailed below), but the operative word here is movie. Good as it is, it still ain't real. There was no explaining this to the douche bag, though. From then on, we worked in T-shirts and butcher's aprons. My sous's favorite was an OD green thrift-store rag with "Charlie Don't Surf" screened across the front.

In my experience, the two best ways to get a cook talking and keep him talking is to bring up either food or film. And when you're talking about both together? The conversation can go on for hours.

"Oh, yeah. Big Night, absolutely," replies chef Mike Long of Opus when I get him on the blower and pose the question: What's your favorite food movie of all time?

Long is an out-of-the-closet geek for the celluloid, a true believer, a dedicated fan. He cooked a menu last year that represented the best of the best of everything caught in the crossing vectors of food and film, and one of the courses was a "Timpano for Louis Prima" straight out of the movie's centerpiece dinner. "It's got the two cranky Italian brothers, and I gotta love that because I'm Italian, right?" Long says. "And then there's that scene where..."

The scene is where the woman is sitting in the empty dining room of the brothers' restaurant, demanding a side of spaghetti with her seafood risotto because just up the street, at the successful restaurant (which is the vile Buca di Beppo or Macaroni Grill to every struggling family joint anywhere), a side of spaghetti comes with everything. "And then he says, ŒThey're both starch! Maybe she wants a side of mashed potatoes, too?'" Long continues, laughing.

He's right -- that's a great scene. So's the one where Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (Stanley Tucci) are standing at the bar, talking about the failing menu. Remembers Long: "And Primo says, ŒI have an idea. Maybe we should add the, ah... Come se di'?'"

"Hot...dog...?" we both finish in our best bad Italian accents.

Long is also a fan of Star Wars as a food movie. In particular, the moment in the cantina in which young Luke Skywalker is handed his drink -- some neon-blue Windex in a glass -- and does a double take, staring at it suspiciously. "That blue stuff he drank, man," he says. "There's a food memory for you."

As I keep calling kitchens and asking the same question, the answer is almost always Big Night. The timpano, Primo at the flower shop, the brothers on the beach, fighting, crying, realizing their failures and betrayals. For Pete Marczyk of Marczyk Fine Foods and Wine, it's the final long shot -- the breakfast after the night of the party, when Stanley Tucci makes the best, most silent omelette in the history of film and sits down to eat it with his brother, the two men reconciled to their fates, their arms around each other's shoulders.

Sean Kelly of Clair de Lune goes for the film's opening sequence. "It's got the two brothers struggling," he says. "There's the one [Primo] who cares for his food, his standards over the money. And then the other [Secondo], who's already after that American flash, even though you know they haven't been in the country that long. You can see the restaurant failing and that struggle between them. I think I was two years into Aubergine at the time I first saw the movie, and I recognized that same conflict in myself."

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