Bite Me

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'?'"

" ?" 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."

My friend Johnny, former sommelier and service captain, offers up Fight Club. "Never forget what a waiter can do to your soup if he doesn't like you," he reminds me, and I remind him that's exactly why I never send anything back. Marczyk also picks Babette's Feast for the caille en sarcophage (quail in a coffin) and the Veuve-Clicquot 1865 that's served at the dinner. Barbara Macfarlane (Marczyk's wife, partner and a film-school grad from the University of Vermont) goes for the French cult film La Grande Bouffe, in which four friends, chefs all and tired of their lives and the meaninglessness of their existence (ah, the French...), decide to eat themselves to death. Of course, being French, they must arrive at their destination via a classic Bugatti roadster and can't finish the film without cavorting with all the local whores. It's existentialism for the glutton, a Dionysian fantasy of self-destruction by excess -- disgusting, disturbing and pure punk rock. It's a wonder more cooks haven't latched on to this one.

Apocalypse Now is a classic because on the one hand, that's where cooks learn their place in the insane hierarchy of the kitchen (you walk the path, from Willard to Kilgore to Kurtz, I was once told in an all-too-honest assessment of a chef's career), but on the other, it's a food movie. The action moves from the air-conditioned lunch in the commander's office ("I don't know how you feel about this shrimp, Captain, but if you eat it, you'll never have to prove your courage to me in any other way"), to the steak-and-beer barbecue on the sand after the beach assault and napalm strike, to the sacrificial slaughter of the cow at the end of Willard's journey up the river. And Full Metal Jacket? That's where cooks learn to talk and swagger.

(Why does the cook's patois borrow so heavily from the slang of the soldier in the field? Because cooks love war movies, work in an environment often overladen with blood and testosterone, translate their experiences easily through Coppola's and Kubrick's lenses, and find some common misery in the theme of good men in bad places. For that matter, soldiers probably talk that way because they, too, have watched too many war movies, but that's another story.)

And, of course, there's GoodFellas. I've gotten jobs purely on my ability to quote accurately from Henry Hill and Big Paulie's discussion about slicing the garlic, and that scene still drives cooks nuts, because why use a friggin' razor blade when you can cut just as fine, and faster, with the forte of a Sabatier? Anthony Bourdain often talks about taking his management style straight from The Godfather, and says this in his book A Cook's Tour: "Understand this about me -- and about most chefs, I'm guessing: For my entire professional career, I've been like Michael Corleone in The Godfather, Part II, ordering up death over the phone, or with a nod or a glance. When I want meat, I make a call, or I give my sous-chef, my butcher, or my charcutier a look and they make the call. On the other end of the line, my version of Rocco, Al Neary, or Luca Brasi either does the job himself or calls somebody else who gets the thing done. Sooner or later, somewhere -- whether in the Midwest, or upstate New York, or on a farm in rural Pennsylvania, or as far away as Scotland -- something dies."


Tony Macihe, the bar manager at Brix, is the first one to pick the apple-pie scene from American Pie. "Childish," he says, "but that's my contribution." My friend and occasional dining companion Sean Davis is partial to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom -- with the monkey brains and the big snake filled up with little snakes. Sean Kelly also likes The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover -- another French film, this one about sex and death and cannibalism at the high-end abattoir Le Hollandais, where the kitchen is the bloody, steaming dungeon of a cook's worst nightmares. There's also the cannibalistic Delicatessen; Peter Jackson's Bad Taste, about a group of space-faring restaurateurs who open a human-burger franchise; Soylent Green; and Silence of the Lambs, with its liver, fava beans and a nice key-aan-tee.

No one mentions a few of my favorites -- Heavy, the first half of Whiskey Down, Tampopo (which I remember only dimly, but fondly), Dinner Rush, Frankie and Johnny, and the scene in A Christmas Story where the family has Chinese duck for their Christmas dinner. But John Broening of Brasserie Rouge comes up with a couple of classics in grubnik-cinema greatness. First he mentions the hard-boiled-egg scene in Cool Hand Luke (a stone classic that I never even thought of until he mentioned it), and then says, "It looked like Newman was actually eating and swallowing all those eggs. How long do you think that must've taken?"

He also likes Life Is Sweet, by Mike Leigh, if for no other reason than the moment where the chef of the doomed restaurant describes his menu: pig's trotter with rhubarb hollandaise, spot prawn with strawberry jam. "It's funny," Broening says. "The spot prawn I actually saw once on a menu in St. Louis. Talk about truth being stranger than fiction."

Leftovers: It's official. The space at 250 Josephine Street that was Indigo is now the Go Fish Grill, with a remodel that was completed over Memorial Day weekend and the new name taking effect last week. Indigo/Go Fish owner Larry Herz (who puts in a vote for Eat Drink Man Woman) hopes the mid-stream switch from smart-but-funny New American cuisine to a simple board of fresh fish and well-considered sides will turn the tide of slow nights. As added encouragement, Herz is offering free booze to all comers -- a bottle of Jacob's Creek shiraz or chardonnay, on the house, through the end of June.

So come on in -- the water's fine. After all, the menu may have changed, but talented chef Ian Kleinman is still in the kitchen. And how can you go wrong with a chef who immortalized his favorite kitchen movie, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, with a pulled-sugar sculpture of an Oompa Loompa for his final pastry project at chef school?


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