Creative Loafing Film Critic Felicia Feaster and Food Editor Besha Rodell saw the release of the cuisine-centric No Reservations as an opportunity to wax philosophical about how well Hollywood captures foodie culture.
Felicia: In No Reservations, an American remake of the 2001 German comedy Mostly Martha, Catherine Zeta-Jones plays Kate Armstrong, an uptight, perfectionist chef at a chic Manhattan restaurant whose life is unsettled by the death of her sister and her new role as guardian of her 9-year-old niece Zoe (Abigail Breslin). The arrival of a hot new sous chef, Nick (Aaron Eckhart), at 22 Bleecker helps teach Kate to relinquish control in the kitchen. Nick also conveniently opens Kate up to her nurturing side where Zoe is concerned. The view of relationships feels a bit, oh, regressive.
But how accurate is this film's vision of the restaurant hierarchy? I thought too many cooks spoiled the broth?
Besha: Well, every great chef needs a great sous chef, there's no doubt about that. What bothered me more was the jokey lack of respect that the Nick character shows toward Kate, the chef. It worked in terms of the romantic plot, but no sous chef would ever get away with being that cute and, in kitchen terms, disrespectful of the chef's authority. There are many points in the film where Nick kiddingly flouts Kate's authority. Can you imagine him acting that way toward a male superior? Any female chef, especially one who had reached that level of her career, would have done so by having balls bigger than anyone else's in the kitchen, not just by being an OCD sufferer with a mom who could cook. Kate's shy, flustered response to someone with a big personality is just not believable behavior for a chef.
It's interesting to compare Kate's demeanor to that of the female cook in Ratatouille, a cartoon character who I found much more believable than the real-life Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Felicia: Kate and Nick have very different cooking styles. She seems to be much more haute cuisine and he is more of a sensualist into satisfying, earthy Italian cuisine. What was your take on their different food styles?
Besha: I did find her style a little cold – the food she was preparing looked delicious, but I found it strange that she never made the same kind of food/love connection that he did, something that any great chef has to know. Nick's style of cooking is very different than Kate's, but to me any cooking is about sensuality and nurturing. I think it's a hard sell on the part of the writers to make anyone believe that there's a cold, technically perfect but emotionally distant kind of cooking.
Felicia: It seemed like the writers were intent nevertheless on painting Kate as quite literally a "cold fish." Her favorite haunt seemed to be the early-morning fish market, and the first taste of home cooking she fed her poor distraught niece was a whole fish, head and all, garnished with lemon wedges. I think this may be the first instance I have ever seen on film of "dysfunctional" cooking. Her customers seemed to love her intellectual food chops, but the film kept trying to remind us of her lack of culinary warmth where her niece was concerned.
I am curious about a food critic watching a film like this. Did the food seem "right" to you – the kind of thing that would be served at this kind of Manhattan restaurant?
Besha: It did seem right. I'm sure they did a fair amount of consulting with chefs. Saffron sauce and truffle sauce, which are the two things we hear the most about, are hardly inventive genius, but are perfectly believable as dishes in a Manhattan restaurant. I was confused about the exact kind of restaurant, though – all those truffles? Only the fanciest and most expensive restaurants would go though truffles quickly enough to warrant having that many at once, but it didn't seem like a highly exclusive place to me.
Felicia: Do you ever get the sense watching other films centered on food or the restaurant business that that kind of care and attention isn't being taken to making sure the behind-the-scenes details and food are authentic? Was there anything in No Reservations that didn't seem true to the business?
One other thing I wondered about are several scenes where the 22 Bleecker restaurant owner (played by Patricia Clarkson) sat down with her staff for wine tastings and to have them practice extolling the virtues of that day's specials. Is that typical for a restaurant of that size?
Besha: Apart from those details of kitchen politics, of how a new member of the kitchen might come in and introduce himself, everything seemed fairly accurate. I think in all films, this stuff is getting more and more accurate, simply because with so much interest in the restaurant world, with so many reality shows set in restaurants, audiences know enough these days to spot inaccuracies. I'm positive they had chef consultants and test chef audiences. I didn't see Waiting..., or that Adrien Brody film Restaurant. I don't think Waiting...'s main concern was accuracy, though.
Felicia: Kate seemed particularly agitated by male customers sending food back telling her it wasn't done. When is it not OK to send food back?
Besha: I think they had to have that in there to give her a tiny bit of balls-out credibility. And also because it makes for good movie fodder – she had to be brilliant, but there also had to be tension between her and the owner, thus the tantrums.
The strange thing is, I can't imagine a place this good where food would have been sent back so frequently. Most people just don't do it. It happens, of course, but not very much. Mind you, I did have an experience once where I couldn't eat my entree because it was so bitter (my fault for ordering endive in summer), and I told the server I would pay for the entree but I would like to order something else. I ended up with the chef slamming down a raw fish on my table and screaming at me. Amazing experience.
These days, I never send back food. But I think there are instances when it's appropriate. If the dish has been misrepresented, or there is obviously something wrong with it. If you just don't like it, I'd suggest taking my approach: Say you'll pay for it, but that you'd like to order something else because it's not to your liking. Then the restaurant can take it off the bill if they want to. Or you could end up with a dead fish on your table.
Felicia: Since you are sharing your personal restaurant-going experiences, I wondered about a scene I found especially intriguing: that very Nine 1/2 Weeks moment where Kate is blindfolded and tastes Nick's sauce. Is this how foodies get it on?
Besha: Oh, I don't know, that scene kind of annoyed me, like, "Duh, food is sexy, food is sensual. Let me taste your sauce, baby." I think food-obsessed people think about food in all kinds of terms, sexual and not sexual. I certainly have decided it wasn't worth sleeping with someone based on whether or not they liked stinky, runny cheese. But I don't need them to tie me up and slather it on me.