Four Foodie Films, Four Great Docs from SIFF 2017

The last few years, food documentaries have become the rage.  On TV, we now have a food channel, brutal TV cooking competitions like Iron Chef, and screaming chefs like the corrosive Gordon Ramsey in his shows Hell’s Kitchen and Kitchen Nightmares.  For the general public, it seems often that the aggressiveness of the competition and the cruelty of the hosts and judges exceed the interest in the food.

How absolutely refreshing this year to discover a totally different treatment with the four food films I saw at SIFF 2017 in Seattle.  The films are:

  • Lives with Flavor, featuring Chef Ricardo Muñoz Zurita of Mexico (Director Pablo Gasca Gollas, Mexico 2017);
  • Fermented, hosted by Chef Edward Lee (Director Jonathan Cianfrani, USA 2017);
  • Kakehashi: A Portrait of Chef Nobuo Fukuda (Director Andrew Gooi, Japan/USA 2017); and
  • The Turkish Way, featuring the Spanish Roca Brothers (Director Luis Gonzalez, Spain, 2016).

All four of these films share certain qualities:  a love and respect of traditional cuisines and methods of cookery found in various countries and regions, an intimate and mostly humble, egoless relationship to food (and drink), and the importance of using fresh, local ingredients.  In addition, Lives with Flavor, A Portrait of Chef Nobuo Fukuda, and The Turkish Way all emphasized combining the respect for the traditional with the innovation, synthesis, and evolution of their respective cuisines.  Fermented visited some folk who were carrying on processes of fermentation using very traditional methods such as in soy sauce and miso making in Japan, while others were combining old traditions with new ideas, such as in beer brewing and pickling vegetables.

As one would expect in a food film, all four had eye-catching photography.  In this category, however, I felt Lives with Flavor was exceptional.  Chef Muñoz Zurita’s goal is to bring respect to the variety and beauty of Mexico’s regional cuisines, while also creating new from the old.  He believes strongly in using local ingredients, but not just local to where the restaurants are, but local as to particular products that may only be grown for a particular regional Mexican cuisine.  In the course of his film, he travels around Mexico, visits grandmothers cooking traditionally, and local farmers and fishermen.  The colors of Mexico, and the colorfulness of the food, are beautifully photographed.

But the director does not stop there.  There is one divine scene where we listen to sounds of the kitchen:  the sizzle of food on the grill, the chopping of vegetables, the boiling of sauces.  In other scenes, we can practically feel the textures, smell the delicious odors and taste the food.  This film was a true sensory experience.

Kakehashi: A Portrait of Chef Nobuo Fukuda and The Turkish Way both feature fine food photography focused especially on the presentations of the food.  The aims of the films differ.   However, Kakehashi, as the title suggests, is a biographical film about the chef.  The term kakehashi refers to being a bridge between cultures and that is a central theme.  Chef Fukuda’s early life is illustrated with old photos and interviews with his sister and friends.  Raised by a traditional and firm Samurai caste mother and an elderly father, eventually Nobuo Fukuda realizes he has to free himself from the rigidity of tradition and choses to come to America—Phoenix to be precise.

While he works at Benihana and sushi restaurants, his real passion is something far different.  It is only after he marries an American girl and has a family that they decide to open a restaurant and he begins to take cooking seriously.   What makes his story so compelling is how he stays true to his free spirit but also regains an appreciation of his Japanese traditions and then has the courage to create his own unique combinatory cuisine—he becomes a bridge between cultures, a kakehashi—in his now-famous Arizona restaurant.

The Spanish Roca Brothers were featured in another recent food film Cooking Up a Tribute by the same director.  Their Catalonian restaurant Celler de Can Roca won 2016’s “Best Restaurant in the World” appellation.  Here they visit Turkey for several weeks with two aims:

  • Assist Turkish chefs who are struggling to define a national gastronomy firmly based on the traditional but seeking to innovate as well; and
  • learn about Turkish foods, wines, and techniques of cooking that they can synthesize with Spanish cuisine in their own restaurant.

One brother travels with a Turkish woman sommelier to visit some of the country’s wineries.  We learn that Turkey has one of the oldest wine traditions in the world, but much of this tradition was lost when the Ottoman Empire brought the non-alcoholic Islam tenet to the area.  One memorable new German winemaker in Cappadocia is using old grape varieties and stores his wine in 2,000-year old Roman amphora.  Another brother is introduced to the honey-infused desserts of Turkey.  The third brother focuses on the meats and vegetables used in Turkish cooking.  Like Lives With Flavors we get part travelogue, part cookery in this very entertaining film.

Fermented differs from the other films in that it focuses on a process—fermentation–and a relationhip of humans with the microbes essential to make this process work.  Not only do we learn something about how this ancient process functions (though it still remains to me rather mysterious), but also the incredible variety of foods and drinks that depend on this process:  beer-making, pickling, cheese-making, soy sauce and miso, and bread-making are a few examples.   Chef and author Edward Lee is a most congenial host.  His non-assuming matter puts both interviewee and viewer at their ease.  I loved all four of these films, but I found this one the most fascinating—the concept that one uses microbes in a process that essentially rots food in a way to produce unique and palatable foods and drinks. Who would have figured that!

By Karen Samdahl
Related categories: Documentaries, Top 10 Movie Lists