Hungry for More
When I was young I saw [director Marco Ferreri’s] La Grande Bouffe and I thought that would be a good way to die – by eating,” says Luca Catalfamo of the film in which four friends converge on a villa with the sole purpose of dining themselves to death. “As I became interested in food and in cooking, film really influenced me and showed me what was possible. Not to die, of course, but it helped to show me the pleasure there is in food.” These days, the Milan-born Catalfamo has ridden his passion for the Japanese speciality of ramen to a position where he’s one of rising stars of the Italian culinary scene – if not the world’s. Catalfamo’s unique take on ramen traditions – including mixing the pasta staple durum semolina with the more commonly used wheat flour for his noodles – so impressed the Japanese that they allowed him to set up his Casa Luca pop-up at the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum for 18 months. It was the first time a non-Japanese chef was handed the honour. Catalfamo is until next month working a pop-up at New York’s Ramen Lab, while pondering the possibility of opening his own outlet there. New York is the city where he first fell for ramen’s charms, after passing a block-length queue outside Ippudo one day, and wondering what the fuss was all about. But what got us to talking – and thinking – about the connection between food and film was his appearance earlier this year at the Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy. Catalfamo had a pop-up Casa Ramen situated above one of the festival’s theatres for its duration, and the place was sold out on each of the festival’s 10 days. The fact that the classic film Tampopo (1985) was screening just below certainly helped. The Juzo Itami-directed “ramen Western” takes aim at all sorts of cinematic clichés and genres, but at its very heart it’s a paean to ramen – and to other delicacies. It’s been delighting audiences around the world for decades, equal parts entertaining and intriguing. You walk away wanting to join the feast. Mostly in cinema, food features in cameos, or at best in a supporting role that’s used as a device to add to a mood, and – often not-too-subtly – to push home a suggestion of where the story is about to take us. Think of all those ripe peaches hanging around in Luca Guadagnino’s Oscarnominated coming-of-age drama Call Me by Your Name (2017), and there were no real surprises about where we (and the lead characters) were being led. The role food plays can also leave you baffled. Any screenings of the Wong Kar-wai classic Chungking Express (1994) are these days ruined, slightly, by our focus on the fact that Tony Leung’s policeman visits a dodgy kebab shop during his “will they, won’t they” courting of Faye Wong’s waitress – but he always orders a chef’s salad. Why? We well remember Lan Kwai Fong’s Midnight Express, where these scenes were set, and there’s no way you ordered anything but the kebabs. And even then you were brave. But what about the films where it’s all about the feast – no matter what the filmmaker’s intentions might originally have been? There’s little doubt that when Itami sat down to pen Tampopo he wanted to use daily life at a ramen house to poke fun at Japanese characteristics – and even traditions. But the film was – and remains –
wildly popular around the world because it also tapped into the commonality of the processes we all go through when sharing a meal. And it helped introduce a global generation to ramen, as Catalfamo can attest. “When you see it, you want to eat ramen,” he said. “It’s impossible to resist.” Danish director Gabriel Axel’s Oscar winner Babette’s Feast (1987) explored issues of religion and faith – but it was pretty hard to avert eyes from the sight of Stéphane Audran working away in the kitchen and preparing to spoil two sisters who have spent their lives denying themselves any pleasure. The theme of communal dining and what goes on around the table was also at the forefront of the film that introduced storytelling master Ang Lee to the world. But – fortunately, we say – unlike La Grande Bouffe, sex was never part of the menu in the Oscar-nominated comedydrama Eat Drink Man Woman (1994). Instead we had Chinese-style homecooked banquets that served – as they so often do – as a forum to air family grievances and to celebrate family ties. All of which begs the question as to which production might be presented as the best food film ever made. Our vote goes to a film that doesn’t even feature human beings as its main characters. Instead it’s a rat (as voiced by Patton Oswalt) whose sheer passion for food – from the sourcing to the preparation to the feast – makes the Brad Bird-directed animation of Ratatouille (2007) so special. Sure, they’re all cartoons but the film captures the craft – the art – that goes in to every meal. Or should. It was rated by the late great Anthony Bourdain as “the best restaurant movie ever made”.
CLOCKWISE FROM OPPOSITE PAGE: ITALIAN CHEF LUCA CATALFAMO; BABETTE’S FEAST; LA GRANDE BOUFFE; EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN; TAMPOPO; THE CLASSIC JAPANESE DISH THAT INSPIRED A 2017 MOVIE, RAMEN HEADS