Jon Favreau starred and directed a non-Iron Man film that releases this week in limited release and later across the country called Chef, and from the advance buzz generated from its showing at SXSW, it’s a winner.
While the last decade has definitely seen a rise in the number of chefs in prominent movie roles, these folks rarely get any front-and-center attention in films. And why is that? They make our food, don’t bother us while we are trying to eat it, and work miserable hours that most people would walk off a cliff to avoid, which begs the question: why would anybody want one of these hellish jobs? Well, that’s a query for the food auteurs out there, and while there’s certainly no catch-all answer for every person, it probably has to do with the mix of a creative endeavor in a profession that demands little in the way of customer interaction. Indeed, while a few exceptions to that rule exist, chefs are largely kept in the back, away from the patrons (which pleases most kitchen staff to no end). Hosts/hostesses, waiters, and bartenders all must endure the jerks who frequent the place, and enjoy tips as a result, yet the chef(s) must be an island. It can get stressful for them, especially when tickets come flooding in with maniacal regularity, and everyone from the broiler cook to the sous-chef is in the weeds, yet in that realm, the kitchen, the chef is boss. Yes, although a situation might be spiraling out of control, any good chef worth his or her salt will always make sure that their kitchen doesn’t spiral down that same drain.
So, in honor of all those sweaty, surly, hard-working, knife-wielding food whores out there, and the filmmakers brave enough to feature them prominently in their flicks, Scene-Stealers is offering up an arbitrary ranking of the best chefs in motion picture history. To make the cut, the chef had to demonstrate their unquestioned skill in the kitchen, and got extra points if they were successful in drawing new business to their establishment(s). For example, if the movie went out of its way to show how much of a revelation this cook was in their small (or big…whatever) corner of the world, they moved up considerably in the ranking. Also, the character in question had to be a professional cook or chef in the movie in question, and not just some weekend warrior with a cozy kitchen and some delusions of culinary grandeur. For example, although his character seemed to be very adept at making a proper Italian meal, Lefty (Al Pacino) from Donnie Brasco and Paulie from Goodfellas didn’t get spots below. Neither did Gene Wilder or Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka, who was more of a confectioner than a chef. Still, this made for some tough decisions, for there were only ten spots available. Some honorable mentions included the BBQ cook from Fried Green Tomatoes, the Swedish Chef from The Muppets, and Coconut Pete from Club Dread. In any event, as always, feel free to leave a comment below if you feel I left anyone else out that was deserving of a spot in the ranking. Until then…
10. Christopher Meloni from Wet Hot American Summer (2001)
Haven’t seen this one? Oh, it just starred Janeane Garofalo, Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, Michael Ian Black, and David Hyde Pierce. No big deal: it was just one of the funniest movies of the last twenty years, and had a cast that would cost something like fifty million to reassemble if hired at their current marketable rates. Oh, and the film also starred Christopher Meloni as the catastrophically burdened P.T.S.D. cook, Gene, whose work at a Maine summer camp in 1981 all sorta tied the story together. To be fair, though, Gene didn’t seem like much of a wiz in the kitchen, and spent most of his time on the job reminiscing about imaginary foes that all tied into his shell-shocked pile of wet mud he called a brain. Yet despite all of this, Gene still did his job presumably well, as he kept the campers fed: a somewhat astonishing feat considering how tragically insane the man was. Also, ol’ Gene stepped up near the end of the picture and helped Coop (Michael Showalter) with his romantic problems, something that went above and beyond his traditional duties at Camp Firewood. Crazy as rat shit, sure, but Gene was a testament to what a good cook can accomplish despite even the toughest hardships. For that, he snuck in at #10.
9. Stephen Dillane from Papadopoulus and Sons (2013)
One of the best movies of 2013’s Seattle International Film Festival, Papadopoulos and Sons was an extremely well-crafted dramedy that touched on a number of important themes, among them the importance of family, community, and personal integrity. It tracked the sudden financial reversal of a single father, Harry Papadopoulos (Stephen Dillane, aka Stannis Baratheon from HBO’s Game of Thrones), and his attempts to keep his family together after the crisis. Although very wealthy at the beginning of the movie, Harry found that after his monetary catastrophe his only remaining asset was an old London building, one that originally served as the restaurant that begat his now-crumbled empire. More or less forced to go into business with his free-spirited brother to keep his bills paid, Harry rediscovered the joys of a working man’s life. What’s more, he connected with his kids, all three of them working beside him in the re-opened fish and chips shop, in ways that never would have been possible without the sudden collapse of his business. Within weeks, Harry’s fish and chips shop had all but run the nearby Kebab and Falafel joint out of business, proof positive that the Papadopoulos operation was doing something right. All of this led right back to the man in charge of the stove and fryer, and for his success there, Harry Papadopoulos got a nod today.
8. Dexter Fletcher from Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)
As an audience, we didn’t get a whole lot of time with “Soap” (Dexter Flether) while he was in his element. A professional London chef, Soap was nonetheless loyal to a shady cadre of friends who, by the start of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, had convinced him to chip in his life savings so that their card sharp buddy could get into an illegal, high-stakes poker game. This buddy, Eddy (Nick Moran), was sure that he could take any man or woman in England if offered an honest game, and he was probably right. Yet the poker table he sat down to early in the film was anything but straight. The game was run by “Hatchet” Harry Lonsdale (P.H. Moriarty), who had every intention of taking Eddy’s 100,000 pound buy-in, as well as whatever promised money he could scam out of the kid. The plan worked, and before Eddy knew what had happened, he was down half a million pounds to maybe the scariest gangster in all of the U.K. Financially poor, Eddy still was rich in friendship, Soap prominent among the allies. Although initially queasy and unsure of plans to get the owed money through violent or immoral means, Soap hardened right up in no time flat, and was producing scary as fuck kitchen knives like a hardened SAS operative. Now that’s a friend! A successful chef (as evidenced by the bundle of cash he had put aside), loyal friend, fearless warrior, and all-around team player, Soap was a good egg.
7. Aaron Eckhart from No Reservations (2007)
A somewhat by-the-numbers rom-com with predictable plot points and character arcs, No Reservations nevertheless kept its focus on an upscale New York City restaurant, its kitchen, and a battle of pride therein. This meant that the movie had not one, but two candidates for today’s list, both of whom might have easily snagged a slot in today’s ranking. On the one hand you had the head chef, Kate (Catherine Zeta Jones): a prickly, tightly-wound perfectionist who specialized in delicately crafted, high-end cuisine. Although her skills were beyond reproach, she was difficult to work with, pushy, and sometimes hard on the customers. Her sous-chef, Nick (Aaron Eckhart), while no less talented in the kitchen was the polar opposite of Kate as it concerned their personalities. Gregarious and full of laughs at work, Nick rallied the staff behind him with his infectious behavior, and delighted the owner and patrons alike with his ebullient personality. At the end of the day (SPOILER ALERT), Kate lost her head chef position to Nick, a man with arguably less talent yet far more skills. In sports terms, Kate may have been a .400 hitter, but she couldn’t field for shit. Nick, on the other hand, was hitting a solid .330, played brilliantly off the bag, and was a positive element in the dugout. In baseball and the food industry, like in all other walks of life, it’s all about being well-rounded and in balance. Nick had this quality in spades, and for that he pulled down the #7 spot.
6. Patton Oswalt from Ratatouille (2007)
If your heart didn’t flutter a little bit with Ratatouille, then you ought to get that black, shriveled little radish of an organ looked at, because it ain’t working all that well. In Ratatouille, Patton Oswalt voiced Remy, the film’s star and a hero to anyone who has dreamed a lofty dream in spite of logic, grim practicalities, and common sense. A displaced Parisian rat, all Remy wanted was an opportunity to cook in a real kitchen like his hero, the great chef Auguste Gusteau (Brad Garrett). Yet as previously stated, Remy was a rat, and humans have a well-established (and entirely justified) aversion to rodents frequenting our food prep areas. Yet Remy was undeterred, and teamed up with a young human boy to create some of the most dazzling dishes Paris had ever seen! In the shadows and out of sight, Remy helped propel his young protégé and their restaurant into the spotlight, where they enjoyed robust patronage and the attention of a prominent food critic. There were a few bumps along the road, and Remy had to bridge the gap between the cultures of the humans and rats, yet the experience seemed to have made him a better cook (and stronger rat). So, for overcoming the odds, and convincing people that something prepared by a rat was worth eating, Remy, Ratatouille, and Patton Oswalt got a nod.
5. Nobuko Miyamoto from Tampopo (1985)
One of the most important attributes of a good chef is the ability to take advice: to learn, develop, and evolve. Perhaps more than anything else in life, our food is only as delicious as it is original. Even the best steak, or sandwich, or salad in the world will become tiresome and undesirable after a long enough period, which is why every chef, no matter how talented they may be, must always strive to be better, to learn more, to keep exploring. This idea was at the heart of a delightful movie called Tampopo, which co-starred a young Ken Watanabe in one of his first breakout roles. Watanabe played Gun, the loyal sidekick to a truck driver and all-around good guy named Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki). The movie followed the pair as they volunteered to help out a kindly widow, Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto), running a noodle shop, and tracked their efforts to gather all the expertise within the community to craft the perfect bowl of noodles. This took some time, and necessitated assistance from a number of people, from a revered “old master,” to an unsuspecting chauffeur with a hidden culinary talent, to a local tough and interior decorator. The end result was the formation of a recipe that left everyone speechless, and absolutely convinced that they had given life to something magical. None of this would have been possible without the staunch determination of Tampopo, who ultimately turned out to be as talented in the kitchen, with her noodles, as she was humble and willing to ask for help. Now that’s a chef!
4. Conchata Ferrell from Mystic Pizza (1988)
Don’t you dare underestimate the talents and expertise of a pizza master, for they are as skillful and talented as any high-end chef working in New York, Paris, or Tokyo. Okay, maybe that’s not 100% true, but I’ll take a delicious, perfectly crafted slice over some fancy-ass meal that takes half a week to prepare any old day. Mystic Pizza was a movie about a homegrown pizza joint in Mystic, Connecticut, and the young women who worked there. It starred a young Julia Roberts, Lili Taylor, Annabeth Gish, and Vincent D’Onofrio, and was a coming-of-age story of sorts. The ladies all worked at a local pizza parlor known for its dazzling and unique pies, whose secret ingredients were known only to the owner and operator, Leona (Conchata Ferrell). People all over town, and those from elsewhere, flocked to this tiny restaurant to kneel before the altar of pizza perfection as crafted by Leona. A notoriously tough food critic even stopped in one day to see what all the fuss was about, only to take a couple bites, leave, and later proclaim that it was some of the best pie he’d ever tasted. Now that’s cooking, folks! If you invent and perfect a recipe that gains regional acclaim, and even knocks the critics on their asses, then you’ve done pretty well for yourself. To top this, a chef would have to not only be an industry rock star, but also someone who could tap into deep cultural reserves to produce a variety of plates fit for a king, or perhaps a famous jazz singer…
3. Tony Shalhoub from Big Night (1996)
Here in the U.S., success can often elude a restaurant that is honestly tapping into a cultural or regional cuisine, for the palates of most in this country have been forever corrupted by bastardized versions of actual dishes via continuous exposure to the Olive Gardens, Panda Expresses, and Chipoltles of the world. People who have traveled outside of the states and have tasted actual Italian, Chinese, or Mexican food are often more than a little surprised at what they’re offered, for it usually doesn’t align with the dumbed-down fare most Yankees have come to know and trust. This was the dilemma that brothers Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (Stanley Tucci) faced in Big Night. The film took place on the Jersey Shore in the 1950s, and followed Primo and Secondo on their quest to revive their faltering restaurant’s business. Seemingly out of options (and money), Primo and Secondo were offered the chance to host a reception/dinner for a famous jazz singer that would be traveling through town, and the boys through themselves into the endeavor lock, stock, and barrel. While Secondo was more of a businessman and promoter, Primo was the talent of the operation, and prepared carefully arranged and crafted dishes that were (admittedly) far too good for his Jersey Shore clientele. But hey: who cares? A talented chef is one who goes out every day or night and treats that shift like it was the most important of their lives. Primo brought this level of perfection to his work despite the setting or circumstances, something that probably would have made him good friends with this next guy…
2. Sihung Lung from Eat Drink Man Woman (1994)
Eat Drink Man Woman was the picture that introduced most western audiences to a director that would eventually establish himself as one of the premier filmmakers of his era. Ang Lee crafted a very intimate portrait of a “modern” Chinese family in Eat Drink Man Woman, and used a family’s weekly Sunday dinner ritual to explore themes of modernization, familial bonds, friendship, and loyalty. Sihung Lung played Chu, an aging chef whose elaborate, banquet-style Sunday dinners offered him an opportunity to sit down with his adult daughters, each of whom challenged the rigidity of Chinese cultural expectations in different ways. A thoughtful character study that wove an engaging personal story with broader themes connected to basic human conditions (i.e., watching your children grow up, accepting the passage of time and aging, allowing for personal growth, etc.), Eat Drink Man Woman wore a lot of different hats, and wore them well. At the center of it all was Mr. Chu, a phenomenal chef whose dedication to his craft was surpassed only by the quality and beauty of his culinary creations. Time and again, Chu’s meals dazzled friends and family members who had been exposed to his magnificent offerings for years: a true testament to the quality of the man’s work week after week. Yet to get into the #1 spot, Mr. Chu would have had to touch a lot more lives…
1. Meryl Streep from Julie and Julia (2009)
Come on! It’s Julia fucking Child as played by Meryl Streep, people. It’s hard to ask for much more out of a movie…except maybe a consistent, enjoyable narrative, something Julie and Julia lacked. Yet for the purposes of today’s list, this one was tough to beat. This generation’s greatest living actress portrayed one of the most beloved, respected, and talented chefs in modern history, and for the scenes where Streep was given room to stretch her legs, it was a revelation. The film tracked the efforts of a New York woman, Julie (Amy Adams), in the early 2000’s to cook every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking over the course of a year. The film moved back and forth between Julie’s story and Julia Child in Paris during the 1950’s, when she attended Le Cordon Bleu and started work on the cookbook that would make her an international star (and an inspiration for Julie’s year-long quest). The scenes that showed Child plowing ahead through the not-so-subtle snickering of her male colleagues were magnificent, and paid a fitting tribute to a culinary pioneer who believed that fine dining should be accessible to anyone at any time. Whether she was chopping bags of onions just for practice, or producing a cookbook for American housewives, Julia Child was blazing a trail for millions of people, one that led to countless meals, desserts, and snacks that have and will continue to satisfy people who might never have enjoyed the experience outside of some stuffy restaurant. Perhaps one day we will get a movie exclusively dedicated to the woman’s life, but until then, Meryl Streep and her performance in Julie and Julia will have to do.