In its Culinary Cinema series, Seattle International Film Festival presents movies that document the love between chefs and their cuisines, bringing a certain type of passion for food to film along with stunning shots that range from raw fish shimmering like jewels to larger-than-life tortillas dancing on a hot comal. Gone are the days when a nice-looking meal was enough to make a good food movie—as diners have become more discerning, so have filmgoers. As we enter a time when chefs are nearly as celebrated as movie stars, this series recognizes that it's beyond time to see food take its rightful spot on the big screen.
In this golden age of food documentaries, food ceases to be a pretty backdrop for two characters falling in love, and instead becomes one of the main characters. These movies leave behind the often failed (though occasionally brilliant, as in the case of Eat Drink Man Woman or Big Night) idea that food must simply be a pretty picture or plot point, and instead embrace food as a complex, multifaceted subject—one with relationships that change and grow. Looking good, however, still helps—after all, film is a visual medium.
For pure drooling delight, Kakehashi: A Portrait of Chef Nobuo Fukuda should top your list. The film, made by recent Seattle transplant Andrew Gooi, documents the Arizona-based chef's journey from a Benihana dishwasher with $400 to his name and little English to Food & Wine magazine's best new chef and a James Beard Award winner. The story of Nobuo Fukuda bridging the gap between his strict Japanese upbringing and freewheeling ski-bum life in America is interspersed with riveting shots of him cooking a five-course meal. But, as is key for a great food movie, the cooking scenes aren't just there to provide visual support for the interviews; they actually move the film along, demonstrating how the chef draws the rigid rules of his time in Japan toward his lax, self-made story in Arizona.
While Kakehashi is like the love story of a young couple who've committed but are still in the exhilarating throes of experimentation (Fukuda and his unique style of Japanese American cuisine), the other documentaries in the series span the life cycle of love. In Fermented, chef Edward Lee dates around, traipsing all over the country and the world, spending time admiring, getting to know, and then eventually moving on from a half-dozen forms of preserving food.
In The Turkish Way, the already-famous Roca brothers look to solve a culinary midlife crisis, their long-term relationship with Spanish cuisine given an infusion of excitement and newness in the form of Turkish food.
But for the truest, longest-lasting, and deepest of the love stories, the one to watch is Lives with Flavor, which is the only one of these films to outright admit that cuisine has taken the place of a spouse or family for the featured chef. But Mexico City's Ricardo Muñoz Zurita replaces the absence of a wife with the study of Mexico's food traditions, and while the production isn't as close to the food-porn standards that fans of Chef's Table or Anthony Bourdain's television shows might expect, it wraps the lessons of a master into an easily digestible, colorful, and appetite-piquing documentary.
The series rounds out with two more docs—New Chefs on the Block, which explores what it takes to open a new restaurant in Washington, DC, and Food Evolution, a look at the science and hype behind genetically modified foods as narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson.
On the funny side of food, The Trip to Spain continues where The Trip and The Trip to Italy left off; the mockumentary steers a bit toward the traditional culinary cinema style, where the meals act as background—but very tasty ones at that. Finally, Cook Up a Storm, out of Hong Kong, turns the classic sports film into a food movie, using a cooking competition between a Cantonese street-food cook and a French-trained restaurant chef into the longest—and best—episode of Iron Chef ever.
Speaking of Iron Chef, it's important to note the difference between the gaudy, catchphrase pop stars of the small screen and the serious chefs chronicled within the documentaries in the series. It's like the difference between Cheetos and sitting down at Shiro Kashiba's sushi bar: One is delicious and fun, but only satisfying for the length of time it takes to wash the orange dust out from under your fingernails, while the other is about human passion and a life commitment. Which is to say: Think carefully about where to make a dinner reservation after seeing any of these films—they'll all leave you in sore need of a good meal.