Chefs Tip Their Toques to 'Big Night'


The film "Big Night" makes you hungry, sad, happy and, if you're in the restaurant business, shudder.

It depicts two Italian immigrant brothers who attempt to save their failing restaurant business and attain the American dream.

For his starring role as Primo, the chef of Paradise restaurant on the Jersey shore, actor Tony Shalhoub spent nearly a year off and on working in the kitchens of Los Angeles' Chianti Cucina and New York's Le Madri restaurant. (Co-star/co-director Stanley Tucci also donned an apron at Le Madri.)

Stanley's mom, Joan Tucci, supplied recipes for the production: risotto with shrimp, caponata, eggplant with mushrooms and timpano, the dramatic kettle-shaped pastry cake filled with meat, eggs, cheese and pasta, from Calabria in the south of Italy, where Tucci's family is from. She also worked with food stylist Deborah di Sabatino to get many of the dishes to look just right.

How accurate are the movie's restaurant scenes?

"Close to the truth, especially the opening scene with the customer who wanted spaghetti with her risotto," says Danilo Terribili, owner of Alto Palato in West Hollywood. "The movie shows how flaky customers can be, especially in L.A., where people follow trends [like the flashy restaurant Pascal's in the movie] and not always good food."

"I loved it," says Mark Peel, chef and owner of Campanile. "Mine is also a technical interest. Usually, people who portray chefs can't do it. They don't move their hands properly. Tony spent a year learning things in the kitchen, how to flip vegetables, whisk eggs. He's great.

"I identified with the film because I work with family--my wife [Nancy Silverton]. I identify with Tucci's character. But Nancy is like Tony. With her, it's damn the cost. But I don't run the restaurant as a nonprofit organization.

"Customers ask for all sorts of things. I remember once when I was working at Spago, someone asked for a catsup omelet. In the end, the customer gets what he or she wants--within reason, of course. Chefs get used to it. Whenever someone orders steak well-done, I think of my dad."

On His Feet: Serge Burckel, executive chef of Cristal, the restaurant that replaces Ma Maison in the Sofitel Hotel, West Hollywood, is back in the kitchen.

The chef, who arrived in May from Hong Kong, suffered second-degree burns on Sept. 10, the morning of Cristal's gala opening, when a defective screw on a hinged steamer pot loosened and dumped 20 gallons of boiling water on his left foot. Burckel continued cooking for the party (with much ice) and even returned to work the next day. But pain and doctor's orders sidelined him.

Travels With Tommy: For years, Tommy Tang, like dozens of other chefs, toyed with the notion of doing a TV cooking show. Last year the Bangkok-born restaurateur made a 26-week series for PBS called "Tommy Tang's Modern Thai Cuisine." It debuts Oct. 19 on PBS.

"The trouble with most TV cooking shows is that they never give you recipes," Tang explains. "They make you buy the book."

His show will be packed with details. "I say one teaspoon of this or that, not a pinch. And we'll have at least three recipes per show."

Tang and a crew of nine spent last November in Thailand "doing 26 locations and a new airport every day."

Armchair cooks will, vicariously, ride an elephant and water buffalo, traipse alley food stalls and noodle shops, sidle up to floating restaurants (canoes operated by food hawkers in the canals), commune with hill tribes, chow down at a barbecue and dine with monkeys. "Honest. Every November, there's a celebration in Lopburi, a town two hours north of Bangkok, with special foods and hundreds of monkeys trained to pick pineapples."

* Send news items to Margaret Sheridan c/o Restaurant Notes, Los Angeles Times Food Department, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, L.A. 90053. Fax: (213) 237-7355. Phone: (213) 237-7991.

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