At last, Hollywood serves up some well-done chefs

Catherine Zeta-Jones and Aaron Eckhart are food-obsessed pros in the film “No Reservations.”
(David Lee / Warner Bros.)
Special to The Times

Something fresh happens onscreen in “No Reservations,” the newest in that newly burgeoning genre, American foodie cinema, and it’s not the sea bass poached in a court bouillon with sautéed batonnet of carrots and zucchini (though that fish with vegetables cut into baton shapes looks pretty fresh).

Beyond the batonnet, viewers may discern a sea change in the way moviemakers are portraying a now glamorous profession (or hobby). After an awkward and self-conscious start (“Spanglish” anybody?), American filmmakers are at last presenting cooks who are fully and believably food-obsessed. “No Reservations” and the recent “Ratatouille” pivot on plots that spring organically from characters blessed with a keen palate and driven by a need to feed people and feed them well. And an upcoming animated film, “Bee Movie,” encourages children to think about whence their supermarket food comes -- bringing the food world’s focus on provenance issues to the next generation.

“No Reservations” is helped by an international pedigree. It’s faithfully adapted from “Bella Martha,” the 2001 German flavor-drunk movie, and its director, Scott Hicks, who was born in Africa and schooled in Australia, is known (at least from his movie “Shine”) for his skill at depicting what goes into the art of making art.

American-bred, “Ratatouille” is written and directed by Montana-born, CalArts-educated animator Brad Bird. If you haven’t heard, the film centers on a rat who rises to become the most celebrated chef in Paris. Bird enlisted the help of America’s actual top chef, Thomas Keller, in order to get the choreography of the kitchen down right. But the film’s pièce de résistance is not a cooking moment but an eating one: When a famous food critic takes his first bite of a sublime ratatouille, he goes hurtling back through time to arrive at a lost and tender moment from his boyhood.

Kitchen connection

THOUGH “No Reservations” doesn’t feature a Proustian level of epiphany, it is sensitive to all kinds of food-fueled emotions.

The film opens with a female voice thrumming with desire as she describes her true love. “There is no greater sin than to overcook a quail,” purrs Catherine Zeta-Jones as Kate, the esteemed chef of a lovely Greenwich Village restaurant. “I prefer to serve them roasted. That makes their taste richer and more robust, and a side of truffle ravioli and wild mushrooms goes deliciously well with them. Of course you can also cook them in a pig’s bladder in a mix of Madeira and Cognac. You see, the bladder helps protect the quail; it keeps it moist. You can serve it in a tender sauce of thyme, spring onions . . . truffles . . . truffles go perfectly with almost any quail dish because they elevate the delicate taste of them.”

Hungry yet?

Kate delivers this monologue to her psychiatrist -- the joke being she is so single-minded (or repressed) that cooking quail fills the recesses of her most intimate thoughts. Of course Kate will be opened up to life outside of a kitchen: As in the German film, her sister dies in a car crash and she inherits her 9-year-old niece, Zoe (Abigail Breslin). At the same time, into her kitchen comes an exuberant, Italophile, molto handsome sous chef, Nick (Aaron Eckhart). Aside from his orange Crocs, he bears no physical resemblance to Mario Batali.

Kate is immediately threatened by the life force Nick brings to her orderly kitchen, but she has bigger problems to deal with. Naturally her first impulse is to comfort her grieving niece by cooking for her. Clueless about the appetites of children, Kate first sets down in front of the disgusted girl a whole sea bass (head included). But signaling a deeper resentment than just for fish head, Zoe continues to reject Kate’s next and better tries at dinner, including fried fish sticks.

Nick comes to the rescue (and enters Kate’s good graces) by whipping up a delicious-looking spaghetti with tomato sauce and basil and casually wolfing it down in front of Zoe, igniting the girl’s hunger.

Telling Kate she prefers Italian cooking, Zoe invites Nick home to cook dinner, where he makes pizza, and the three of them eat, without dishes or utensils, sitting on a blanket on the floor. The pizza looks so good that one believes the high spirits suddenly introduced into Kate’s sterile quarters.

After Zoe goes to bed, Nick brings out his homemade tiramisu, signaling he is a down-home guy at heart, which Kate at first rejects. But its creamy taste (along with Nick’s big eyes on her while she eats it) serves to thaw her iciness and make her ready for love, or whatever.

Still, it takes a while for Kate to really trust Nick (whom she suspects of trying to take over her hard-won and queenly position in the kitchen). When it happens, she celebrates their new intimacy by taking him to a Chinese grocer and showing him the secret of her celebrated saffron sauce -- kaffir lime leaf. (Here in Los Angeles she would have taken him to a Thai market, but that’s OK.)

Women’s work

IN much of the world, running a major restaurant kitchen is still, as a New York Daily News article on the movie commented, mostly a man’s job. But, again, here in Los Angeles, one can’t help thinking proudly, as one watches this film, that a majority of the city’s best-known and loved chefs are in fact women. Wolfgang Puck may be our most famous, but Nancy Silverton, Suzanne Goin, Suzanne Tracht, Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger are all on the very next tier and have all helped define contemporary cooking in important ways.

Whatever flaws it might have as a movie, “No Reservations” is notable not only for offering up a heroine who is more famous, better paid and more esteemed in her field than her love interest (which only serves to fuel his desire) but also for creating a kitchen and dining room at 22 Bleeker (the film’s fictional restaurant) that seem so real you want to eat there as soon as possible.

Scheduled for release in November, “Bee Movie” exploits a current obsession of the country’s culinary elite. In the film, Jerry Seinfeld is the voice of Barry B. Benson, a talking bee who becomes outraged at the selling and branding of honey in supermarkets (“Golden Blossom? Ray Liotta Private Select? This is stealing!”) and decides to sue.

Though it may not be a success on the level of “Ratatouille,” “Bee Movie” does ask children to consider the source of items they might take for granted on grocery store shelves, speaking to a new awareness of the significance of the origins of what we eat.

For the love of food

IT was inevitable that fiction would catch up with the facts, considering the sheer number of Americans dedicating their leisure to educating and sating their palates (that is, of those who have the luxury to do so). It’s interesting to note that before his more recent work for “Ratatouille,” Keller served as a consultant on the 2004 “Spanglish,” and while Adam Sandler’s chef in the earlier movie may have been technically believable, his character’s feelings about food seemed merely tacked on as an afterthought. They certainly did not define him the way they do Remy (the rat) and Kate. Nor did they drive the plot.

As for box office, “No Reservations” did decently in its first weekend ($11 million), though not of course as well as Pixar’s “Ratatouille” opening ($47 million). Much more than Kate, the rat really had the critics behind him, one might almost say suspiciously so. “One of the most persuasive portraits of an artist ever committed to film,” raved one influential (and quite good) New York critic. Really? Let me just say this: “Ratatouille” depicts not only a passionate would-be chef, but also a powerful critic who possesses dignity, great taste and, in the end, humility.

If female chefs had a similar influence on box office, “No Reservations” might have done better. But considering the ever-growing population of nonprofessional cooks who spend their free time thinking about ways to cook a quail, the movie should have a long life on DVD.