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MEDIA DISH

Chefs from Hollywood, well done

August 01, 2007|Laurie Winer | 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.

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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.)

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Women's work

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