Food documentaries serve a lot of different purposes. Sometimes they're almost culinary porn, with sumptuous photography and lovingly detailed preparation. Other times, the films can be informative, recounting the horrors of the American diet or the shady dealings behind agribusiness.
These films can also be celebratory, focusing on dining establishments and their community. Another great genre of documentary is character driven, though of course this only works if the person can hold the audience for a whole hour and a half.
After spending hours in front of our television watching films about everything from bananas to tongue cancer to food Nazis, we've compiled this list of the best food-based titles made since the beginning of this century.
Whether you are looking to be educated or moved or even laugh until you cry, there is something for everyone. And thankfully, chefs, kitchens and restaurants make for great drama.
10. Le Cirque
What makes a restaurant an institution? In the case of Le Cirque, the attention of the glitterati is key. From Henry Kissinger to the Cardinal of New York to Woody Allen, this New York City landmark has attracted a who’s who of the city since 1974. The most interesting part of this documentary is Le Cirque’s effort to hold on to the accolades as the world around the place begins to change. Founded by Sirio Maccioni with a clear mission to serve, and perhaps pander to, a certain class of people, Le Cirque struggled for relevance in the ‘90s, losing its footing with a make-or-break review in The New York Times. The restaurant’s attempt at reinvention while preserving its history makes for a great visual story.
9. Pressure Cooker
Inspirational without veering into maudlin territory, Pressure Cooker follows Wilma Stephenson, a dedicated culinary arts teacher at Frankford High School in Philadelphia as she attempts to inspire her impoverished students to push past their own limited expectations. Stephenson tries every tactic in the book, from threatening and yelling to cajoling and rewarding, in an effort to help the kids win scholarships to culinary schools around the country. The movie focuses on three winsome students as they endlessly tourné potatoes hoping to impress the judges at the final competition. Directors Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker use the fancy cuisine being prepared, often by kids with little knowledge of French cooking, as a metaphor for the possibilities that lie ahead for those willing to work hard and open their mind to a new experience.
8. Cheese Nun
Not your average organic foodie, Mother Noella Marcellino makes cheese from scratch at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut. As her fellow mother Telchide Hinckley puts it, in their practice of cheese-making, the sisters are always thinking two things: “How can we be as monastic as possible?” and “Wow can we be as professional as possible?” Mother Noella got interested in creating cheeses the old-fashioned way when she became a nun in the ‘70s. Her journey is chronicled in Cheese Nun and the dedication is fascinating. Mother Noella got a PhD in microbiology and went on to study cheesemaking in France for three years. As Mother Noella puts it, “There are thousands of ways to turn milk into cheese and that’s what makes it interesting.”
7. Spinning Plates
A fascinating look at what it takes to run a restaurant, Spinning Plates follows three very different establishments as they struggle to make it work in a world where the profit margin is extremely thin. The trio of restaurants selected for the film ranges from a mom-and-pop Mexican café in Arizona; Breitbach’s Country Dining, a homestyle diner founded in 1852, that is recovering from a fire; and Alinea, an upscale Chicago establishment whose chef, Grant Achatz faces extreme medical issues. Director Joseph Levy does an excellent job of showcasing very diverse experiences of eating, cooking and running a business. The drama inherent in all of the stories plays out beautifully against the passion and hard work of the owners as they all face extreme adversity but vow to never give up. This film makes you think twice about the wisdom of running a restaurant, while at the same time, making it look like a wonderful experience.
5. & 6. Forks Over Knives and Fed Up
Over two thousand years ago, Hippocrates said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine thy food.” Both Forks Over Knives and Fed Up purport the simple premise that what you eat can either heal you or kill you depending on what it is you put into your body. Forks, directed by Lee Fulkerson, is a fascinating treatise that explores the possibility of actually turning around a disease, like cancer, by consuming a plant-based diet centered on “whole, unrefined or minimally refined plants.”
According to the film, the so-called “diseases of affluence,” like diabetes and obesity, which have been increasing at an alarming rate in this country, can be basically cured if, as a nation, we all choose to radically change our diets. Whether or not you believe all of the claims made by Drs. T. Colin Campbell and Caldwell Esselstyn, Forks Over Knives will definitely have you thinking twice about what you do choose to fuel up with. The movie makes a strong case for demonizing animal fat and sugar. Like this year’s Fed Up, a lot of blame gets laid at the feet of processed food, and it’s harder and harder to let the food industry off the hook for their super-sized portions, flagrant disregard for health and evasive tactics, especially when they are often subsidized by the government.
4. A Year in Burgundy
Getting the chance to follow the seasons in France through a year of winemaking is complete heaven. The journey, seen through the eyes of wine importer Martine Saunier in A Year in Burgundy, is both pleasurable and informative. As Saunier says, “To understand why Burgundy may be the most special wine region on earth you must visit and meet the people.” This documentary explores the history of the vineyards and winemaking, which began when the Romans came, and the importance and diversity of the terroir in the region — one village can produce 400 varieties of wine. Director David Kennard follow seven different families as they struggle against nature and the land in an attempt to create singular bottles of wine.
2. & 3. Bananas!* and Big Boys Gone Bananas
Between Bananas!* and Big Boys Gone Bananas, director Fredrick Gertten exposes a whole host of Dole Foods Corporation’s underhanded shenanigans. The first documentary, Bananas!* takes the company (locally based in Westlake) to task for knowingly using pesticides that cause health problems, like sterility, in their Nicaraguan farm workers. The second film, Big Boys Gone Bananas, deals with the aftermath of going up against a multinational, David and Goliath style. Dole’s tactics, like trying to suppress the release of the first movie by suing the filmmaker, prove shameful. Ultimately, Dole loses the cases. These films do not showcase the food industry’s most shining moment and they may make you think twice about your next banana.
1. I Like Killing Flies
I Like Killing Flies follows cranky Chef Kenny Shopsin as he is forced to pull up roots after thirty-two years in business. Part philosopher, part Seinfeldian Soup Nazi, Shopsin runs his namesake café in the West Village of New York (it now resides in the Lower East Side’s Essex Street Market) with an iron fist and a staggering number of strict rules.
Among the decrees laid out in the film are no parties larger than five and you must order food – no skating by with just a cup of Joe. Heartfelt and funny, I Like Killing Flies also celebrates Kenny’s good side, with bon mots aplenty. For example, “There’s a friction that occurs when you put an ingredient in an improper dish – that’s the basis of all fusion cuisine. A sexual friction.” With 900 items on the menu, including 200 kinds of soup, Shopsin’s literally has something for everyone. The dishes definitely skew comfort, as Kenny puts it, “Loaded with butter, I wonder about the morality of my profession.”