If you are a person who enjoys food, you know that a truly transcendent dining experience engages more than just the taste buds. The mood and lighting in a restaurant can enhance enjoyment of a meal as much as the friends around your table. Visual presentation — the styles of plates used and the freshness of garnishes — can push a food experience into the realm of art. But for George Motz, professional food photographer and director of the Food Film Festival in New York, the best meals are those munched on in the magic of a darkened movie theater.
In the setting of a cinema house, to taste a bite of food is to be plunged into a surround-sound universe — a richer reality, where the chef is maestro and the camera your guide — a place where the high-res laugh lines on the face of the farmer (who grew the grass that fed the cow that gave the milk for the cheese in the five-star frittata that’s melting on your tongue right now) are as much a part of the experience as your appetite. To Motz, and to the niche community of documentary filmmakers who travel from far and wide to show their work at his events, food is about much more than eating. Food is the stuff that films are made of.
The Food Film Festival celebrated its 10-year anniversary this October with what was arguably its most successful event yet. 31 short documentaries about the culinary arts were screened over a four-day period. Eight of these films were world premieres. Five categories of awards were announced, and several “surprise” celebrity-chef guest appearances were made. Each night was organized around a theme more mouth-watering than the last: “TBT: The Best of a Decade” was the name of the opening party, followed closely by “Edible Adventures,” “The Food Porn Party,” and — this reviewer’s personal favorite — “Eat Japan!” As far as names go, this last one was so simple, and yet, loaded with meaning; the “Eat!” being at once celebratory and imperative: “Eat Japan!” Okay, alright. If you insist.
While moviegoers were invited to feast their eyes on delicacies as diverse as chocolate babka cake, cheese fondue, Cajun crayfish, fried pig tails, pickles, kimchi, brisket, oysters, Italian ice cream, and pumpkin-spiced “donut porn,” they were simultaneously served bites of these exact dishes as they appeared on screen—in the very comfort of their theater seats! Combine this luxury with state-of-the-art film projection, provided by AMC Empire 25, and the festival’s multi-sensory overload turned out to be a real triumph in high-end, gastro-cinematic hedonism. It is no surprise there were several people there on dates.
The film that won Best Short was “Sakurada” Zen Chef, a directorial debut for Japan-based filmmaker Hirokazu Kishida. The 11-minute movie, which was screened on Sunday night, offered a touching portrait of master chef Isuzu Sakurada on the eve of his retirement. Today the esteemed Mr. Sakurada is old, but several decades ago he got his start training in a zen temple — where he found his true calling in cooking up the “best soup broth in all Kyoto.” From that time on, Mr. Sakurada applied his zen philosophy to building his own restaurant from the ground up. Today, Sakurada’s restaurant is rated highly on Michelin. In the film, his devoted staff and happy customers testify to the legacy he will leave behind.
“We are not likely to see such good soup broth in Japan again in our lifetimes,” director Kishida said in his acceptance speech on the final night of the Food Film Festival in New York. He was accompanied by two colleagues, dressed as Pikachu and a giant broccoli respectively. The audience paused from slurping their steaming cups of ramen just long enough to applaud.
Proceeds from the Food Film Festival will benefit the event’s charity partner, The Billion Oyster Project, a remarkable initiative in itself. If you are not familiar: the BOP aims to rejuvenate New York Harbor’s natural oyster population by engaging public school students in hands-on marine science. These oysters will not be clean enough to eat for several years at least, but they are contributing a great deal to restoring New York’s water ecosystems to their former robustness. That way, oysters will continue to be a treat that New York food film enthusiasts can enjoy for generations to come.