Film and TV

A Taste of Reality: Top 5 Food Documentaries

Tommy Lee Jones once didn't do a film because there was a scene in which he was supposed to eat on camera. Tommy Lee Jones doesn't eat on camera. Ever.

That film was Man of the House, and it's a good thing that the producers caved to his demands, for the world would be a far, far worse place if that film had never been made.

From Breakfast at Tiffany's to Diner, film has followed food to great celluloid success.

Reality, however, is far different from what Hollywood would have you believe, so skip the Audrey Hepburn and Steve Guttenberg (two equally prolific and talented actors) and get right down to the nitty-gritty of the food world with these stunning documentaries about what we eat, how we eat and why we eat.

5. El Bulli: Cooking in Progress

El Bulli, once the greatest restaurant in the world, closed its doors permanently in late July 2011.

Ferran Adrià, head chef and mastermind behind the restaurant, is a remote character in this sparse and reserved documentary, observing, critiquing and generally being a demanding and exacting, perfectionist prick.

When the place, located two hours north of Barcelona, was in operation, six months out of every year found the doors barred and the windows shuttered as Adrià, the father of molecular gastronomy, and his loyal staff of culinary geniuses invented an incredibly fine-tuned, refined menu under the scrutiny of scientific method, meticulous documentation and peer review. Adrià oversees each and every step that his loyal, hard-working staff takes as they try to meet their master's almost impossible standards of excellence.

The film is by no means energetic or well-paced, but if you really want to know the level of concern and detail that one can possibly possess for things that you put into your mouth, then El Bulli is worth a visit.

4. Kings of Pastry

At times whimsical, at times starkly serious, this is a film in which grown men weep, judgment is harshly passed by epicureans of vast self-importance, and all of it boils down to how well you can make sweets.

Sincere to the point that it is beyond pretension, legendary documentary filmmakers Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker chronicle an incredibly important yearly French culinary battle known as Meilleurs Ouvriers de France.

Former President of France Nicolas Sarkozy himself makes an appearance to congratulate the winners of the event, all of whom are adorned with a special medal/collar piece. To wear the collar, a ribbon of the blue, white and red colors of the French flag, is a great honor. Such is the importance of the yearly awards that to falsely wear the collar as an impostor is by law worthy of jail time in France.

The film makes the cake and confectioner competitions of the Food Network and Cooking Channel look like child's play, as chefs pour all their cunning and malice into one cake.

One cake to rule them all, one cake to bind them. One cake to bring them all together, and in the sweetness bind them.

There are no dark lords, hobbits or elves, but it's still a remarkably good film.

3. Pressure Cooker

Combine R. Lee Ermy; Louis Gossett Jr. from An Officer and a Gentleman; Elisabeth Hasselbeck shrieking about our country's downfall; and a mad Roseanne Barr, and you might just come close to the level of expectation and tough love that emanates from this film's moral compass/antihero, Mrs. Stephenson, as she instructs her culinary arts class at Frankford High School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

She is loud, rude and abrasive, and she is usually right, but there is no guff taken and no sass tolerated as you watch Mrs. Stephenson take underprivileged, at-risk high-school students to task in an attempt to give them a way out of endemic poverty.

Fighting for scholarships, achievement and a way to improve not just their own lives but those of their families, the students chronicled in this somewhat difficult and harsh documentary stand at once as a testament to the faltering public school system and to the value of educating our young ones, not just with the fruits of knowledge and critical thinking but also with valuable trade skills and marketable, hands-on experience.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Sam Brown