Chapter 3. From Stove to Screen: Food Porn, Professional Chefs, and the Construction of Masculinity in Films
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61 Chapter 3 From Stove to Screen Food Porn, Professional Chefs, and the Construction of Masculinity in Films Fabio Parasecoli “Jennifer Freely is upstairs.”These words,delivered by a female maître’d to Udo Croppa, an up-and-coming chef in an Italian restaurant in downtown Manhattan, accelerate the pace of Dinner Rush, a film on the vagaries of the restaurant business.1 Its plot highlights the wrought relationship between an old-school restaurateur and his son,chef Udo, who wants to bring the family establishment into the brave new world of celebrity cooking. Greeting the food critic, with whom he has slept with in the past, he asks her what she is in the mood for.“Absolutely no butter,” she answers in a jaded tone.“I know you can make something fascinating without butter . . . just no chicken. I am in the mood for fish. Maybe shellfish. And you always do such interesting things with pasta.”“Please tell me you have grilled prawns tonight,” adds, in a dreamy voice, the critic’s dining companion, a woman the maître’d identified as the infamous“food nymph.” As soon as Udo steps into the kitchen, magic happens. Lobsters are dropped into a boiling pot of water, spaghetti is deep fried, champagne hisses while being reduced in a small pot over a hot flame. We can see the vapors and the smoke from the stove. The sounds of cooking food are distinctly audible over the loud, nondiegetic jazz soundtrack that accompanies the action. Caviar glistens, carefully handled by expert fingers. Dishes are beautifully plated and artfully drizzled with sauces that fall onto the dishes in slow motion. Knives, 62 Taste of Art tongs, and ladles move with grace, turning into tools of artisanal craft and creation. The result—Udo announces—is “Montauk lobster and rock shrimp. It’s in a champagne shallot sauce with vanilla beans. It’s garnished with salmon caviar and tobiko caviar, which has a wasabi flavor. Some chives. And no butter.” The verbal flourish is the perfect accompaniment for the dish, a towering composition that dominates the critic’s table. The splendid food and the reaction it elicits from the two female patrons it was cooked for turn the spotlight on Udo, a charming and handsome young man, and his professional success. He comes across as ambitious, skilled, creative, and media savvy, a mix of qualities that seem increasingly relevant in order to acquire fame in contemporary haute cuisine. Udo’s charisma also manages to get the best out of his employees, in particular the all-male brigade in his kitchen. I lingered on this sequence because it is particularly significant in the narrative of the film, standing out in terms of shots, editing, pace, and style. Other kitchen scenes in Dinner Rush overall embrace a realistic approach,documenting the frantic and noisy working environment of the kitchen and the whirlwind of the dining room. This sequence, instead, fully embraces what has been often referred to as “food porn.” I will use the expression to indicate a set of visual and auditory strategies—shots, camera movements, lighting, sound, and editing—that aim to offer images so pleasurable and attractive that they can satisfy viewers excluded from any actual consumption of food. Just like in pornography, graphic, acoustic, and narrative components are meant to reproduce the physical act for spectators, often achieving comparable levels of excitement. This essay focuses on films about restaurants, professional kitchens , and chefs, as well as their embrace of the “food porn” aesthetics. Semiotics and discourse analysis will be applied in order to identify recurrent visual components and narrative themes and to explore their cultural and ideological impact. By considering films from very different cultures, the essay will also assess the wide diffusion—and uniformity—of both the food porn approach and its use to reinforce traditional gender roles. From Stove to Screen 63 Food, Film, and Gender The use of food in film has been a constant since the inception of the medium. In silent movies, it often served as a pretext for physical action: characters throwing whipped cream pies at each other, or slipping on banana peels, each offering opportunities for visual comedy . As the film industry developed, food was mostly used as a prop. Shared meals offered opportunities for characters to talk with each other, providing important information about themselves and pushing the story ahead. The representation of food objects and practices from specific times and places also provided elements of...


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