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‘Tampopo’ Is the Ultimate Cult Classic Food Film

Streaming recommendations for the weekend and a roundup of the week’s food-related entertainment news

Tampopo/YouTube

This post originally appeared on August 10, 2018, in “Eat, Drink, Watch” — the weekly newsletter for people who want to order takeout and watch TV. Browse the archives and subscribe now.

Welcome back to Friday afternoon. If you’re one of the lucky people who gets a “summer Friday,” you may be reading this on a car, train, or jitney bound for the beach. And if summer Fridays aren’t a part of your world, hopefully you can at least look forward to a few hours this weekend where you can crank up the AC and sink into some great television. Here are notes on an oddball movie, a culinary documentary, and a fresh travel show to consider checking out this weekend.

A classic that’s delightfully offbeat

Tampopo/YouTube

Tampopo is the one cult food film to rule them all. This 1985 comedy, about a widower and the noodle-obsessives who help her remake her restaurant, has been the subject of countless screenings and theme nights at restaurants all over the world. A 30th anniversary theatrical re-release was praised by film critics and food bloggers alike. And the film has served as the thematic inspiration for a few notable restaurants, including Goro and Gun in Houston, and the Hokokiddo Ramen Santouka chain.

The hype surrounding Tampopo honestly scared me away from this movie for years, but I finally caved this week, and I’m oh so glad I did. If you’re still contemplating whether or not you should dip your toe into the cloudy broth of Tampopo, here are a few things to know about the movie before wading in:

Wow, this is an arthouse film: Although the main plotline swirls around the titular character opening a ramen shop, a good half of the movie is devoted to other little vignettes that are cleverly stitched together in a style that reminded me of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, where, once a scene is over, the focus switches to a background character or someone just outside the scene, and the action carries on from there. Some of the stories actually play out like little sketch comedy bits with clear punchlines, while others are just isolated moments of weirdness.

Wow, this movie is kind of raunchy: The film begins with a couple of sharply-dressed lovers watching a movie, and keeps cutting back to scenes of their fling. At one point, we see them engaged in a food-filled tryst that ends with the guy… overturning a bowl of live prawns on the woman’s bare stomach. Later in the film, the two lovers pass an egg yolk between their mouths as they remain locked in a passionate embrace. These scenes of extreme food fetishim are clearly played for comedy.

Wow, this movie is about way more food than just ramen: Culinary obsession is the thread that holds all of these random snapshots together. In one scene, a group of stuffy businessmen literally turn red in the face when a young colleague orders something different and exceedingly fancy at a company meal. In another scene, a grifter gets busted by an undercover cop during a Peking duck dinner, and begs the detective to let him finish one more bite before heading off to jail. And in the most surprising sketch of the movie, a mom on her deathbed momentarily shakes off her terminal illness to prepare fried rice for her hungry family, then immediately perishes after serving it to them.

But the ramen shop is the heart and soul of the film: While some of these sketches strike a slightly cynical tone, the story of how Tampopo and a group of strangers transform the ramen shop is sweet and compelling. It’s almost like a Rocky story set inside a noodle parlor, and in a pleasant surprise, it avoids falling into easy romantic cliches. By the final scene, you are rooting for Tampopo, and you feel like she’s owed all the success that’s coming her way.

After this first screening, I’m not entirely convinced that Tampopobelongs in the pantheon of all-time great food movies along with Big Night, Eat Drink Man Woman, and Jiro Dreams of Sushi. But as if often the case with cult classics, that opinion might change after a few more viewings. If you’re even remotely interested this quirky food-filled quasi-western/neo-samurai romp, I think it’s definitely worth a spin, especially if you’ve got a few like-minded friends who might also want to check it out for the first time.

Watch it on iTunes, YouTube, or Google Play.


Streaming recommendations du jour

No Passport Required/PBS

No Passport Required, “Miami”

Watch it on: Eater.com, PBS.com

The gist: During his trip to Miami, Marcus Samuelsson spends some quality time hanging out with the artists, chefs, writers, and designers who inhabit Little Haiti, a neighborhood that is far from the tourist hordes of South Beach. Samuelsson eats in some venerable local institutions, like griot specialist Tap Tap and sweets parlor Lakay, but many of the best meals in this installment of Eater’s new collaboration with PBS take place outside of restaurants.

Marcus learns how to prepare soup joumou, a squash dish that was consumed by slave masters in Haiti, but became a meal that Haitians traditionally consume on New Year’s Day to celebrate Haitian independence. He also gets a tour of a local community garden, where an array of plants are grown that are used in both Haitian dishes and home remedies. And the chef enjoys a laidback lunch with local entrepreneurs Fabrice Tardieu, Max Pierre, and Bach Pierre, with food that was prepared by their families.

This episode is chock full of historical insights about both Miami and Haiti, and it features some of the best-looking food of the season, so far.

A Matter of Taste

Watch it on: iTunes

The gist: Four years before Chef’s Table delved into the minds of fine dining heavies around the world, this documentary explored the career of a lauded, virtuosic chef who had his fair share of ups and downs in New York City.

British expat Paul Liebrandt became the youngest chef to earn a three-star rating from the New York Times, for his work at a restaurant called Atlas. But after that great moment, his life became a series of fits and starts. Liebrandt was cooking avant-garde cuisine at a time when food trends were skewing much more casual. After stretches of unemployment, the chef got a lifeline from legendary restaurateur Drew Nieporent in the form of Corton, a restaurant that would prove to be a critical darling.

This film certainly captures both the drama of working in high-end kitchens, and the despair that chefs experience when their dreams are dashed. It’s not anywhere near as glossy as Chef’s Table, but A Matter of Taste has more of a personal touch, thanks to the fact that filmmaker Sally Rowe filmed Liebrandt on-and-off for a decade during his Manhattan odyssey.


In other entertainment news…

Have a great weekend everyone and if you’re looking for a show-stopping brunch dish to make, considering whipping up one of Claus Meyer’s spinach-and-cheese tarts.

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