There are films and TV series that make cooking (and eating) feel like joyous, unifying activities that bring families and cultures together. There are others that remind us that the business of preparing food is stressful, harried, and sweaty. FX’s buzzy new series The Bear, starring Jeremy Allen White as the head chef of a family restaurant in Chicago, is firmly in the latter camp. This shit is stressful.
In life, food can divide us as easily as it unites us, and the best food-based narratives make that plain. For every family gathered around a cosy dinner table for a traditional meal, there’s a frantic restauranteur barely keeping their head above water. Eating is fine and all, but watching other people prepare and serve meals can be just as satisfying, particularly when the meals on offer are far more elaborate than the grilled cheese we’re making at home. The following 15 movies and series excel at exploring the culture and business of cooking, and occasionally offer up some absolutely mouthwatering food porn.
Julia (2022 – )
It’s a good moment to revisit Julia Child. At a critical period in American culture, she was a woman who reinvented herself multiple times, first by learning to cook when she was already nearly 40, parlaying her talent into a bestselling cookbook; and then when she moved into television, becoming an unexpected celebrity in the process. Though they’re not related, strictly speaking, the 2009 movie Julie & Julia focused on the lead-up to Child’s fame, while this series spotlights the chef (Sarah Lancashire) during her early days in the spotlight as she experienced the related upheavals to her own life and the broader cultural shifts ongoing at at the time. Even better, second helping is on the way — it was recently renewed for a second season.
The Missing Menu (2016, one season)
This cute and poignant Malaysian series follows an elderly single mother who misses her children, all of whom have moved away — so, each weekend, she prepares their favourite dishes in the hope that they’ll come and visit. It works, mostly, though they often bring drama with them when they come. There’s a strong emphasis on the process involved in the preparation of Hakka (and occasionally Fujian) cuisine, and each episode smartly adds a concluding segment in which a real chef pulls back the curtain on the narrative and demonstrates how to prepare the relevant dishes. It’s an innovation that more cooking dramas could stand to emulate.
Following a disastrous encounter with a food critic at the Brentwood restaurant at which he’s the head chef, Miami-born foodie Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) heads home and buys a dilapidated food truck with a little help from his ex-daughter-in-law Inez (Sofia Vergara). Eschewing the stuffy classical cuisine of his old job, he returns to his love of Cuban food. On a cross-country sandwich making excursion, he reconnects with his son and finds a new level of fame.
The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014)
A common theme in foodie movies is the distinction between classical (i.e., “fancy”) cuisine and food that’s a little more down-to-earth, though no less challenging to prepare — nor less delicious. Here, Hassan Kadam (Manish Dayal) and his family leave their home in India for France, opening up a restaurant across the street (about 30.48 m) from the Michelin-starred Le Saule Pleureur, run by the none-too-pleased Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren). Not only is the film a great showcase for the Hassan’s Indian cuisine, it’s also a reminder of the ways in which food simultaneously speaks to individual cultures and bridges gaps between them.
The Lunchbox (2013)
Tiffin delivery is big business in metro India. Rather than slapping together a sandwich and tossing it into a bag first thing in the morning, lunches are often made at home and delivered to offices just in time. The Lunchbox manages to celebrate that culture while adding a bit of romance to the mix. Hoping to revive her flagging marriage, Ila Singh (Nimrat Kaur) dreams that her cooking skills might draw her husband’s attention. It’s not having much effect, but one day, the lunch goes to the wrong person — lonely Saajan (Irrfan Khan). The two start sharing notes, and the flirtation proves to be life-changing for them both.
Midnight Diner (2009–2019, five seasons)
“The Master” prepares relatively simple, appealing comfort dishes at his atmospheric after hours Tokyo diner, joined by regulars and newcomers with distinctive quirks and personal dramas: a struggling singer; a porn star; a gang member; a comic book writer…think High Maintenance, but in a fixed location, with a lot more food. The manga-inspired series inspired a spin-off/sequel, Tokyo Stories, as well as a (not nearly as good) big-budget movie remake from China. It’s delightful.
Julie & Julia (2009)
Nora Ephron and an A-list cast (Meryl Streep, Stanley Tucci, Amy Adams, etc.) bring this unconventional biopic to life. Adams plays Julie Powell, a call centre worker who sets out to cook every recipe from Julia Child’s classic cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Meanwhile, the dual-structured film flashes back to the life of Julia Child herself (Streep) as she learns to cook in France and parlays her hard work and natural talent into the book itself. The Amy Adams half is a bit whatever, but Streep and Tucci are in top form.
Who says a rat can’t cook? (Oh, everyone? Makes sense actually.) Remy (Patton Oswalt) idolizes the late chef Auguste Gusteau, and dreams of working in his restaurant. Haute cuisine not being de rigueur among rodent families, his dreams don’t get a lot of support. But when he jumps in to help fix the soup ruined by the restaurant’s garbage boy (Lou Romano), it’s clear he has plenty to offer as a cook…if only Linguini can keep it under his hat. Kitchen hygiene standards be damned, it’s a delightful movie.
Tortilla Soup (2001)
María Ripoll directs the story of a retired Mexican-American chef (Hector Elizondo) who lives in Los Angeles with his three grown daughters. Though he’s no longer in business and has lost much of his sense of taste, he still prepares elaborate, multi-course meals as a way to bring his family together. Each of the daughters is navigating a modern world of dating and relationships while their traditional father struggles to accept that times have changed. It’s a Mexican-American remake, after a fashion, of 1994’s Eat Drink Man Woman, which we’ll return to shortly.
What’s Cooking? (2000)
Amidst the drama of What’s Cooking? lies a brilliant concept for a Thanksgiving tradition: four interconnected families from different cultural backgrounds (Latino, Jewish, Vietnamese, and African American) gather each year, with each family putting its own unique spin on both the traditional elements of Thanksgiving dinner while adding distinctive extras. British director Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham, Bride and Prejudice) grew up in Kenya to Punjabi parents, while her Japanese-American spouse co-wrote the movie. The two clearly know from blending cultures in food and family, and it shows. The cast i, as well: Mercedes Ruehl, Kyra Sedgwick, Joan Chen, Lainie Kazan, Julianna Margulies, Alfre Woodard, and Dennis Haysbert among other big names.
Soul Food (1997)
Another great food-themed movie with Alfre Woodard, this time joined by anA-list cast including Vivica A. Fox, Nia Long, and Mekhi Phifer. From the point of view of 11-year-old Ahmad (Brandon Hammond) we visit the Sunday dinners of a close-knit Chicago family. When matriarch Mother Joe (Irma P. Hall) suffers a debilitating stroke, family bonds begin to fray, and ultimately, it’s the food, and the traditions around those family meals, that help to repair the broken bonds.
Big Night (1996)
Plenty of impressive food photography here, particularly if Italian is your thing. Calabrian brothers Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (Stanley Tucci) emigrate to America in the 1950s and open up a restaurant called Paradise on the Jersey shore. The problem? Their authentic Italian is far too authentic for American palates, and they’re struggling for business. Their hopes come down to the title’s one big night, when real-life Italian-American singer Louis Prima is convinced to stop by. The feuding brothers figure that if they can impress the celebrity, they’ll have made it. Nothing is that easy, naturally, but their journey to success or failure is funny and brilliantly performed.
Eat Drink Man Woman (1994)
The food photography is drool-worthy in future Oscar-winner Ang Lee’s breakthough feature, filled with languid scenes of authentic Taiwanese cooking. Widower Zhu (Lung Sihung) is a master chef with three daughters, all single and navigating the complicated world of dating and relationships. Zhu’s sense of tradition bristles against his children’s embrace of the modern world, with the conflict unfolding over over the course of successive, stunning Sunday evening meals.
Chef! (1993–1996, three seasons)
Though a bit lesser known stateside, the British sitcom Chef! remains a fan favourite for its smart scripts and impressive production values. Lenny Henry plays the perfectionist, imperious Gareth Blackstock, one of English comedy’s top-tier arseholes, the type of character who could never be a lead in an American show. There are family elements here, but the series also deals with the nitty gritty of preparing fine meals — not just the cooking (though there’s plenty of that) but the logistics and economics of food obsession.
The delightful, whimsical “ramen western” Tampopo centres around the search for a perfect noodle restaurant and then, in the end, the effort required to create one. The title’s Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto) has the best of intentions, but she needs some help in building her dream restaurant, eventually getting it from wandering bandit Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki). While very funny, the film spends a lot of time exploring the real craft and philosophy of Japanese noodles — never more vividly than in an early scene in which a noodle master demonstrates the proper reverence with which to consume a bowl of traditionally prepared ramen. (Watch out for the scene with the raw egg, though. You’ll know it when you get there.