Film critic and food aficionado Erich Van Dussen ’89 offers recommendations for some delicious watch parties.
by Robyn Rime
When it comes to food porn, “Big Night” is the gold standard.
“It checks every box,” says Erich Van Dussen ’89, director of communications at Hillside, a multistate nonprofit based in Rochester, and — more to the point — longtime movie reviewer for Messenger Post and other upstate New York media outlets. “It’s a legitimately good movie, it has a big cast that everyone can get excited about, and you can positively smell the food coming off the screen.”
The movie is also easy to find on streaming platforms, a feature that could make it the main course when hosting your own movie-and-food night. Whether you indulge in a marathon Italian dinner or invent an unforgettable homemade pie, watching movies about food while eating the dishes they inspire can be as satisfying as a happy ending and a full belly.
Van Dussen’s recommendations follow, but he has one request before the curtain goes up: Try to love the film as much as the food.
“Build your party in such a way that people get to watch the movie front to back,” he says. “The thought of jumping up off the couch to go into the kitchen while great stuff is happening on screen … it just breaks my heart a little bit. You can honor the integrity of the art that you’re watching and still have fun and eat great food. The movies should be more than inspiration for food — they are inspiring all by themselves.”
For Van Dussen, the movie-and-food conversation begins and ends with Big Night. “It’s an earthy story about two brothers (played by Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub) who are struggling to keep their authentic Italian restaurant open despite the fact that customers just want spaghetti all the time.” In an all-or-nothing, do-or-die event — the big night of the title — the brothers invite the whole community to come and enjoy their food.
“Big Night’s” centerpiece dish is a timpano, a giant cauldron of dough stuffed with layers of pasta, various meats, mozzarella, sautéed vegetables … a visual and literal feast.
“I didn’t know much about real Italian food before I first watched “Big Night.” It was insane and glorious,” says Van Dussen. “Making a timpano would be an opportunity to kick out the stops with a bunch of friends and have some great Italian food … but maybe you could find somebody to make the dough first. That shell is probably a Wagnerian opera all by itself.”
Culinary cinéastes can find “Big Night’s” timpano recipe at Food52.com.
Some lighter fare on Van Dussen’s film menu is “Chef,” the story of a frustrated restaurant chef who abandons fine cuisine and buys a food truck. During a cross-country road trip that’s peppered with pit stops for beignets or barbeque, director/star Jon Favreau reconnects with his family and rediscovers the food that makes him happy.
“As much as ‘Big Night’ has a love affair with food, it wants us to admire the people doing the cooking more than it wants us to learn from them,” says Van Dussen. “In ‘Chef,’ we watch Favreau’s character give such loving focus to the assembly of the food — building a grilled cheese sandwich, testing the heat above the griddle —that you feel like you could follow along.”
The food truck’s Cuban sandwiches “are just the kind of stuff you’d want to serve at a party,” he adds, with their thick layers of roasted pork, ham, swiss cheese, pickles and mustard on Cuban bread. Opinions differ on whether the pork must be mojo-marinated or whether Sunday dinner leftovers will do. But all agree a true Cubano needs pressing to fuse the flavors — which makes a “Chef” watch party the perfect time to dust off your panini press.
A “Chef”-inspired Cubano recipe is available on BingingWithBabish.com.
“Julie and Julia” (2009)
Next up is “Julie and Julia,” based on the true story of a woman inspired to cook and blog her way through every recipe in Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art French Cooking.” The film alternates between modern-day Julie (Amy Adams), painfully recreating one gourmet dish at a time, and Julia Child (Meryl Streep), wholeheartedly enjoying the food, the lifestyle and the culinary paradise of Paris in the 1950s.
“‘Julie and Julia’ lets you experience the kind of cuisine that might feel threatening to the average contemporary cook,” says Van Dussen. “You could buy some decadent ingredients and a lot of red wine to cook with … although you probably don’t want to chop all the onions that Julia Child does in the film.”
Ambitious cooks can find an adapted version of Julia Child’s boeuf bourguignon on Epicurious.com.
For dessert, Van Dussen suggests “Waitress,” an unlikely confection starring Keri Russell as a young woman trapped in a small town, an abusive marriage and a dead-end diner job. And yet, says Van Dussen, it’s absolutely charming. “I give it credit for tackling its heavier subjects with a deliberately fairy-tale tone. It’s so lightweight that it kind of floats away … but if you’re going to have movies about Cuban sandwiches and giant stuffed dough and boeuf bourguignon, why not end with a movie about making pies?”
The film is “basically a cookbook narrative about creating wacky, interesting and apparently — if the movie is to be believed — very simple-to-produce pies with creative concepts,” says Van Dussen. Inspired by her challenging life, for instance, Russell’s character makes the Pregnant Miserable Self-Pitying Loser Pie (“Lumpy oatmeal with fruitcake mashed in. Flambéed, of course.”).
Then there’s the Strawberry Chocolate Oasis Pie. “It could solve all the problems of the world, that pie,” says a diner customer in the film. “It’s a thing of beauty — how each flavor opens itself one by one, like a chapter in a book. First, the flavor of an exotic spice hits you, just a hint of it. And then you’re flooded with chocolate, dark and bittersweet, like an old love affair. And finally strawberry, the way strawberry was always supposed to taste but never knew how.”
Try This at Home: Strawberry Chocolate Oasis Pie, adapted from Love and Olive Oil
- Nonstick vegetable oil spray
- 6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter
- 1 ounce bittersweet (not unsweetened) or semisweet chocolate, chopped
- 7 ounces chocolate wafer cookies (about 30 cookies)
- 1 pint strawberries, trimmed and halved
- 2/3 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup cornstarch
- 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- Pinch of salt
- 6 large egg yolks
- 2 1/2 cups whole milk
- 6 ounces bittersweet (not unsweetened) or semisweet chocolate, chopped
- 1/2 tablespoon bourbon
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Lightly spray a 9-inch pie dish with nonstick spray.
- Place the butter and chopped chocolate in a microwave safe bowl and heat on high for 30 seconds or until just melted. Stir until smooth.
- Finely grind cookies in processor. Add chocolate mixture and process until crumbs are evenly moistened.
- Press crumb mixture into prepared pie dish. Freeze until firm, about 30 minutes.
- Arrange strawberry halves in a single layer in the bottom of the crust.
- For filling, whisk sugar, cornstarch, cocoa powder, ginger, nutmeg, and salt in a heavy medium saucepan to combine.
- Whisk in egg yolks to form thick paste.
- Gradually whisk in milk, then whisk over medium-high heat until mixture thickens and boils for 1 minute. Remove from heat.
- Add chocolate and whisk until smooth.
- Whisk in bourbon and vanilla.
- Cool 5 minutes, whisking occasionally.
- Pour filling over strawberries until level with the top edge of the crust (you may not use all the filling).
- Chill until set, at least 2 hours and up to 1 day. Top with fresh whipped cream and more strawberries, if desired.
Honorable Mentions of Movies With Great Food
Also worthy of consideration, says Van Dussen:
- “Babette’s Feast” (1987)
- “Like Water for Chocolate” (1992)
- “Mostly Martha” (2001) (“But not the lousy English-language remake, ‘No Reservations,’” he says.)
- “Ratatouille” (2007)
- “Soul Food” (1997)