Chefs get a gastro-workout as pics call for better-looking eats

Blame it on the Food Network. While culinary decoration in film was once more of the wax fruit variety, filmmakers have begun to realize that inspired presentation and plating techniques can make real food just as camera-friendly as less palatable stand-ins. These days, filmmakers can shoot their cake and eat it, too.

Last year saw a glut of gustatory sets, from the Conde Nast-like cafeteria in “The Devil Wears Prada” to the banquets in “Curse of the Golden Flower” and, on the other end of the spectrum, the slaughterhouses and rancid deep fryers in “Fast Food Nation.” Yet in no film was food design as essential as in “Volver” and “Marie Antoinette.”

Penelope Cruz’s Raimunda finds herself the accidental proprietress of a Madrid restaurant, allowing helmer “Volver” helmer Pedro Almodovar to shoot a panorama of vibrant-looking food inspired by the cuisine of his hometown in La Mancha.

“You know, their obsession with food is very real,” Almodovar told Variety in October, speaking of the women in his hometown. “They were so fascinated with food, that you needed to be fed, that food is difficult to find there. Life is all around food.”

Appropriately, Almodovar recruited his two sisters, Maria Jesus and Antonia Almodovar, as consultants and on-set cooks. Their offerings — Spanish omelets, rolled wafers, creme caramel, pisto manchego — helped turn the restaurant set into one of the more vital mise en scenes in the film.

“Pedro’s sisters are wonderful cooks,” says Barbara Peira, Almodovar’s assistant and publicist. “So there was no need for tactics to make the food more attractive. Pedro and the rest of the crew were always eager to eat everything as soon as the shoot was done.”

While “Volver” uses food as a symbol of community, in Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” it takes on the opposite role — illustrating the hedonism of royal French life at Versailles at a time when most of the country was starving.

“Everyone in the film is constantly eating, which is part of the decadence,” says producer Ross Katz, and consequently the majority of the food seen in the film is edible. He points out that this was not always a luxury, however, as “Marie Antoinette’s” frantic shooting schedule often called for thesps to consume copious amounts of fish in the early-morning hours.

Marc Meneau, owner and general manager of L’Esperance a Vezelay in Burgundy, oversaw the creation of outlandish dinner spreads, most of which, despite the film’s intentional anachronisms elsewhere, were period-specific.

“The food reflected the mood of the story,” says art director Anne Seibel, “opulent and colorful at the beginning and sad and gray toward the end when things went wrong. The dinners were part of the rhythm and changes.”

While no stranger to the history of royal gastronomy (Meneau also created the cuisine for “Vatel,” a 2000 study of the seminal 17th-century court cook), here the chef had the added trouble of creating dishes that would mesh with the Versailles interiors and Seibel’s art direction, a task that required drawing up detailed architectural drafts of the dishes long before turning on the oven.

The sheer lavishness of the dinner scenes also called for painstaking planning so that the fragile presentations could maintain their luster — and not melt — through multiple takes.

“Some of the cakes were fake,” Seibel admits. “We needed them to withstand the heat of the shooting lamps. But they looked real.”

Famed Parisian patisserie La Duree contributed the various pink-tinted sweets, tarts, cakes and ices that the titular queen seems to be eating at every possible moment, making “Marie Antoinette” a full-fledged foodie feature.

Perhaps a real-life restaurant contributed to “Fast Food Nation” as well, but if so, they aren’t talking.

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