BY BRYAN LAVERY
Our regard for food has flourished into an interesting film genre. Big Night, Julie and Julia, Tampopo and Babette's Feast are examples that fill me with appreciation for films where food and the culinary arts are the true stars. Small wonder the film, Julie and Julia, which depicts the life of chef Julia Child in the early years of her culinary career gives the audience the opportunity to savour the remarkable nature of Julia Child's achievement. The film contrasts Child's life to food blogger, Julie Powell, who aspires to recreate all 524 recipes from Child's collaborative cookbook, Mastering The Art of French Cooking. It is a film that has been warmly embraced.
Big Night is the film that comes closest in approximating many of my own experiences in the restaurant business. It is the story of two brothers operating an Italian restaurant serving authentic fare in the 1950's, when "Americanized" spaghetti and meatballs defined Italian cuisine.
The plot revolves around the planning and preparation of an elaborate, eight-course feast. But the story also deals with balancing culinary arts with paying the bills. At the heart of the movie lurks the unquestionable truth that genuine gastronomic pursuits are always labours of love.
I have been inspired enough to recreate this meal on three separate occasions. Most notably as a fundraiser for our local Slow Food convivumn fifteen years ago and for my colleague Jane Antoniak’s fiftieth birthday. These meals were always the collective effort of several collaborative chefs.
For our Slow Food fundraiser, the evening commenced when guests arrived wearing vintage 1950's evening dress, setting the stage for a evening of camaraderie, great food and exceptional wine. A long table laden with antipasti was presented and pre-dinner aperitifs were served. The chefs mingled with the patrons and showed little indication the pressure was on.
Guests were seated. The kitchen was immediately transformed into a hub of activity and conviviality. In a flash, we dispelled the assumption that too many chefs spoil the broth. Steaming hot vessels of delicate consommé enhanced with freshly dug carrots, Italian parsley and homemade pasta was served.
Following a spectacular juggling act of pans that paid homage to prop-based circus skills we produced in unison a trio of delicate, creamy risotti. One was flavoured with fresh spinach and basil, another with Roma tomatoes and fresh shellfish, and the third with goat, two fresh sheep's milk cheeses and Parmigiano-Reggiano. These were ladled onto large platters to simulate the three equal vertical bands of the Italian flag. Like the film we poured our souls into each course, lavishing care and attention on the cooking.
The next course was timpano, the film's penultimate dish. Meticulously assembled in advance, it required additional baking. Timing was paramount, given the constraints of two ovens. When carefully unmoulded intact, the Timpano was visually stunning. Kindred to the lasagna, but far more dramatic in scale, Timpano is a signature special-occasion dish from Calabria. In our version, the Timpano's sturdy, drum-shaped crust is filled with multiple layers of regional specialities that include: spicy penne, homemade sausage, provolone, meatballs, marinated artichokes, olives, roasted red peppers, pesto and grated hard-boiled eggs.
In the film you only catch a glimpse of the next course, so improvisation and the constant refocusing of one's attention was required. Two baked and stuffed whole Atlantic salmons infused with fennel, skewered with black tiger shrimp and sauced with lemon aioli were presented. This was followed by oven-roasted capons stuffed with apple, pear and quince and glazed with a pomegranate butter sauce.
After a brief interlude, twin, boned, whole roasted, crispy pigs emerged from the ovens and once dressed they were paraded around the dining room to great fanfare. The evening's decadence was topped off by platters of baked fresh fig and raspberry crostada, cantucci (a type of biscotti), seasonal fruit, nuts and traditional amaretti cookies. It was well past midnight before the reverent guests settled into cups of espresso and glasses of grappa and lemoncello.
Our interpretations of the Big Night meal were such epicurean triumphs I have often discussed creating the entire meal from Babette's Feast. However, it occurred to me that to achieve such gastronomic accuracy to food's role in that film, one would indeed have to win the lottery and be as self-sacrificing as the protagonist in that film.