Restaurants and chefs are hot topics these days. Open any newspaper or magazine (including this one) and you’re bound to see some sort of restaurant news. Chefs are treated as celebrities and restaurants as nightclubs; i.e. adult playgrounds. I’ve read that some food writers describe America’s obsession with food as “the new sex”…personally, I’m not buying that one. At any rate, movies are no different, these too often portray—and glamorize—food and the foodservice industry. This is nothing new, of course, big screen “food movies” have been popular for years— Babette’s Feast, Like Water for Chocolate, and Eat Drink Man Woman come to mind. But two that I think parallel one another to a certain extent are Dinner Rush and The Big Night. The Big Night was released in the mid-1990’s and Dinner Rush just a couple of years ago. Both are stories about Italian restaurants that are in trouble in similar but at the same time different ways. Both are interesting and worth the time to watch, and they will make you hungry. They may even make you want to work in a restaurant, but I wouldn’t quit your day job just yet.

The Big Night

The Big Night’s central theme is that of two Italian immigrant brothers named Primo (First) and Secondo (Second). They’re trying to achieve their American dream during the 1950’s in a seaside New Jersey town by owning a restaurant called Paradise. Primo is the chef played by Tony Shalhoub and Secondo is the maitre d’ played by Stanley Tucci.

Primo is an introverted chef who is true to his craft and cooks authentic Northern Italian cuisine…no spaghetti-and-meatballs here. This was a problem in 1950’s America because people weren’t familiar with such currently popular foods as risotto, nor were they used to multiple courses. Pizza and spaghetti were the popular notions of Italian food. There’s a great scene where Secondo returns to the kitchen to ask his brother for a side of spaghetti for the risotto that he just served. Primo, perplexed and angered as to why someone would want pasta with their rice, says that he needs to speak to this person and ask them personally why they want the spaghetti. He never does, of course, but you’ll wish he had.

Secondo, on the other hand, is a maitre d’ with an attention to detail but at the same time is willing to compromise in order to be successful in America. He wants to remove risotto from the menu because it takes too long to prepare (thus, the customer has to wait…something we Americans don’t like to do). But Primo’s belief was that to eat good food was to be close to God, and sarcastically replies that maybe they should just put hotdogs on the menu.

The brother’s antithesis is another Italian immigrant, Pascal (played by Ian Holme), who runs his namesake restaurant across the street. Pascal’s is an extremely popular place ran by an over-the-top portrayal of a charismatic restaurant owner. What really bothers the brothers is that Pascal’s doesn’t serve authentic Italian food, it’s primarily a spaghetti house. At one point in the film Primo says in a rant, referring to the lack of authenticity of Pascal’s food, that what happens in that restaurant every night is rape. But that’s not the real problem. The problem is that Pascal’s is packed to the gills every night while Paradise is not. The brothers are, in fact, on the verge of bankruptcy.

Pascal, in artificial sympathy, offers to call his good friend and famous performer Louis Prima and have him eat (or sing?) at Paradise in an effort to boost business. This is something Pascal never holds true to.

Nonetheless, the anticipation, preparation, and ultimately execution of the night’s dinner are the crux of the film. The care and passion in which the brothers prepare for the big night is a sight to behold, this should be required viewing for anyone interested in working in the restaurant business. It cumulates with their specialty, a dish called Timpano, a sort of deep-dish “pasta pie”, which is filled with everything from meatballs and sausage to hard-boiled eggs (this description does not do the dish justice). The scene where the brothers are testing the timpano for doneness is comical and at the same time heartfelt, they treat it is as if it is sacred. And for lack of better terms, the dinner scene in the dining room is nothing short of a food orgy. Course after beautiful course are served. People ooh and ahh and moan, and by the end of the evening (3:00am) they are sprawled about the room in a sort of post-orgasmic calm; one woman is actually lying across the table smoking a cigarette.

Other major characters are Secondo’s girlfriend Phyllis (played by Minnie Driver), and Pascal’s Mistress Gabriella (played by Isabella Rossellini). Secondo is in relationship with both women, and like most such triangles it eventually implodes. One of the most comical characters is a parody of a car salesman (played by Campbell Scott) whose one-liners will make you roll.

To give more of the story away would ruin it, but I’ll just say that the scene of the morning after when Primo and Secondo eat eggs together in the silent kitchen may bring tears to your eyes. This is a movie overtly about food and unfulfilled dreams, but it’s also about other things that really matter.

Dinner Rush

Dinner Rush has a more contemporary theme, and unfortunately is more real to what the restaurant business is like. I say unfortunately because much of the movie is filled with ego, arrogance, and self-importance. This is what will make it interesting to some, but there’s also an under story of love, friendship, and respect

The film takes place mostly over the course of one considerably busy “dinner rush” in a trendy TriBeCa trattoria called Gigino’s, nicknamed after the aging owner, Louis, who is played by Danny Aiello. The restaurant wasn’t always considered trendy, at least not until his son, an arrogant young celebrity chef, Udo (played by Edoardo Ballerini) took charge of the kitchen.

There’s friction between father and son about the food: Udo calls what his father likes, and what the original menu once was (traditional Italian-American), heavy and outdated; Louis says that the food that his son cooks is unrecognizable. While Udo points out that the dining room is full every night, Louis often laments the good old days and asks his son if it’s too much to ask to have his Italian restaurant staffed by Italians (like many restaurants in America today, Gigino’s is a multi-national kitchen and has a high percentage of Hispanics at the helm).  

The scenes that are portrayed in this movie, I think, after more than 25 years in the business myself, are about as good a cross section of a busy night in a trendy restaurant as it gets: the unnecessary macho sexual banter that happens constantly amongst the cooks, the arrogant flare-ups of the chef, the frazzled, harassed, and annoyed wait-staff, and a dining room with patrons often more concerned about how they look and what’s happening around them than actually coming to the restaurant to eat.

The restaurant is in trouble in that it’s attempted to be seized by a mob family from Queens. Louis and his “very recently deceased” business partner are in debt to the mob, but that’s not why they initially showed interest in Gigino’s. The restaurant’s sous chef, Duncan (played by Kirk Acevedo) has a penchant for gambling. The problem is that he never seems to come out on top; a debt for $6500 quickly doubles and things become a little more serious. Louis has a soft spot for Duncan, mostly because he cooks him and his friends the old school Italian food that he likes, but everyone has their breaking point.

Two of the more self-centered characters of the film are—at separate tables—a famous art dealer and a food critic. Mark Margolis plays the snobby art dealer, Fitzgerald, and Sandra Bernhard is the equally snooty food critic, Jennifer Freely. Both characters are expertly portrayed and so obnoxious you can’t take your eyes off them (though you may wish you could slap them on the side of the head)—they’re not just critical about the art on the walls and food on the plates, they’re critical about everything and everyone…except themselves. Not withstanding, they both add interest to the film.

There are plenty of kitchen scenes in Dinner Rush, but unlike The Big Night the food won’t make your mouth water. There is one scene where Jennifer Freely asks (tells) Udo to make her something special. “No butter,” she insists, and “you do such wonderful things with pasta.” What follows is a glorified cooking scene with Udo and Duncan cooking for Bernhard and her friend where they create an architectural masterpiece of lobster and pasta with champagne sauce. The food—fried spaghetti and lobsters still in their shells, mostly—is positioned vertically and must stand 10 inches off the plate. The problem I had, from a professional cooks point of view, was that while he was instructed not to use butter he used probably a couple cups of cream for the sauce, and the pasta was fried and used as a garnish, rendering it mostly inedible. What resulted was a dish that looked as beautiful as the people in the dining room, but was mostly about looks not taste and merely stroked the egos of both chef and critic. Personally I’d rather eat food that Primo cooked.

Dinner Rush is a great movie to see the behind the scenes look at a trendy New York restaurant. It’s fictitious, of course, but many of the kitchen and dining room scenes are not that far fetched. And to peak your interest further I leave you with one of my favorite quotes of the movie. Towards the end of the film, sitting at a table with Udo, Jennifer Freely says with that perpetual sneer that Bernhard has, “There’s nothing like a double homicide to keep a restaurant packed for weeks.” This film may or may not make you feel good, but most things do work themselves out in the end.