Becoming Amateur

As the summer comes to a close ML and I have been on a food movie binge. I think it may have been in direct response to our disappointment with Julie and Julia, but for whatever reason it has been inspiring to revisit films like The Big Night, Babette's Feast and Eat, Drink, Man, Woman.

What is interesting for me watching these movies (and what sets them apart from J and J) is that all three deal in one way or another with the aftermath (or the impending aftermath in The Big Night) of a career as a successful professional chef. Instead of the usual making of a success or rise to success, these movies deal in the living after the success. Begging the question of what is success seems to be at the heart of these movies.

Babette moving through the frame to feed the infirmed or Master Chu making lunch boxes for school girls–­both of these chefs have moved from a place of professionalism to a becoming amateur. Babette claims at the high point of Babette’s Feast, “An artist is never poor”, Martin Lane looks at me and says “good line”… I think, “YES!”

What is striking in Eat, Drink, Man, Woman on a second visit, besides the humor (the film is really dry and funny), is how gorgeous, luscious, voluptuous Master Chu’s food comes across when he cooks for his daughters, in their home. The same dumplings, fish, greens come across almost as unappetizing when being portrayed in the large restaurant he is affiliated with after his semi-retirement. Maybe it is because of all the handmade apparatuses he uses in his home and juxtaposed all the shiny stainless steel in the restaurant, the food comes across as cold. The fact that Master Chu goes outside to light a smoker, just to get the ham right at home, portrays a level of love for what he does, for who he is, that could never come across in a professional kitchen. He cooks for his girls now, not the big wigs.

The word amateur comes from French, Italian and based in Latin as an offshoot of the word for lover and to love. We see this in Babette’s Feast when we watch Babette work the stoves. It starts when she returns from the shore having retrieved ingredients from France, a turtle, a cage of live quails… at this point Babette’s walk is different, her rhythm, her stride equals pure confidence. She is about to prepare a Feast she is paying for from lottery winnings and in which she has asked the guest to attend as a favor–­How exciting to watch this film again… However the true portrayal of amateur, love of a practice is, as her guests are worshiping their spiritual Father they are repeating maxims over and over again to deny their bodies, their senses while eating Babette's food. The tension portrays a pleasure that is born out of necessity.

Watching it again it struck me, I use to think that the General (non-puritan) was at this feast to sort of make it all worthwhile for Babette, for he knew her former career and successes–A sort of I need a witness of my past to make me what I need to be for my new crowd, but watching again I realize the General is only there for us, the movie goer, to fill in the back story as a professional… the puritans don’t need him and neither does Babette… This is a becoming amateur cook with pure amateur eaters and it is a wonderful thing to watch.

I will leave The Big Night for another post, for it may have nothing to do with becoming amateur. Babette's Feast and Eat Drink, Man, Woman were two very important movies for me as I was becoming a professional chef and now as I am becoming an amateur…