Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Oscar-Winning Annoyance

I suppose I could put this on Filmchaw too, but it's more rant than review.

TIFF runs more than their big annual festival in these parts. They have a rather impressive tower now that houses theatres, workshops, a gallery, and other film-related stuff. In many ways, it's a year-round festival of various films and concepts.

They've just started this season's various series(es?), one of which is Food on Film. This series consists of 6 films about food, followed by a Q&A with a chef of some fame.

Last night kicked off with Babette's Feast and a Q&A with Scott Conant (owns Scarpetta, judges on Chopped, been on Top Chef).  The movie won the best foreign film Oscar for a reason.  Conant gets on TV for a reason. These two things were able to drag this first event above its two shortcomings.

First, the good. Babette's Feast is a Danish film about a small, remote, fishing village/religious sect.  The people live a pious life with little luxury. Meals are a mush of bread and ale, or saltfish soup.  Along comes Babette, a French woman escaping the French revolution of the mid 1800's.  She slowly adjusts these simple meals - a little bacon, a spring of rosemary, some onions. Nothing much, just enough that the locals notice and appreciate it.

Then an anniversary comes up and she offers to make a French feast for the village. This brings up questions of spiritual devotion among the faithful, and memories of one man's greatest meal ever. It's a hell of a feast, and a great piece of film-making.  If you can take subtitles, don't mind a slow start, and like food - it's a must-see.

After the film, Conant showed himself to be affable, confident (almost to the point of arrogant, but not quite in that annoying way), gracious, and a good interview.  Sadly, Jason Bangerter, the executive chef of the TIFF restaurants isn't much of an interviewer.

The night started with the resident Chef receiving an introduction that seemed to go on forever. Every restaurant he worked at was listed in detail. I'm surprised it didn't start with "His first dish was a sublime scrambled egg he made whilst still in utero".  By the end of the celebration of Bangerter, you'd think the guy was the second coming of Joël Robuchon. In comparison, Conant was practically introduced as "some guy who cooks."  I'm not sure how you get away with talking up the interviewer more than the guest.

Bangerter's interview style was very much the "I ask a question, you respond, then I move to the next with wooden grace" style.  Rarely was it conversational, nor did he seem able to follow up on interesting answers.  Or if he did, it was in the middle of another answer, as if it took 2 or 3 minutes for what he heard to sink in. Considering this should be a meeting of peers, where the insights of an accomplished chef add to the observations of a celebrity chef regarding a movie about food, it fell flat. I hope he improves as the series goes on.

But that was overshadowed by the woman in my vicinity who wouldn't shut up. Before the movie, during the movie, during the Q&A, it was an endless stream of patronizing pedantry and agonizing arrogance spewing from her.  "Oh, I'm only seeing this one, because none of the other films hold any interest at all for me."  "That's a black truffle." (said in the "how can he not know that?" tone when an audience member was asking a question).  Commentary loud enough to drown out the dialogue of the film. The ire was already rising by the time she took the mic for the Q&A and felt she had to correct an audience member, and both executive chefs on the stage with this stunning piece:

"It wasn't a cow's head. It was a calf's head."

Thanks. The world needed that minutiae shared. I suppose her point was it was veal demi-glaçe and not a beef one, but throw in the attitude and audacity and I wanted to tear into her. THEN she gets into an "argument" about women in the kitchen with Conant. Her point, "Woman have always been a force in the kitchen in Italy."  This was in regards to an earlier discussion about how women are becoming more prevalent in restaurant kitchens in North America.  Conant's response was along the lines of, "I wouldn't limit it to Italy. There are amazing female chefs in Spain, Hong Kong. Michelin Star chefs. There's one that is easily one of the top 50 in the world in Italy and everyone should try her food if they have the chance."  In short, he agreed and expanded. She came back with "No, but I'm talking Italy. Like, if you go back a few years, they've been big in Italy."  It was like she was expecting an argument and didn't know how to deal with agreement. An obviously annoyed Conant came back with "Sure, there was Catherine de' Medici if you really want to go back."

As she spoke, the nails-on-chalkboard annoyance across the room was palpable.  I'm incredibly happy she won't be at any future screenings in the series.I also gave an internal cheer when she was, once again, answering audience questions to nobody in particular and was just wrong enough to be wrong. [under her breath loud enough for everyone in a two row radius to hear] "It was sour cream."  [Conant] "That was crème fraiche."

But despite these unsavoury aspects, the film and guest were able to elevate the experience. It's a solid concept for a series, and I look forward to the upcoming films. After all, you can't control who buys a ticket.

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