By Rory Winston
They’re different,” said a film-reviewer colleague, “in Japanese movies about food, the main star is the food. Check Tampopo or Doing Time or Chef of the South Polar or even Flavor of Happiness, the recipe is the same: the cooking process tells all.” My friend was right. The love interest, the nemesis… even the murders and marriages were mere side dishes. The meat (or fish) of the story was literally just that. Cuisine wasn’t solely aesthetics as it was in many a French film, nor was it mouth-watering substitutions for sex as in most Italian ones; for the Japanese, food was plot. There was no need for the gourmet chefs; one obsessed eccentric trying to get it right was enough. Cooking was their way to tell a genuine story about a character without the use of words.
Since a person’s identity depends on an accumulation of experiences rather than simply their point of origin, it is little wonder that Family Recipe is a bio-pic in the form of a restaurant. The dishes tell the story of Akiko Thurnauer who grew up in a food-obsessed Tokyo family, became a graphic designer, moved to New York over 16 years ago, married a Brit (as the surname indicates) of Swiss origin, and worked in Nobu for several years.
Family Recipe’s film treatment goes something like this:
Establishing shot: the Lower East Side – inconspicuous eatery on 231 Eldridge Street.
Entering the restaurant, sloped sand-toned ceilings with makeshift lamps forged of archaic cooking vessels are discernible in amber light. Arched black chairs line a corridor of a room where an open L-shaped kitchen shares space with the diners. The warmly chaotic sound of soft music, grilling, cutlery, and fractured conversations is heard.
Upon being seated, strange dishes are introduced like old acquaintances. They appear in the order of how long it takes them to be prepared. The first to sit at my table is a Kale salad with caramelized onions and pomegranate seeds. A Tosaka seaweed salad with sesame dressing and odd magenta shavings, simultaneously, begins to flirt with our palates. The conversation comes to a halt as Okonomiyaki, with its airy pancake-like cover studded in bonito flakes shows up. Fat Rock Shrimps with kimchi smothered in tangy mayonnaise and a dark brown sauce lay buried beneath its skin. Intense mastication is now followed by long bouts of silence.
A sombre phyllo-dough, containing hen of the woods mushroom with parsnips, has plied its way to our table. Dressed more festively, a splendid selection of Brussel sprouts with lots chips, pine nuts, capers and miso also appears. Dumplings stuffed with mushrooms soon join the rest. There is much to talk about. A wooden carafe of Sake makes it all the easier.
More assertive characters arrive. Squid ink okonomiyaki; shyouyu koji mackerel taco; fluke cured with kombu; duck eggs; Kale ginger dumplings… an abundance of regions, a rhapsodic harvest of approaches and ingredients.
Before the final credits roll, miniature cones packed with black sesame ice cream and a pana cotta with green tea gelée bid me farewell.
Leaving Family Recipe, I genuinely felt I was leaving not only one of the most phenomenal meals I’d recently partaken in, but that I had gone to a screening of Akiko Thurnauer’s life story. I have the definite feeling that this culinary bio-pic will prove to be a true sleeper – one that we will all be attending again and again in the years to come. •
231 Eldridge St
New York, NY 10002