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The theater is dark, the film is rolling — and your mouth is watering.

Forget popcorn. This feast is for your eyes: sizzling green tomatoes, perfectly pink onions, a ripe zucchini being expertly chopped. At the helm of the knife? An actor you know and love.

Ogling food on the big screen has gotten easier and easier now that so many culinary-focused films are hitting theaters. This summer has seen two high-profile food movies: Chef, directed, written and starring Jon Favreau, and The Hundred-Foot Journey with Helen Mirren.

"The food is an important character itself," said Juliet Blake, who produced The Hundred-Foot Journey with Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg. These movies let you see the dishes come to life, from the pouring of oil into an empty pan to the first bite. Blake said Mirren put it this way: Don't eat before the movie, but make sure you have reservations afterward.

When the camera is focused on the kitchen, director and actors can no longer expect to fake their way through the culinary arts. The growing popularity of television shows such as Chopped and Top Chef has heightened expectations for food movies as well. The films' creators have to make a greater effort for the kitchens and the food itself to be believable — and delectable — on screen. Even the most talented actor couldn't pretend to chop an onion.

For Manish Dayal, that meant going off to culinary school. In The Hundred-Foot Journey, Dayal plays a young chef whose family has moved to France to start an Indian restaurant (to the dismay of a restaurateur across the street, played by Mirren). Just as Dayal's character eventually trains with the French greats, the producers sent the actor to a Paris cooking institute to learn the basics.

Favreau took a less conventional route by following Los Angeles chef Roy Choi for more than two months. Choi is known for his taco truck, Kogi, making him the perfect fit for a movie about a chef who leaves a restaurant and finds his mojo on a food truck.

Favreau learned every part of the business, Choi said. He dined with Wolfgang Puck but also spent hours peeling shrimp in Puck's kitchen.

"Jon's whole objective from day one was to get it right," Choi said. "And he was a man of his word."

Every detail of the Chef kitchens — the menu, the plastic mixing containers, even the folding of aprons — was chosen to mimic reality.

"We set up the environments and cooked the food as if we were really opening a restaurant," Choi said.

In The Hundred-Foot Journey, script writers made a point of incorporating real traditions of French and Indian cuisine. One of the film's key moments is when Mirren's character uses the making of an omelet as the litmus test of a chef's abilities.

"It's what many French chefs and restaurants might have done 30 years ago," said Michel Pradier, a teacher at L'Academie de Cuisine in Maryland.

As each ingredient of the omelet (chervil, tarragon, parsley) is lovingly tossed into the pan, it seems almost wrong that the theater isn't serving eggs to you, too.

The food looks so good, producers say, because it is good. Every morsel in The Hundred-Foot Journey and in Chef is edible. Techniques often used in advertising, such as spraying food to make it shinier, were prohibited.

Chefs, not food stylists, cooked and plated each dish, often many times over, so when a "first bite" scene needed to be filmed more than once, there would always be an untouched meal for the fork to pierce — and for the staff to eat when the scene's filming was complete, said The Hundred-Foot Journey actor Om Puri.

The dishes in Puri's film were chosen to be most appealing to U.S. audiences. Still, dishes like murgh masala make for a mouth-watering introduction to Indian cuisine. Given Chef scenes of sugar drifting over berries and beef brisket releasing its juices onto a cutting board, it's clear the bar has been raised for food in films.

Food-focused movies should continue tempting us: Trip to Italy, a restaurant-hopping comedy, hit select theaters this month, and Bradley Cooper's chef film is set to open in 2015.

FILM FEST, FILM FEAST 08/19/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 19, 2014 8:18pm]
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