This article is part of Tropes Week, in which we’re exploring our favorite tropes from cinema history. Read more here.
It’s a universal truth that food is the gateway to happiness. The appeal of popular films like Ratatouille, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and Julie & Julia lies in how effectively they all communicate the power of food and the joys of cooking. Ratatouille is especially effective at emphasizing the emotional connection people (and Parisian rats) have with food, and how one amazing meal can literally change your life. Its ability to communicate this feeling is arguably why the film is considered Pixar’s greatest achievement.
“I don’t like food… I love it.”
The fact is, big things happen over a good meal. In film, these “big” moments can range from miserably funny (American Beauty’s cringe-worthy family dinners) to gruesome (Alien being the prime example of dinnertime gone wrong). Yet even when nothing extraordinary is happening in the scene, sharing a meal feels poignant in some way or another. It’s one of the most companionable acts we take as people.
Ordinary conversation takes on a new level of intimacy, and by the time the plates are cleared we can’t help but feel that the characters have become infinitely closer. This unique feeling becomes even stronger when one person has actually cooked the meal themselves, becoming a trope that films ranging from romance to drama take full advantage of. Because really, who can resist the charm of a culinary-minded love interest creating a meal from scratch for the item of their affections.
Cooking exists as the perfect vehicle for romance, or as a tool to create closer bonds between characters, simply because it’s something we can all relate to. Ask anyone — a full stomach is the key to the heart, and being cooked for carries a strong sense of being nurtured. This cozy energy ensures that the pivotal moments occurring in these scenes have the necessary weight while giving the audience plenty of warm and fuzzies. It’s why so many foodie films also carry strong romantic themes.
Preparing dinner for a loved one always has the potential to take a dark turn as well, and twisty plotlines can even become more fun this way. They’re great at making you think about how much trust we really put in someone cooking a meal for us. Outside the realm of adoring chefs cooking for their beau lies the deliciously sick romance of Phantom Thread’s poisoned omelets, for example. The power of food is made very literal in this case. Some people might go for that kind of thing, though, as we see by the end of the film.
“Kiss me, my girl, before I’m sick.”
By far the best use of culinary courtship occurs when a character who works in or owns a restaurant cooks for someone inside their place of business. This can either be the protagonist cooking for their love interest or vice versa. A veritable chef’s kiss to a solid after-hours restaurant scene (an AHRS, if you will). These scenes are special because they often involve one character inviting the other into their world, showing them their passions firsthand. Even Final Destination 5 gives us quality AHRS content, although that particular sweet moment does end with a deranged side character entering the restaurant armed with a gun. But no date is perfect.
In most cases, however, these kinds of cooking scenes are an indication that a more reserved or taciturn character has started to open up and grow closer to the other person. Guilty-pleasure Katherine Heigl flick Life as We Know It employs this so effectively that it manages to color the rest of the film in a happy glow. Heigl’s character, Holly, has a lifelong dream of turning her bakery into a successful restaurant, which remains quietly unfinished for the majority of the film.
As Holly and the gradually tolerable male lead (Josh Duhamel) grow closer, she brings him in after-hours for a date. He watches her prepare the food, literally bathed in buttery romantic light, as predictably high strung Holly comments that this is the only place in life where she doesn’t follow a plan. Their private dinner is a brief, sweet interlude in the film that marks a dramatic turning point in their relationship, in part due to the intimate nature of Holly sharing her life’s passion, as well as him seeing a new side of her.
Spanglish utilizes this trope in an even more pivotal manner. Chef John (Adam Sandler) has just found out that his wife has been unfaithful and spontaneously decides to take maid and secret crush Flor (Paz Vega) to his restaurant, unable to remain at home.
The increasing tension between the two comes to a head here as they keep a strict physical distance yet finally say out loud everything they’ve been feeling all along. The restaurant becomes their momentary hideaway as Flor sits watching John cook five-star meals, Hans Zimmer’s cello-heavy score acting as the perfect backdrop. It’s a much-needed respite for the two to finally act on their own volition, neither wanting the spell to break, until Flor pulls them back to reality.
Instead of another instance of wooing via food, this restaurant scene serves as the entirety of the relationship and what it could have been — before it all ends just as quickly. John cooking a meal for Flor is also a crucial moment in that she is allowing herself to be taken care of for once. The food in this scene is used to openly exchange feelings, the dinner becoming more than just John letting Flor into his world. It’s also his gift to her in appreciation of who she is and how she has impacted his life.
In a very different manner, the moving drama of Chiron’s (Trevante Rhodes) life in Moonlight culminates in one simple meal made by his first love. Kevin (André Holland) reunites with now-grown Chiron back in their hometown, proudly showing him his new gig at a diner. He doesn’t waste any time in preparing Chiron the “chef’s special,” a scene that’s beautiful as well as undeniably sensual. You can tell the meal is being made with love, and that he wants it to be special in honor of Chiron’s return into his life.
The meal is not only a loving gesture but significant in that it is a standard Cuban dish from the Miami hometown Chiron has been removed from for so long, physically and emotionally. The conversation that follows is monumental as well as it catches up the pair on their lives since we last saw them in adolescence.
These scenes ultimately work so well at giving us all the feels because of the nurturing emotions exuded. Confessions of love in the rain and airport near-misses give us dewy eyes, yes, but these tropes lack the full flavor of someone putting their heart and soul into a meal for another person. Whether it be poisonous mushrooms or Malibu’s best haute cuisine, at the end of the day the best kind of romance comes from good food and good company.