Big Night – 3 stars
My system, inspired by the Michelin ratings
- 0 stars: That’s two hours I’m never getting back – Establishments deemed unworthy of a visit
- 1 star: An ok movie; something to watch if you’re out of other movie options – “A very good restaurant in its category”
- 2 stars: A good movie, worth a watch especially if you’re a fan of food movies – “Excellent cooking, worth a detour”
- 3 stars: One of the best food movies ever, and a damn fine movie in any category – “Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey”
Appetizer – A short summary
Two brothers, immigrants from Italy, run a struggling restaurant. Primo, the older brother is the extremely talented and uncompromising chef, and Secundo, the younger brother is the maître d’ and business manager. In a last-ditch effort to make the restaurant take off, they invite Louis Prima to a huge dinner party.
Main course – The review and commentary
Big Night has everything you could ever hope for in a food movie. Great characters, a true understanding of and empathy for the industry, inspiring food sequences, some really good cinematography, and a touching story.
I was a chef’s apprentice when I was first introduced to this movie although I didn’t really care for it at the time. It wasn’t until I had my own food establishment that I began to understand through first-hand experience the true passion, agony, fear, and drive that was motivating Primo and Secundo. There’s a scene early in the movie when Secundo walks through the dining room, assessing everything, making micro-adjustments, displaying all the love and attention to detail that goes into getting prepared for the evening service. I completely understand that sentiment and there are no words for how much I miss it.
Another bit from the movie to which I can totally relate is the advice given to Secundo: “Give to people what they want and then later you can give them what you want.” This wisdom calls for a balancing act that few chefs can achieve or maintain, with most chefs falling into either Primo’s camp of believing you’re an artiste and diners should conform to your vision, or you’re a sell-out like Pascal, just doing whatever sells without any creativity or individuality. A balance between both extremes is critical when running a restaurant, but in all honesty, I believe Pascal’s just a little closer to the truth than Primo.
The soundtrack of the movie is completely appropriate, considering the characters (Italian) and the era (1950’s). If what’s pictured in the movie is at all accurate, I can see why non-Italians in that America sucked up this culture and never let it go.
Intermezzo – Food porn
Yes, there’s plenty of it here. Italian food isn’t really my thing, but even now, after more than a decade in the business, I still love watching other people cook. The bit when the whole team is making pasta from scratch is a pretty typical, but enjoyable, food montage. The kitchen itself also gets plenty of screen time; it’s a wonderfully rustic kitchen and very spacious considering how small the adjoining dining room is.
The best food scene, though, is one that I find to also be the most accurate in capturing an aspect of what it’s like to be a chef: the stress and anxiety in the moment of culinary truth. Here, it’s the emotional tension on display as the Timpano is released from its baking dish… I feel this way every day when I bake something; the ecstasy and relief of seeing perfection emerge from your hard work is one of the greatest feelings you can have in the kitchen.
Dessert – The finishing thought
My favorite scene of the movie is the last one, the morning after the Big Night, where Secundo makes a very simple breakfast for Primo and their waiter/sous, Cristiano. In one long single take, this scene fully captures the satisfaction, exhaustion, and just a little depression and sadness to be found in the memory of a perfect dinner service. It’s a perfectly balanced bittersweet ending to a fantastic movie.