Films are made immortal by the stars. Casting the right person as a leading character can take a well-written script from enjoyable to viral. But in many cases, films have used food as a storytelling device to humanize even the most untouchable A-listers. Whether a memorable dinner scene or a defining knack for cooking, beloved stories have been heightened around the plate. Click through for a refresher course on 20 of the best food-centric plot points in cinema.
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“Big Night” (1996)
Rysher Entertainment/Timpano Production
Big Night hinged upon whether Italian brothers Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (Stanley Tucci) can plate food delicious enough for one extravagant evening to save their restaurant from going under. Cooking is the first language throughout the film. Primo agonizes over perfecting risotto, and Secondo won’t propose to his girlfriend, Phyllis (Minnie Driver), in part because he isn’t as professionally successful as he’d like.
In 2015, in an interview with BUILD promoting one of his three cookbooks, Tucci credited filming and writing this film with increasing his “love affair with food.” Watch the trailer here.
3 Arts Entertainment
Burnt is a Bradley Cooper-led redemption story. Cooper’s Adam Jones is a disgraced chef who once had the world at his fingertips because of the unmatched recipes he executed with his hands. He lost his power as Paris’ best chef when drugs became the one thing he loved more than food. However, he has one last shot at reclaiming glory if he can just execute the perfect menu at a new restaurant in London. Watch the trailer here.
Chef ‘s title explicitly conveys a dependency on food, but it has so much more heart than what can be found on a menu. Jon Favreau directed and wrote the 2014 film, while also starring as Carl Casper—a very successful chef who charred his career by shooting off a viral tweet to a food critic. Alongside a star-studded cast including Sofia Vergara, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Downey Jr., and John Leguizamo, Casper sets out with his estranged son to reclaim his artistic identity in a food truck. Watch the trailer here.
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To start the 2000s, director Lasse Hallstrom took it back to 1959 France. Chocolat was adapted from Joanne Harris’ 1999 novel, and it paired Juliette Binoche as Vianne Rocher opposite Johnny Depp as nomadic Roux. Vianne opens a—you guessed it—chocolate shop in the village, which has a magical allure. The plot uses chocolate to explore human nature’s constant tug of war with temptation. Watch the trailer here.
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“Dear John” (2010)
Screen Gems/Sony Pictures Releasing
There are plenty of plot points in Dear John that come to mind before food. Adapted in 2010 from a 2006 Nicholas Sparks novel of the same name, the film follows the years-old relationship between American soldier John Tyree (Channing Tatum) and Savannah Curtis (Amanda Seyfried). War, betrayal, heartbreak, and topsy-turvy romance are all prominent themes. However, there is a quaint plot point that tugs at viewers’ heartstrings.
John’s father, Mr. Tyree (Richard Jenkins), bakes chicken every Saturday and lasagna every Sunday. These meals at the Tyrees draw John and Savannah closer, while also giving Mr. Tyree a sense of purpose in his son’s life. Through quality time at the table, Savannah is able to help John come to terms with his father’s autism and love him for who he is. Watch the trailer here.
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“The Fault In Our Stars” (2014)
Fox 2000 Pictures
Similar to Dear John, The Fault In Our Stars uses food as a tool for intimacy. This 2014 film was adapted from John Green’s novel by the same name and followed Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort) and Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) as lovestruck teenagers each battling different forms of cancer. When Gus surprises Hazel Grace with a trip to Amsterdam, he breaks the news over a Dutch cheese and tomato sandwich during a Dutch-themed date. Once in Amsterdam, they enjoy their first real date over champagne. “Do you know what Dom Perignon said after he invented champagne?” the waiter asks them. “‘Come quickly, I am tasting the stars!'” While the script is already stacked with heart, these little details give even more character. Watch the trailer here.
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How do you humanize hardcore mafiosos? Leave it to Martin Scorsese. Goodfellas is eternally memorable as a whole—with Oscars recognition to prove it—but there are two dinner scenes that stand out for our purposes. One features James Conway (Robert Di Niro), Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) stopping by Tommy’s mother’s home seeking a shovel to help dispose of a corpse. Mrs. DeVito, played by the late Catherine Scorsese, is unrelenting, and everybody sits down for a casual dinner. The other, everybody chipping in to make a pasta dinner while in prison. If you’re somehow unfamiliar with Goodfellas, watch the trailer here.
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“Julie & Julia” (2009)
Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures Releasing
The late, great Nora Ephron directed 2009’s Julie & Julia , centered around food blogger Julie Powell (Amy Adams) and late storied cooking instructor Julia Child (Meryl Streep). In real life, Powell had started a passion project to cook every recipe from Child’s 1961 cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking. That resulted in a book deal, Julie & Julia: 35 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen, which served as the basis for this feature film. Julie & Julia was an awards darling in 2009-10. Watch the trailer here.
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“No Reservations” (2007)
Castle Rock Entertainment/Warner Bros.
Sure, No Reservations is a predictable romantic comedy. That doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. Kate (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is a Type A master chef with no room for nonsense, but her demeanor is forced to soften when she must take in her niece. Her life is thrown even higher up into the air by her sous-chef, Nick (Aaron Eckhart). Watch the trailer here.
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“Notting Hill” (1999)
Unlike No Reservations, this romantic comedy-drama only flirts with a food-based plot. Notting Hill is automatically an all-timer because famous actress Anna Scott and quirky British bookshop owner William Thacker were portrayed by Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant respectively.
Roberts had already developed a larger-than-life persona through leading roles such as Pretty Woman (1991) and My Best Friend’s Wedding, so Notting Hill had the difficult task of humanizing Anna Scott and Roberts. Director Roger Michell and writer Richard Curtis did so deftly. William invites Anna to join him and his friends for dinner. The group starts a game to win the last remaining brownie where everyone at the table must share a sad story. Anna shares his struggles, dissolving the myth that famous people are immune to struggle. A separate scene, though she doesn’t win the brownie. Watch the trailer here.
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“Raging Bull” (1980)
Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images
Diet plays an indelible role in almost all boxing films, but Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull flipped the expected on its head. Boxer Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) has tunnel vision for a championship belt, but he comedically loses his cool—raised voice, flipped table and all—when his steak is overcooked. The 1980 film was adapted from the late LaMotta’s 1970 memoir. Watch the trailer here.
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Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar Animation Studios
The thought of a rat in the kitchen is usually scream-inducing. In Disney and Pixar’s animated Ratatouille, however, it’s just adorable. Remy, voiced by Patton Oswalt, has long dreamt of becoming a chef. The rat has to go to extraordinary lengths to manifest his destiny, serving as the unseen brain behind garbage boy Linguini’s rise to the top.
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“Saturday Night Fever” (1977)
Robert Stigwood Organization/Paramount Pictures
Saturday Night Fever became immortal because a 23-year-old John Travolta danced the disco like nobody’s business. That said, his troubled Tony Manero character is established as a charismatic Italian-American Brooklynite right in the opening credits—strutting down the street and chomping on two stacked New York-style pizza slices from his regular spot.
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“The Nutty Professor” (1996)
Imagine Entertainment/Universal Pictures
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more obscene dinner scene than when the Klumps gathered around their table in The Nutty Professor . The 1996 comedy placed Eddie Murphy in multiple roles—including obese professor Sherman Klump, who ingests a chemical that morphs him into the dashing Buddy Love. Jada Pinkett Smith also stars.
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“The Devil Wears Prada” (2006)
Fox 2000 Pictures
Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) is living a familiar story: aspiring journalist in New York City, madly in love with her chef boyfriend, Nate (Adrian Grenier), who makes a killer grilled cheese. Andy wants to write meaningful stories, but she knows she has to play the game. So, despite not caring about the fashion industry, she lands as personal assistant to editor-in-chief Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) at Runway Magazine. She begins dressing better, and her life is swallowed by the beast she once mocked. She is tasked with fetching Miranda the perfect steak. She has to cut an important dinner date with her visiting father short in order to book Miranda an impossible flight. Viewers know that Andy officially crossed over to the dark side, though, when she misses Nate’s birthday dinner.
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“The Parent Trap” (1998)
Walt Disney Pictures
Annie and Hallie’s (Lindsay Lohan) plan to get their estranged parents back together came to fruition when Elizabeth (Natasha Richardson) and Nick (Dennis Quaid) reminisce Rekindle their love in his vast Napa Valley wine cellar. Nick has kept the bottle from their wedding night—swoon—which resurfaces feelings that never truly went away. You also can’t forget all of Chessy’s (Lisa Ann Walter) cooking. When Annie, pretending to be Hallie, doesn’t have the same appetite, Chessy grows suspicious.
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“To All The Boys” (2018-21)
Awesomeness Films/Overbrook Entertainment
The To All the Boys franchise released its third and final film, To All The Boys: Always and Forever, to Netflix on Feb. 12, and the star-crossed love story between Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor) and Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo) came to an end. Throughout the films, adapted from Jenny Han’s series of novels, Lara Jean’s baking plays an integral role in getting her through the trials of her first true love.
In 2018’s To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, Lara Jean’s first memorable conversation happens over a milkshake at the local diner, which is a location with deep-rooted meaning in the Covey family: it’s where her father and late mother shared many meals while playing the same song on a loop from the jukebox. Peter shows his affection by driving across town just to find Lara Jean her favorite yogurt from her Korean heritage.
Then, 2020’s To All The Boys: P.S. I Still Love You finds Lara Jean stress-baking more than ever before as her once-blissful relationship faces a fork in the road. The sequel of course also features the tried-and-true real first date over a fancy dinner. Eventually, she bakes for her father’s wedding in Always and Forever—but only after we watch her and Peter on a Big Lebowski-inspired bowling date with freshly baked desserts as their centerpiece.
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“Tortilla Soup” (2001)
Tortilla Soup was a shot-for-shot remake of the 1994 Chinese film Eat Drink Man Woman, but you would never know based on the authenticity bleeding through the screen. Martin Naranjo’s (Hector Elizondo) Mexican-American family is a recipe for adoration, as he navigates his career as a chef alongside parenting three spirited daughters. As late film critic Roger Ebert put it, “What is it about great food in the movies that seems to stir audiences? … and Mexico of course has one of the world’s great cuisines.”
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Fox Searchlight Pictures
Jenna Hunterson (Keri Russell) took To All The Boys Lara Jean Covey’s therapeutic baking to the next level in 2007’s Waitress. The film followed Jenna, a hardworking waitress at Joe’s Pie Diner in the South, invest all her hope into a pie contest. She hoped the prize money would allow her to leave her abusive marriage and care for her unborn child. Mouthwatering pies underscored a much heavier, moving sentiment.
The film was adapted into a musical by successful recording artist Sara Bareilles, and it eventually made its way to a record-breaking run on Broadway as well as London’s West End. Jenna was played by several notable stars, including Bareilles, Katharine McPhee, and Jordin Sparks.
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“Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” (1971)
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
What is there to say? In some ways, 1971’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory set the bar for centering a film’s essence around food as a character in itself. Children everywhere vied for elusive golden tickets granting them access to a life-changing tour of Willy Wonka’s (Gene Wilder) supernatural chocolate factory.
Megan Armstrong (@megankarmstrong) is a writer with previous work appearing in places such as Billboard, Bleacher Report, GQ and others. She’s most interested in writing about people and how they live their lives, through the framework of music, entertainment and sports.
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