It used to be just popcorn. Salty, sweet, buttery and simple. For munching absentmindedly in the darkness of the auditorium, completely absorbed by the film on the screen. Popcorn is no novelty: in fact, as far back as the mid nineteenth century the “pop” deriving from the “corn” entered everyday language as American slang and these puffy white morsels became the most widely consumed snack among the spectators of circuses, theatres and street entertainment.
But has popcorn started to lose its appeal almost 200 years later? Apparently so: partly because it is associated with the high-calorie snacks, sweet or salty but almost inevitably unhealthy, we tend to consume when watching a film at the cinema. It is no coincidence that a study carried out in 2015 alerted consumers and doctors, by demonstrating that a ticket for the cinema tends to go hand in hand with the least healthy snacks. On the other hand, popcorn is also being ousted because the noise it makes when being crunched is thought to cause disturbance: a curious project for buying cinema tickets has been launched by an app in Great Britain enabling you to buy something silent to munch, to avoid the embarrassing situation of disturbing neighbouring spectators when chewing.
But there is more to it than just the tedium of popcorn. A new desire to experience fine dining even in the most unexpected places and to transform each foodie experience into a unique and increasingly engaging event. Ten years ago the Film Food Festival in NYC introduced the idea to ‘taste what you see on the screen’. Now, the concept have been widened and some cinemas all around the world are being turned into gourmet restaurants even if on the screen there are love or action movies. At the Notting Hill Electric Cinema in London, one of the finest cinemas in the world, it is possible to watch a film with your dinner resting on a side table next to your leather seat. The menu is a typically British one but extremely well prepared. Couples choosing the front row will find, instead of the usual seats, proper double beds with cashmere blankets on which to sip a vintage wine, comfortably embraced in front of the screen.
Possibly encouraged by the London success of Portobello Road, some years ago, one chef started to offer the winning combination of a quality menu and the big screen. The starred chef in question is Rowley Leigh of the Cafè Anglais and the cinema is close to his venue, the Odeon in Whiteley's shopping centre in West London: the menu is on display right at the entrance and you order before settling down into your seat. The food is served when the trailers are being shown. It is all high quality stuff, from the choice of dishes to the ingredients and the way in which they are prepared.
Pioneers of the genre, chefs and owners Gayle Pirie and John Clark offer their own specific food-wine, cocktails and film formula at Foreign Cinema in San Francisco. After having received several James Beard Foundation nominations for the “Best Chef: Pacific” and “Most Outstanding Restaurant” awards, and because of its success, the Foreign Cinema had the chance to have a dedicated “Foreign Cinema Day” in the city, which is by the way, the 18 of September.
And what if the film being shown gives you an irresistible desire to eat a particular food? Early in March in Melbourne, Australia, the Gourmet Cinema project closed the latest edition of its festival, but new dates will soon be announced. This cinema festival teams up each film in the programme with a menu based on what the stars are eating on the screen. So, a classic such as “Cocktails” with Tom Cruise accompanies the film with the world’s best drinks while “Eat, pray, love” is paired up with Italian pizza and “Amélie” comes with a special French menu, and so on.
From locally grown plants to luxury: there is also an offering of very expensive meals available at the cinema. This is the case of the Vox ThEATre in Abu Dhabi where, thanks to a collaboration with starred British chef Gary Rhodes, it is possible to order elaborate dishes (appetizers, main courses or desserts) which are served up while the film is showing.
These are tough times for chefs and restaurant professionals around the world, but there has never been a better time to seek advice and help around a number of topics affecting hospitality workers. Here's a round-up of some of the most useful resources for chefs.