A Moment in Time isn’t the only documentary charting how chefs and restaurant owners are dealing with the pandemic. Belle Vie, a 2022 documentary, details restaurateur Vincent Samarco’s unsuccessful fight to keep his charming French bistro, Belle Vie, open in West Los Angeles. It was one of the roughly 90,000 U.S. restaurants to close during the pandemic permanently or temporarily, according to the National Restaurant Association.
Marcus Mizelle, the film’s producer and director, lives within walking distance of Belle Vie, which was situated between two corporate giants — a McDonald’s and a KFC. Mizelle had been eating at Belle Vie at least once a week since it opened in 2016. He counts the chicken mole, branzino and warm goat cheese salad among his favourite dishes there. After Belle Vie became a carryout shop during the pandemic, Mizelle continued supporting it and checking in on Samarco.
‘Belle Vie’ is French for ‘beautiful life’ and for Mizelle, it’s also metaphor for how people can choose to look at obstacles. Samarco, he said, remained upbeat and optimistic, no matter what life threw at him.
“You have a choice, no matter what happens to you,” Mizelle said. “If something bad happens to you, you can choose to be negative or positive about it.”
He hopes people walk away from the documentary with a better appreciation for mom-and-pop restaurants and support them, even if they’re more expensive or a little out of the way.
“We need it,” Mizelle said. “If not, we’re all just going to be eating Chicken McNuggets.”
Other recent onscreen food stories include Bad Vegan on Netflix, British chef drama Boiling Point, and A Taste of Hunger, a fictional story about a Danish culinary power couple hellbent on securing a Michelin star for their restaurant.
Whether they’re short documentaries, Netflix series or fictional films, all of these pieces represent a continuation of what Robert Thompson, a pop culture professor at Syracuse University, calls a golden age of onscreen food stories that spanned the 1980s and 1990s. It started in 1985 with Tampopo, a Japanese comedy centred on ramen, and included Babette’s Feast, Like Water For Chocolate and Eat Drink Man Woman.
The reason we’re seeing so many come out in such a short period of time is because there are many more places for these stories to be told, thanks to streaming, which reaches audiences and shares content from around the world, Thompson said. Belle Vie, for example, will begin streaming on Apple TV on 5 April. Outlets like Hulu, Amazon Prime and Netflix produce or pay for original programming and provide an arena for people to see it.
The fate of restaurants is right up there in terms of the things we’re talking about because everybody experiences food, everybody has their favourite restaurants and everybody knows of at least one restaurant that has closed in the past couple of years, Thompson added.
“There’s a theatrical quality about it and it’s easy to tell stories about contemporary politics and contemporary issues like Covid in the context of something we can all understand,” Thompson said.
Food stories have always resonated with people because all of us eat to stay alive. It’s frequently done with other people, especially during courtship — the old “dinner and a movie” cliché. Restaurants aren’t just a place to eat, but their kitchens can also be a setting for high drama. Anyone who has watched Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen knows this to be true. Like the Eiffel Tower and the Hollywood sign, food also serves as a cultural marker. Think Philadelphia cheesesteaks or Chicago’s deep dish pizza.
“In telling stories with food at the centre, it carries all of the stuff that we’ve been talking about,” Thompson said. “Shared activity, a location for drama, cultural specificity as well as the idea that if this movie makes you hungry, it’s an invitation to do something about that.”