It’s tradition vs haute cuisine in Raymond Yip’s culinary comedy-drama.
“It’s not necessarily a good thing to use a large pan.”
Food can often say a lot about a culture, and its history. As a collective, our tastes change and our techniques improve. Sometimes this change is inevitable, a result of altering demographic dynamics or technology, but the old ways still stay with us, passed down from generation to generation. This is especially true in China, where amidst their countless regional cuisines, many methods remain unchanged. Don’t fix what ain’t broke, and anything that tells you otherwise is wrong. As one character says: “Chinese cuisine has a very long history, it is very conservative. There is no transformation”. This sentiment dominates most of the conflict in Raymond Yip’s Cook up a Storm.
Nicholas Tse plays Gao, a highly talented chef working in a small but locally beloved Hong Kong eatery. Things take a turn for the worse when the business – originally run by Gao’s mentor (Ge You) – becomes threatened by a new, upscale restaurant part of a new redevelopment program. The head chef is internationally trained Paul Ahn (Jung Yong-hwa) whose showy haute cuisine puts him at odds with Gao. After proving their worth to each other, they decide to settle things in the upcoming God of Cookery competition, where the finalist gets to face off against the famed champion and Gao’s distant, shitty father (Anthony Wong). Tensions, if you’ll pardon the pun, heat up.
Going into this film, it’s natural to expect the worst. It seems almost inevitable that the bad guys are going to be in the Michelin-starred restaurant, with their fancy food technology (mostly in blowtorch form) and that everyone is going to act like idiots throughout. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll be just as pleasantly surprised. It’s a rare film where all of the main characters talk logically and reason with one another but this is one. Near the beginning, Gao mentions how the two restaurants can’t compare – and he’s right. The drama can’t exactly come with people all going to Stellar – no one can afford to eat there. The conflict instead is drawn from smaller aggressions played by the new restaurant (such as blocking the table area for Seven’s customers) and by the stubborn idea of each chef that their method is the best.
While the film looks like it’s going down the “new = bad, old = good” route we’ve seen before, it stops itself, understanding that different styles of cooking, from the Western method of adapting to changing tastes and technology to the more traditional Eastern methods, have their own pros and cons. It never gets too preachy either, instead choosing to look at the people and why they choose this style of food. We do get a Business = evil thing but we were expecting that the second the word “redevelopment” was introduced . However the twist that precedes the evil business stuff is actually quite good, and really humanises Paul.
And this is the movie’s greatest strength (outside of all the glamour shots of food, but we’ll get to that later). It’s refreshing to see a film where rivals actually respect one another. They’re curious about what the other does, as much as they can’t stand the other’s methods. Paul actually is interested in Gao’s techniques and is actually keen to learn and improve by watching others. By doing this, we’re given two mains who are fun to watch, feel real and actually make their rivalry captivating. This is extended into Seven’s other staff members who might do a lot, but add to the overall humanity presented here.
And then we have all of the food stuff. Nicholas Tse has gone a long way from his early days starring in one of the most forgettable films I’ve ever seen. In 2014, he starred in the travelogue series Chef Nic, and has since become something of a celebrity chef as well as actor and singer. This translates beautifully on screen, with Tse really showing us his skills with a knife. Throw in some wonderfully over the top food preparation shots worthy of an M&S ad, and you have a film that clearly loves its subject matter. This is something of a saving grace for Cook up a Storm, because as a story it doesn’t really do a whole lot new: it’s the passion that’s brought to the table that keeps us interested throughout.
There may be only one real God of Cookery (considering the title and competition aren’t real – are these set in the same universe?), as Cook up a Storm doesn’t have the zaniness of Stephen Chow’s madcap cooking film, or the inexplicable charm of Tampopo (although it does still have its fair share), but it excels in its passion for what it has to say: about food, culture and the people we share those things with. It’s a delightful, often sweet film made very competently, with very likeable leads. It’s not the most original picture, but like the best plates dished out by Seven, sometimes it’s the stuff you’re most used to that’s the most heartwarming.
Verdict: Cook up a Storm takes familiar ingredients and makes some very satisfying comfort food with it.
Overall entertainment: 8.5/10
Food porn: 10/10
Language options: One line of butchered French
Terrible dye jobs: At least two
Fathers: Either dead, or awful
Original title: Just so much better than the Western one
Cooking competitions: Who’s sitting in the back row of the arena, cheering as they watch two ant-sized people cook for an hour and a half?
Cook up a Storm (2017)
Also known as: 决战食神 lit: Clash of the Culinary Gods
Director: Raymond Yip
Writer: Manfred Wong
Nicholas Tse – Gao
Jung Yong-hwa – Paul Ahn
Ge You – Hong Qi
Tiffany Tang – Uni
Michelle Bai – Meiyu
Du Haitao – Fan Tuan
Anthony Wong – Gao’s father
Jasper Visaya – Sea Ko