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Soul Kitchen

Cooking and mealtime have increasingly become important parts of our common discourse in recent years. They’ve acquired sociological medical, psychological, political, and ecological significance. They are often bound up in discussions of personal fulfillment and family dynamics.

In a sense, movies have been ahead of the curve for some time. Babette’s Feast, for instance. Over the years, people have told me of their fondness for this Danish film and its almost reverent treatment of cooking as a gift, and meals as a kind of communion.

Soul Kitchen is no Babette’s Feast. There’s no reverence, let alone seriousness, to be found in it, although, in its own wry way, it does evince some respect for friendship, family and love. More surprising, its insistently oddball humor and wit are quite unexpected from the writer-director, Fatih Akin, a Turkish-German who has previously given himself and his films over to glum portraits of people unhappily caught up in the new, more closely linked, migratory Europe (Head-On, Edge of Heaven).

In this new film, he’s focused on one district, Wilhelmsburg, in his home city, Hamburg. It’s a scruffy, even grubby section of largely abandoned light industry. Akin’s hero—and he is heroic, even if comically so—is the Greek-born Zinos (Adam Bousdoukos), the proprietor of a down-at-the-heels, short-order beanery in Wilhelmsburg. It’s virtually a DIY establishment Zinos installed mostly on his own, including the crude home-appliance-equipped kitchen; the junkshop, garbage-day, curbside reject furniture, and the dubious electrical system. Soul Kitchen—named for the music played on Zinos’ stereo, not the food—has none of the sleek melancholy of the diner in Edward Hopper’s famous painting. It’s in a semi-cavernous, rail-side former warehouse, but it’s popular with the plebeian locals who fill it and order the fish sticks, frozen pizza and meatballs Zinos dishes up by himself, rather improbably, from the makeshift kitchen.

Akin is sympathetically attentive to this lower-class urban setting, but Soul Kitchen isn’t reliant on a social realist representation, by any means. It’s comically propelled by a series of piled-on events and calamities that threaten Zinos’ seat-of-the-pants little enterprise. First off, his slim, blonde journalist girlfriend (Pheline Roggan)is about to take off for Shanghai for a protracted assignment, and Zinos has promised to join her there, without a plan to do this and keep the restaurant open.

Fate hands him two assets of dubious potential. His career-criminal brother Illias (Moretz Bleibtreu) comes in looking for a no-show job so he can get a stay-out-of-jail card from the authorities. Zinos, big-hearted if a little surly, obliges. Then he seriously throws out his back trying to move his decrepit dishwasher and can’t cook. So he hires Shayn (Birol Unel), an imperious high-end chef who’s been fired from the bourgie restaurant where he berated a patron for insisting on warmed gaspacho. (“Culinary racists!” he screams as he leaves.) The ensuing scene in which Shayn shows Zinos how he can create one of those preciously arranged, minimalist works-of-art platings from fishsticks, catsup, mayonnaise and a tomato is a pungent joke on the social strivers and snobs for whom such haute cuisine culinary vanities are contrived.

The movie’s single most valuable element is the 36-year-old Bousodoukos (who co-wrote the script). He comes across like a slightly dumpier, shaggy version of American actor Zach Braff (from the TV sitcom Scrubs). He’s appealing in a regular-guy way without sacrificing an edgy put-upon exasperation. He’s also a natural physical comedian, and he gives Soul Kitchen much of its comedic pulse.

Director Akin’s own comedy skills are something of a surprise. His film does have its customary sympathy for the underdog who gets shoved around or even devastated by the ruthlessly clever monied operations, although it might be argued the class relations in Soul Kitchen are a little off. Zinos’ response to his financial and interpersonal plights can look like a capitulation to the gentrifying forces in Hamburg that Akin has rued elsewhere.

But it’s really not incumbent on us to assume a political stance in answer to this high-energy romp of a movie. Soul Kitchen has a consistently engaging, Rube Goldberg, make-it-up-on-the-fly quality, and considerations of political economy needn’t dampen your enjoyment of its intricate nonsense.

Watch the trailer for Soul Kitchen

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