Why Is 'Soul Kitchen' So Delicious?

Fatih Akin’s new movie “Soul Kitchen” is delicious, in both the literal and metaphorical sense of the word. The movie centers around the many changes and complications which Zinos encounters as the owner of a simple family restaurant. Akin puts viewers through a journey that is tough, hilarious, and ultimately rewarding, in a melange that American comedy rarely manages to achieve.

“Soul Kitchen” is distinctly rich in its cultural nuances and combinations—it is a film about Greeks living in Hamburg, and the emotional consequences that result when the German girlfriend of the Greek protagonist goes to work in Shanghai. The cultural blend is key and is carried throughout, even in the soundtrack, which mixes traditional Turkish music with postmodern German industrial beats.

Born into a Turkish family in Hamburg, Akin portrays the world of immigrants with a personal tone. The challenges a Turkish immigrant faces in Germany are similar to those a Greek immigrant might face, so Akin could avoid resorting to stereotypes. He co-wrote “Soul Kitchen” with one of his best friends, star Adam Bousdoukos (Zinos), the son of Greek parents in Hamburg. In this film you aren’t being fed clichés, but rather the organic, real stuff. As Akin and Bousdoukos reveal their own particular experience, the result is something that any child of an immigrant family can especially relate to, as well as a piece that can provide insight to those who are not.

“Soul Kitchen” is also remarkable for its humor and humanity. It is as down to earth as a film can get, showing the real problems of real people, in all their remarkable strengths and unpredictable weaknesses. It also retains a delicate, precise, and biting sense of irony that people who face significant struggles often develop, as a coping mechanism, I suspect. In “Soul Kitchen” everything constantly goes awry: not the small embarrassing minutiae, but life-changing events. Many mainstream American comedies focus on a string of unfortunate events that usually involve looking stupid in front of others (think of the slight, albeit hilarious antics of Gaylord Focker in “Meet the Parents”). The stakes are not as high as when a character’s whole life starts falling apart right before your eyes—but then neither are the rewards or your emotional investment in the character.

Akin made use of the city itself, rather than a set, while filming “Soul Kitchen,” creating a unique cinematic experience. The American standard of living is often higher, hence the setting of American movies generally follow suit. The settings of foreign films often offer a different environment, giving audiences a different kind of humor. I have noticed that seeing an ordinary person who keeps facing real-life problems and somehow fighting them, creates an effect that is actually life-affirming, more so than seeing dramas unfold in Hollywood mansions, prosperous suburbs, or Upper East Side apartments. When watching Pedro Almodóvar films, for example—often set in the slums of Madrid and most of which contain death, rape, and disease all in one movie—you might cringe a couple of times, but the take away message isn’t meant to be entirely disheartening but ultimately uplifting. In each of his movies Almodóvar shows that no matter how many tragic things happen, life always goes on and is essentially a sumptuous joy, filled with irony, comedy, love, and sex. “Soul Kitchen” is satisfying in a similar way.

But the food of “Soul Kitchen” should not be overlooked. While the dishes you see may make you hungry, they also become a source of comfort and grounding. The film points out the distinction between food that is made just to be eaten, and food that is made as a form of art to be admired and enjoyed. In one funny scene a chef shows the difference between an eight euro dish and 45 euro one—and it’s all in the presentation. The food plays a vital role in a film which constantly brings us back to what is important—eating well, having a job, taking risks and finding love. And in the case of “Soul Kitchen,” food is, of course, the key to doing all four.

—Columnist Elizabeth D. Pyjov can be reached at epyjov@fas.harvard.edu.

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