Wednesday, February 9, 2011


PRÉCIS NO.2: The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover (1989, dir: Peter Greenaway)

Wherein certain trending topics are discussed.

Namely, that the Devil’s primest fare is innocence, and under his watchful gaze we succumb effortlessly to the basic requirements of the flesh.

Consider the subjects of Frans Hals’ “Banquet of the Officers of the St George Civic Guard” from 1616, whose gazes dominate the space of “Le Hollandais”, the restaurant that forms the setting of this film.

Civic guards had, by the time of this painting, already developed a notable reputation in the Netherlands for their role in the emancipation of cities and towns from feudal rule during the country’s struggle for independence. Here they are shown enjoying the fruits of their victory. Their faces flushed with wine, their bellies stuffed with meats and delicacies, their scabbards glinting, these are common thugs who, through violence, have risen the ranks of their society and now look upon their viewer with a half-mocking pride.

The association between these civic guards and the band of criminals led by Albert Spica [the Thief] is very social, political, and current. Their despicable behavior in the restaurant throughout the course of the film stresses what an affront, what an assault to taste and style this gluttonous, pride-ridden and ultimately insipid class represents. A lesson of this film, an important one, is that money and power does not equate good taste. Secondly, art, in this case culinary art, has the power to move some of us to a loss of reason while being overwhelming and destructive to others of weak mind and troubled soul.

And now to the food. We owe the sumptuous, baroque dishes and still lifes of heaps of animal cadavers, food and ornamentation to the celebrated chef Giorgio Locatelli.

Raised at his family's restaurant in Corgeno on Lake Maggiore, Italy (“the chefs did terrible things to me, but I was fascinated by them. I loved their free spirits"), he then went to work for Corrado Cironi. "He was tough, but very fair. He would punish you if you did something wrong - I used to get hit with a polenta ladle - but he also encouraged you when you did something good. He would pick ingredients from his garden and cook with them straight away. He always said there should be no more than three ingredients on a plate, and it's as a result of his influence that I am more likely to take something off a dish, rather than add to it." He came to London in 1986 and his impressive resume includes the Savoy (perfecting ice sculptures and fancy buffets), Olivo and Zafferano of Lowndes Street, his own pizza-focused Spiga and Spighetta, followed by the highly lauded Locanda Locatelli, which he owns. Locatelli never cooks anything for more than two hours.

Recommended to Greenaway by mutual friend Daniel Harvey, known for growing grass out of walls and other literary pursuits, and under the guidance of art director Ben van Os, Locatelli entered the scientific and hallucinatory world of this particular film. “I had to cook the most grotesque feasts every day,” he has said. “I remember having to secure special permission from Buckingham Palace to get hold of a swan to roast.”

His complete identification between life, work and art can be seen in full expression in his book that took five years to write, Made in Italy: Food and Stories, as much autobiography as recipe book, and correctly emphasizing the sociological significance of certain dishes, such as salami, which he calls “the voice of the people”. Of truffles, he says “if life could be described in a smell, then it is the smell of truffles. They smell of people and sweat. They just remind me so much of human beings: that is why I love them.” In his view, sex, good food and good wine are all interlinked.

Swans, fat eels, calves' brains, freshwater fish, pearl barley truffles. The splendour, magnificence and painstaking perfection of Locatelli’s dishes for this film draw a comparison that many only wish they could, namely to Marie-Antoine Carême, chef to the nobility and royalty of 19th century Europe, whose dishes formed the basis of haute-cuisine and who, on January 15, 1817, supervised the meal served at Brighton Pavilion for the Prince Regent, which included over one hundred dishes such as poulardes a la Perigueux, timbale de macaroni a la Napolitaine, fricassee de poulets a l'Italienne, galantines de perdreaux a la gelee, petits poulets a l'Indienne, cote de boeuf auz oignons glaces, escalopes de volaille aux truffes, vol-au-vent de quenelles a l'Allemande, brioche au fromage, canards sauvages, genoises glacess au cafe, sckals au beurre, fromage bavarois aux avelines, and de petites souffles au chocolat.

These and similar dishes are masterfully prepared and copiously served at Le Hollandais: hommard glace aux fruits de mer, foie de veau au confit d’echelots et miel, terrine de saumon au coucombre, mosaiques des poissons aux fruits de bois, a salad of pike fillets with oysters, a creamy soup made with foie gras, truffles and mushrooms and flavoured with Madeira, racks of red and white meat and tiers of blue and white fish, pig’s heads, trotters, bull’s tongues, offal, kidneys, tripe, squid, clams, herring, flatfish, lobsters, prawns, pate d’allouette with chickory sauce and cold turkey with lemon and basilica. These dishes are often paired with farts, belches, vomiting and discussion of bodily needs and excretions, in an attempt by the Thief and his gang to both enthusiastically and nauseously usurp and dominate that which is sophisticated, artful, beautiful.

Take the following of the Thief’s many soliloquies: “I think these Ethiopians like starving, it keeps them slim and graceful…with those big heads and those dreary eyes, you know those kids.” Or, “I’m an artist, the way I combine my business and my pleasures. Money’s my business, eating’s my pleasure, and Georgie’s [the Wife] my pleasure too, though in a more private kind of way than stuffing the mouth and feeding the sewers, though the pleasures are related, because the naughty bits and the dirty bits are so close together, that it just goes to show how eating and sex are related…”

Daniel Rogov has criticized Le Hollandais as “a restaurant to which most true gourmets would [not] be attracted. Great cooking should be decorative but it should not be ostentatious. Nor should sophisticated modern dining involve great amounts of waste, overindulgence in too many rich and uncomplimentary courses that follow one after the other, or service that is so stilted and formal that it borders on groveling. Such vulgar displays have been banished from the table.” What Mr. Rogov fails to understand, however, is that it is absolutely essential that culinary artists stand their ground in the face of bad taste, of tyrants, of crooks, rapists and defilers of purity and innocence, and of aristocratic pretenders. Ultimately, this is what Le Hollandais achieves.

The method by which this success is achieved is infamous. For those not familiar with the film there is a scene where a roasted human is presented at the dining table, the body of the “lover”.

The question is simple: The Wife asks: “Can you cook him?” “Who?” the Cook replies. “Michael [the Lover]…you have a reputation for a wide range of experimental dishes. He might taste good.”

Locatelli says it was difficult to create a convincing replica. A prototype engineered from pink foam rubber needed to be coloured to a crispy brown by multiple applications of veal stock. To enable making inroads into the dish with a knife and fork, a slab of roast pork was inserted invisibly into the abdomen.

“Culinary purists will argue, however, that spit roasting is not the ideal way to prepare human flesh,” comments Daniel Rogov. “ Those who have sampled this dish are in general agreement that the best means of cookery is by slow stewing in a peppery red wine marinade that contains juniper berries, marjoram, rosemary and plenty of onions.”

Marco Polo enjoying a morsel of human flesh

Maurice Pillet, a well known medical man, recounts that one day the author Guy de Maupassant, likely during his final stages of syphilitic madness, was coming out of his cab when a carman suddenly fell from the top of a tall dray at his feet. De Maupassant took him to a hospital, but the man died on the way. De Maupassant begged the surgeon, as soon as the autopsy was over, to let him have a piece of the dead man’s flesh. The next day the doctor sent a small quantity of this meat to De Maupassant, who at once sent it down to this kitchen with instructions to grill it for luncheon. After sampling it, he decided that “anthropophagy need have no attractions for the European gourmet, as the human meat was very insipid and tasted like overdone veal”.

An incredible revenge, a triumph of the battle against Death. As the Cook remarks, “Eating black food is like consuming death. It is like saying, ‘Death, I am eating you’…black truffles and caviar are the most expensive foods. We also charge for vanity. Health foods, aphrodisiacs, they all command a premium.”

Of course, I would rather savour an ‘Opéra’, the chocolate-covered almond-cake and coffee-cream confection that was the best-known creation of the late Gaston Lenôtre, and that was as important as the name ‘Christian Dior’ on a dress. Rather than perfect the art of consuming another human being as a result of my own pride and vanity, I prefer raising pâtisserie to the rank of high art.

Niklaus D’Oloferne
the clutterer Web Developer


  1. Brilliant!
    The “Celluloid Calories” certainly bring the level of this food blog higher than any other food aggregator sites that I am aware.
    The way how “ever enigmatic Mr. Niklaus D’Oloferne” explains the interconnection between cinematographic and culinary art is amazing and bring me the curiosity of being an avid reader of his articles.
    Keep up the good work!

  2. Amazing! I am just waiting for the next one.
    Keep going!


  3. Niklaus, do you host dinner parties?

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