Three women and one man sit and stand around a rustic kitchen in "The Taste of Things."

Food is the love language in Tran Anh Hùng’s ‘The Taste of Things’

In the French Vietnamese director's latest film, food is its own character—and real as the actors prepared actual dishes that the cast and crew enjoyed each day

In "The Taste of Things," the cast had to learn not only how to cook, but to work in a kitchen.

Still frame from "The Taste of Things"

Words by Andy Crump

Juliette Binoche, one of the big screen’s reigning queens, will walk into a movie and not simply “act.” Instead, she will simply “be.” This relaxes the central challenge of her role in The Taste of Things, the new film from French Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hùng—but only slightly. Cooking haute cuisine in a period setting, with methods that comprise the heart of French culinary tradition even today, using tools largely outmoded by the passage of time, is no breezy feat, even for an actress of Binoche’s standing, or a cook of her veterancy. Binoche is Parisian. It’s a given that she knows her way around a stove. But The Taste of Things—in theaters now—requires her to know her way around an entire kitchen, and that’s another skill test entirely.

For Hùng, this was the joy of working on the film: Conducting his cast as if they were in a musical. What is a kitchen staff if not a dance troupe of a slightly different stripe? Everyone in the room moves and carries out their tasks in concert with one another, mindful not to cross paths or upset a steaming pot, all the while focused on cooking exquisite high-end food—real food too, not movie food (the kind that looks real by the good grace of a food stylist). The Taste of Things joins the long tradition of “food” movies, alongside classics like Tampopo, Big Night, and Babette’s Feast, as well as modern goodies like Ratatouille and Pig; the plates are almost as integral to the story as the characters themselves.

The chief figures here are Dodin Bouffant (Benoît Magimel, Binoche’s ex-husband), a famous restaurateur and culinary innovator, and Eugénie (Binoche), his head chef and quite arguably the true genius behind his establishment’s renown. Dodin is deeply, almost miserably, in love with Eugénie, who does not share his affections (though not unkindly). The Taste of Things deemphasizes plot over character, as the pair go about the minutiae of running a great restaurant, and as Dodin conjures a way to ask Eugénie for her hand in marriage, leading up to a proposal as romantic as it is tantalizing to the palate.

I had the good fortune to speak with Hùng about his approach to making The Taste of Things by breaking food cinema orthodoxy and hiring Michelin Star-winning chef Pierre Gagnaire as his on-set culinary director instead of hiring a stylist. Everything you see on screen is edible; in fact, everything you see on screen ultimately was eaten, too, making for a very happy cast and crew at the end of each day of shooting.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

A portrait of director Tran Anh Hùng, in a black jacket and blue shirt, against a beige background.

Tran Anh Hùng, director of "The Taste of Things."

Courtesy photo

Andy Crump: For a movie like this, where food is so integral not just to the plot, but to the visuals, do you consider the culinary director as higher in importance than even some of the cast members? Chef Pierre has done some amazing work here. He certainly made me hungry.
Tran Anh Hùng: Oh, yeah. Yes. From the beginning of this project, I wanted everything to be real in terms of cooking on the screen. So we didn’t have someone like a food stylist, who would do something to make everything beautiful, but would use a product that we cannot eat—it's only for film. I wanted everything to be real on the screen, because it's a movie about cooking; since we can do it, let’s go that way. It was surprising for the crew also, because some of them have made some movies with food, and it was the first time for them that everything was real. So at the end of the day, we can eat it, and the crew members can eat what we cooked for the scenes.

AC: The dishes really are just stunning. In that regard, I thought a lot about what we communicate to each other when, when we cook for each other. The film obviously has ideas about that: You can communicate romance, affection,  love. How does someone put that much emotion into something ultimately meant to be consumed?
TAH: I think that it's the pleasure to see the joy on the face of someone who eats what you prepare for him or her. It’s so obvious, because you can spend two or three hours making a dish, and then you eat it in five or 10 minutes. I think it is an act of generosity that is amazing, the care that you put in there, that you express. And also, it’s something that is very intimate, because it's something that you put in your mouth and you trust the other person enough to swallow it; it’s something that is very profound, even though it’s quite ordinary.

Food is with you from your childhood, from the first moment. I have two children. I know precisely what they had for their first meal, besides the milk. That somehow forms our taste in the future.

AC: That's interesting. It feels like the “taste for the future” becomes part of what makes them who they are as people. That goes back to the characterization in the movie; what these characters cook ultimately ties back to who they are. In conceiving these dishes, how much thought had to go into what was cooked and what each dish ultimately reflects about the characters cooking them?
TAH: As a filmmaker, it's more about bringing to the audience a sense of something interesting to watch, and to show that the cuisine could be a very sophisticated activity. To cook a chicken, you have to make a broth with two chickens, and then you cook the chicken that you are going to eat.It's something that is quite sophisticated, you know? To cook a fish in four liters of  milk to keep the flesh very white and very soft, this is all quite sophisticated.

You also see how Dodin is making the dessert for Eugénie, and he has to form a sheet of biscuit that’s very hot. It’s all so sophisticated, and that was more the idea for me. What I like in movies is the fact that it's an art of incarnation. You put meanings, and stories, and words in the body of the actors. It’s a sensual process. It needs to be sensual. The sensuality of the movie was the most important thing, more than the meaning of each dish. Among all dishes in the movie, for instance, the fish was the most sensual of all, because when you put it in your mouth with a bit of the sauce, the bearnaise, the flavor and the softness of all is amazing.

Actor Benoît Magimel whisks something in a small copper pot next to a bigger, steaming copper pot in "The Taste of Things."

Benoît Magimel prepares a dish in "The Taste of Things."

Still frame from "The Taste of Things"

AC: You mentioned Dodin and the dessert. What happens when you mess up making a dish on screen? The work that goes into recreating [a dish] must be pretty immense. What was the hardest thing to shoot in the movie, in that respect? I'm gonna guess it's that dessert. I didn't know such a thing existed. It looked so painstaking and complicated!
TAH: And you're right. This sheet of biscuit that [Magimel] formed with his hands was very hot, and it was difficult. I kept the take that was bad, so we see him trying to do something and we don't know exactly what it is; then suddenly, we saw on his face that he was sorry about the fact that he messed it up. Then we see him the next time, doing it right.

For all the cooking scenes in the movie, we had to do it again and again, of course, several times. For instance, for the pot-au-feu, we needed 40 kilos of meat to be able to shoot the whole scene. It was a lot of meat and vegetables and all this, because when it's wrong, we have to do it again. But again, we ate everything at the end of the day.

AC: Actors push themselves or challenge themselves with each role. [The Taste of Things] has Juliette and Benoît exercising different sets of muscles, so to speak. How hard is it to direct actors through an actual vocation? It's something that people spend their whole lives trying to master, and [Binoche and Magimel] are trying to master that, or at least approximate mastery, in a much shorter period of time.
TAH: I think it was a pleasure. I come from the working class. My parents made clothes. So around my house, there were a lot of other craftsmen, and I really enjoyed watching them [work]. For instance, if someone was making a door or something, I would stay the whole day to watch them work on it. I like hands that can produce something, you know? So it was a pleasure.

The idea for me was to show everything in the cooking scenes. I wanted to see their graceful bodies moving in this kitchen, to see their faces at the same time, to see their hands, and to see the food being cooked, all in the same movement of the camera. It was a pleasure for the actors, also, since I gave them a lot of freedom because I shot with a long shot. What they needed was to have a cooking adviser on the set. [Chef Pierre] would direct them on the set by saying, “Go faster for this,” and then, “Now stop, now move to the next step,” and, “Put this before that,” et cetera, and they quite enjoyed it. For something that is a bit specific in terms of manipulation, they would ask for an adviser to show them before the take. They were absolutely amazing. I don't know how it's possible, but since they cook in real life, they understood very quickly what needed to be done. They can make everything more expressive than reality, you know?

Actress Juliette Binoche sits at a candlelit table holding up a glass while actor Benoît Magimel stands looking at her in "The Taste of Things."

Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magimel as Dodin and Eugénie in "The Taste of Things."

Still frame from "The Taste of Things"

AC: Absolutely. You mentioned the camera, and movement during the cooking scenes. It almost feels like you're describing choreography. Is that a fair way to describe how the actors interacted with each other during those sequences? Because they really had to function like an actual kitchen staff. They had to be aware of each other's bodies and especially aware of the dishes they're cooking.
TAH: Yeah, absolutely. My background, of course, when I was younger, was Westerns and especially musicals. I really liked that in musicals, you have a sense of the momentum of cinema. Like when you see someone has just met a woman, and then he starts dancing with the music, and the camera movement is following him, and expressing that what he is feeling at that moment was so big that his chest could not contain it. So it could come out in terms of dance and singing and everything.

All this was so beautiful for me. So for the cooking scene at the beginning, I needed something like that. It was quite complex to put everything in the right place, so that inside the screen I could see a  character doing something, another character would cross behind this character from left to right, and then you would have another character come from the back to the front, you know? All of this creates something that is really lively inside of the frame. It was very complicated to set everything up, to give this feeling of something that is enjoyable to watch, that has the momentum of cinema, and that has a musicality in it.

AC: I love hearing these details—they express the collaborative nature of cooking, which a lot of food movies don’t really get into. I'm curious about how the actors prepared in that regard to come together, not just as a cast, but as a kitchen. Usually movies would not make actual edible dishes. They would find a way to cheat it. This is very different and therefore requires a completely different approach.
TAH: Yeah. At the beginning I asked [Binoche and Magimel] to give me one week of training. But they were both very busy, so they just gave me half a day of training. So it was quite difficult. At the same time, since they cook in real life, they felt very confident to do it by themselves. Of course, I had to cast some doubles for their hands, for some very specific actions that could be dangerous, because we worked with a fire to boil water—things like that. So sometimes we would need the hands to double the  actors, but they didn't want them. In the movie, everything was done [by them]. They want to do everything. It was quite amazing, I think.

Published on February 14, 2024

Words by Andy Crump

Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers movies, beer, music, fatherhood, and way too many other subjects for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours: Paste Magazine, Inverse, The New York Times, Hop Culture, Polygon, and Men's Health, plus more. You can follow him on Bluesky and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65 percent craft beer.