By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 18, 2010)
You know, it’s great when you can find a nice palette-cleanser to tide you over during these dog days at the multiplexes, as the last crumbs of empty-calorie summer fare are cleared from the table to make room for the heartier fall menu. Soul Kitchen is one such cinematic soufflé; it bakes up light and fluffy, stopping just this side of demanding any deeper contemplation, yet it is still substantial enough to leave you feeling pleasantly full.
Equal parts romantic comedy, foodie film, and (mildly) raunchy screwball farce, German writer-director Fatih Akin’s breezy story concerns a grubby but amiable young restaurateur named Zinos (co-scripter Adam Bousdoukos) who has converted an abandoned warehouse in Hamburg’s Wilhelmsburg quarter into a funky eatery called “The Soul Kitchen”.
Operating on the cheap, Zinos is not only the manager, but the cook as well, serving up your basic beer ‘n’ pizza, schnitzel and French fries menu to a not-so-picky neighborhood clientele. If Zinos seems a bit harried and distracted, it’s due to the impending departure of his journalist girlfriend Nadine (Pheline Roggan) to China.
Zinos’ separation anxiety comes to a head when he joins Nadine and her family for dinner at another restaurant, where the two have an embarrassing public spat. Just a few moments later, that restaurant’s head chef, Shayn (Birol Unel) quits in a huff after losing his shit when a customer demands that his gazpacho (a Spanish soup, traditionally served cold) be heated up for him. The two sulking men are soon commiserating outside, where the pragmatic Shayn asks, “So, do you have a job for me?”
Although Shayn admires what he refers to as the “Romanesque” ambiance of the Soul Kitchen, it doesn’t take long for him to ascertain that Zinos’ pedestrian menu could use sprucing up. At first, the regulars are bewildered by the “fresh sheets” and the upscale presentations on their plates. “Where’s our fries, burgers and pizza?” they demand-to which Shayn rebuffs “Get your pizza at the supermarket! Culinary racists!” before storming back to the kitchen.
Things settle down, the word gets out, and business picks up as the eatery gains hipster cachet. Zinos is not out of the woods yet, however. His brother Illias (Moritz Bleibtrau), a convicted thief, shows up unannounced on his doorstep, fresh out of prison on work release. Things get (as Arte Johnson’s catchphrase used to go on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In) “Velly interestink…but schtoo-pid!”.
Bousdoukos (whose passing resemblance to Jim Morrison is amusing, considering the title) and Bliebtrau have good chemistry as the brothers. Keep an eye out for the great Udo Kier in a minor role. Although many elements of the narrative feel familiar, the combination of energetic performances, well-chosen music (featuring everything from Louis Armstrong and Ruth Brown to Curtis Mayfield and Burning Spear) and Akin’s fresh directing approach make up for it. Sometimes, it’s all about presentation, ja ?