Ringside at the Apocalypse

we're all helbound in a handbasket..but at least it's a fun ride
NOVEMBER 28, 2010 11:21AM

My Big Fat Greek-German Juke Joint: Soul Kitchen Reviewed

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Soul Kitchen Film PosterLiving in a city that has all but done away with its non-mall-based cinema, I can be forgiven for only just now getting around to writing about the 2009 German film comedy Soul Kitchen.  I would be less forgiving of myself for not doing so.  It's a highly entertaining film that deserves to be noted.

The story told in Soul Kitchen has to varying degrees, been told in films like Kinky Boots, Mambo Italiano, and My Big Fat Greek Wedding.  It has been perhaps been told with greater narrative depth... but perhaps not as entertainingly.

Zinos Kazantsakis is a young German of Greek family who, for reasons never entirely explained, operates a dingy diner out of a reclaimed warehouse building that he has purchased and renovated in an industrial area of Hamburg, part of which he rents out (apparently with highly intermittent  remittance) to an elderly boat builder--a fellow Greek named Sokrates.  He has also somehow managed to acquire a fairly consistent clientele of stolid working class folk whose task in food runs toward the sort of thing any supermarket fast food section stocks in abundance--breaded fish fillets, hamburgers, pizzas.  

Assisting him in this endeavor are waif/artiste waitress Lucida and tatted-out rocker waiter Lutz.  Zinos himself handles kitchen duties...a task for which his primary qualification is that he owns the place.  Zinos has dubbed his enterprise "Soul Kitchen"--this is also not exactly explained, but given Zinos’ predilection for early 70'- style long hair (complete with mutton cop sideburns) and large collection of original LPs of the era, not a lot of explanation is required.

As the story opens, Zinos is getting through yet another challenging day as a restaurateur, trying to deal simultaneously with a malfunctioning dishwasher and repeated (and increasingly irate) calls from his girlfriend Nadine.  Nadine and her family are  gathered at another, far nicer restaurant for a dinner that Zinos is expected to attend.  It's an important occasion:  Nadine is moving to Shanghai to pursue her intended career as a journalist.  Zinos' reaction to both the move and the dinner is one of not-entirely quiet resentment.  In one phone conversation, Zinos expresses his willingness to follow Nadine to China.  Her response is both skeptical and unenthusiastic.  On his way to the dinner, Zinos runs into old school chum and real estate developer Thomas Neumann. More on him in a bit. 

From this point ensues the first of several coincidences upon which the thin plot fundamentally depends, with Zinos stepping away from Nadine's farewell dinner for a smoke at precisely the same time as the restaurant's chef, Shayne, explosively explains to a demanding patron that gazpacho is, indeed, served cold and quits/gets fired.  As they are both standing and fuming outside the restaurant, Zinos tells Shayne that he thought the food was great.  Shayne (not knowing that Zinos even owns a restaurant) impulsively asks Zinos for a job.  Even more impulsively, Zinos offers him one.

A few days later at Soul Kitchen, the two other major linchpins of the plot arrive.  One is Zinos injuring his back trying to repair the aforementioned broken dishwasher.  The other is the arrival of Zinos's recently-paroled petty gangster brother, Illias. Illias's parole is of a type one would not likely encounter in the U.S.  As long as he can find a job, he's free to leave prison during the day, but required to return at night.  Even though Illias assures him that he has no intention of actually doing anything at Soul Kitchen, Zinos signs the parole paperwork anyway, much to the consternation of his indignant staff.

As he leaves, Illias borrows a twenty and asks his brother to keep his prison record a secret-- and all but runs into chef Shayne, who is quite serious about taking Zinos up on the job offer.  Despite differences of opinion regarding food, Zinos's injured back convinces him to hire Shayne--bad temper, hip flask, and ever-present chef's knife notwithstanding.  Zinos then leaves to consult w/ a physical therapist recommended by the now-absent Nadine, a pretty brunette named Anna.  

The plot thickens as Shayne’s innovative cuisine and caustic attitude drive off Zinos’s regulars, even as aforementioned waiter Lutz’s band (which uses the restaurant as a practice space) and Illias’s attempts at becoming a DJ (with stolen equipment, in hopes of impressing aforementioned waitress Lucida) attract a younger and more hip crowd...one that actually likes the food.  Further complications arise as it becomes evident that Zinos’s old school chum Thomas (who looks remarkably like a less queer Anderson Cooper) would like to acquire Zinos’s property and resell it to a bigger, even less scrupulous developer (the reliably vile Udo Kier), and as tax and health department officials inform Zinos that his informal little kitchen has a month, more or less, to comply with sanitation requirements and pay back taxes.  Meanwhile, Zinos’ back gets steadily worse, leaving him ever more dependent on the ministrations and advice of his pretty physical therapist..even when she has to hand him off for emergency treatment from  a Turkish chiropractor nick-named “the Bonecrusher”.

Of course it mostly works out in the end, with a fair amount broadly telegraphed and utterly predictable.  There’s not much real doubt that Zinos will find a way past his troubles, or that the resolution will defy all logic.  Nor is there much doubt that foreshadowed romantic pairings will eventually occur, or that Zinos and Ellias will eventually do some long-overdue growing up.  An awful lot goes without explanation--the relationship between middle class, ethnic Zinos and excruciatingly elf-like and patrician Nadine is very particularly inexplicable, just dropped in place as a given.  That Zinos has been able to operate his establishment below the official radar of local tax and health authorities until they are narratively required is equally unexplained (even though the Health department inspectors do not exactly come as a surprise under the circumstances).

These are minor criticisms, though, far outweighed by what the film gets right:  nicely written dialogue delivered by charming, if slightly improbable characters, a soundtrack that solidly pays tribute to 70’s and 60’s era Soul, and food prep sequences that give the best Cooking Channel programs a run for their money as food porn.  You won’t be analyzing the plot for days on end after seeing Soul Kitchen...but don’t be surprised if you wind up humming a lot of the tunes.

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It looks great, seems like I'm going to have to watch it on my TV though can't find a showtime in Northern California.