Sasha’s food, and the food that appears at other restaurants in the film, stands in for the men she dates. It can beautiful and sexy, but occasionally demanding and inscrutable and weird. It challenges Sasha, and it changes her. Eventually, it brings her full circle, and gives her a sense of home — a description that applies to Marcus, and to the kimchi jjigae of their shared childhood.
But along the way, a lot of jokes poke fun at restaurant industry snobbishness. Food comes in the shape of bubbles and various vapors. Restaurants serve ridiculous dishes. When the down-to-earth Marcus is offered quail egg parfait at an event he attends with Sasha, he replies: “I’d rather shoot myself in the face, thanks.”
Sasha’s own restaurant names read like they came straight out of the hipster business name generator: Knives & Mercy, and Saintly Fare. One of her famous dishes is fish sauce ice cream. In one scene, she describes her restaurant to a business associate as “nondenominational modern Vietnamese fusion. The San Francisco one is going to be a step up from that — it’s transdenominational.” Her food is fancy and expensive and — it’s implied — not very much fun.
That’s all a departure from Sasha’s childhood with Marcus, spent in the kitchen with his mother, snipping herbs with scissors for lovingly made Korean dishes. Sasha’s parents ran a convenience store in the Richmond neighborhood, so Marcus’s mother took care of her. The two friends grow up, and, as teenagers, hook up — but it doesn’t go well. After the death of Marcus’s mother, he gets stuck in an extended adolescence, living in his childhood bedroom, smoking pot and working for his father’s HVAC company. He still does gigs with his teenage band whose lyrics poke fun at San Francisco’s gentrification (“If I see another hipster opening a coffee shop / I’ll make a body drop”). His and Sasha’s adult meet-cute takes place when Marcus comes to fix the air conditioning in a luxury home Sasha rented for her restaurant opening.
When it comes to the food, the film takes creative liberties. How is Sasha Tran such a famous chef — people recognize her on the street and she’s referred to as “Asian Oprah” — when she has only one restaurant and no Food Network show or reality judging gig? How many red carpets can a chef possibly walk over the course of a few months? Her wrong-for-her fiance at the beginning of the film, a restaurant developer/manager played by Daniel Dae Kim, is also treated like a major celebrity — and while he’s very attractive, when has a restaurant financier ever been a name brand? Besides, if that character is such a restaurant insider — the kind who leaves Sasha to go to India with Padma Lakshmi and José Andrés, someone with whom he spent “two years in the saffron fields of Kashmir with Alice Waters” — well, then why does he pronounce the famous chef’s name as Joe-Say? (It may have been a joke that just fell flat.) And no matter how much money her restaurant makes, no restaurateur shells out $1,000 apiece for Gubi chairs, a running joke.
All of these incongruities are forgiven when you get to the film’s best scene: a double date between Marcus and his hippie girlfriend, Jenny (Vivian Bang), and Sasha and her latest fling, Keanu Reeves (Keanu Reeves, who steals every scene he’s in). The restaurant is in a sparse cube (actually, the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco). It’s called Maximal. Servers tell diners in their greeting that “Everything you see on the table is edible,” including the decor. Reeves asks, “Do you have any dishes that play with time? I mean the concept of time,” and is told that yes, there is a dish that comes with headphones, “to hear the animal you’re about to consume.” There is “clear asparagus soup,” and “The Black Course.”
Marcus, bewildered by molecular gastronomy and hopelessly out of place, interprets one dish as “fish dandruff.” The meal costs $6,400 and ends with a still-hungry Marcus asking for a “monochrome burrito to go.” The Los Angeles chef Niki Nakayama, recently profiled in the New Yorker, was the food consultant on the film.
But it’s not just ostentatious mockery: Part of the conflict Sasha and Marcus must resolve before they can be together is about the role of authenticity in Asian restaurants. “Asian food isn’t supposed to be elevated. It’s supposed to be authentic,” Marcus tells her at one point. “You’re just catering to rich white people.” Some restaurateurs might take issue with the first part of that statement — why can’t it be both, especially when the chef is from the culture she’s representing? But Marcus takes Sasha to the Cantonese restaurants of their childhood, and his influence gives her the inspiration she needs for her New York restaurant. It’s not nondenominational. It’s not “transdenominational,” either. It’s where she feels at home.
Correction: A previous version of this post stated that the Contemporary Jewish Museum was in Vancouver, where much of the film was shot. It is in San Francisco.
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