F.A.Q’s: Lauren Jessen of A Dash of Cinema

Image credit: Lauren Jessen
Image credit: Lauren Jessen

This interview series continues to bring me into contact with like-minded individuals I feel privileged to have met. This month, it has done so again by introducing me to A Dash of Cinema, a website that’s devoted to food and film.  Created and run by the talented and insightful Lauren Jessen, the site is both an exploration and a celebration of how food and film can work together to tell stories. My conversation with Lauren has convinced me that a shared affinity for the broadening experiences of travel, for choice of “silent” movie snacks (our only divergence there being that I rather enjoy the combination of chocolate candy and mint,) and the appeal of dining inside an Italian limestone cavern are but a sampling of all that we might agree on. Read on to enjoy all the stories her food and film selections have to tell.

Flavorful World: Tell us how your idea for a website that combines appreciation for food and film evolved.

Lauren Jessen: A Dash of Cinema was born in the summer of 2011 when I wanted to start documenting my love for food and film. I majored in Media Studies in college with a focus on film, and it felt organic to create a space where I could approach my love for film in a unique way apart from simply watching and reviewing movies. Additionally, instead of simply focusing on movies, I also wanted to include another passion of mine, which is baking and cooking.

I thought of different ways to marry the two topics, and it struck me that whenever I watch movies, I always notice the food in it, whether it is something the characters are eating or making or the restaurants where the characters are dining. The food and restaurants that appear on-screen are, to me, characters in the film. They help tell the story and add an entirely new level of complexity that you wouldn’t otherwise feel. One of my favorite series on the blog, “Eat & Watch,” consists of me actually making the food that appears in movies. I love taking something from the screen and turning it into a reality.

Over time, the focus has shifted back and forth between food and film independently of one another, but the heart and soul of A Dash of Cinema are how food and film work cohesively together.

FW: The 2014 Festival de Cannes ran from the 14th to the 25th of this month. Prepare a three-course menu (appetizer, main course, dessert) celebrating the festival and tell us what informed and inspired your choices.

LJ: The Cannes Film Festival is always exciting to follow because of the variety of films that are screened from around the world. With a stunning backdrop like the French Riviera, Cannes is easily the most glamorous film festival. When I think of film and glamour, I think about the classic films that have shaped movie history, such as Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Contempt, the list goes on. To follow that train of thought, I then think about dishes that mirror these timeless films. To me, glamorous dishes aren’t necessarily fancy or extravagant by any means, but instead have flavors that are notable, just as classic films are memorable.

The three-course menu I would prepare is similar to the Cannes Film Festival in that each course stands alone, just as each film that is screened during the festival is its own entity. Secondly, each dish is inspired by foods from different countries, resembling the diverse screenings from movies around the world at the Cannes Film Festival. I would want the meal to have the same feel of Cannes, where even if you are jumping from one genre to the next, most of the movies are quality and have something unique to offer. The same goes for the food, and regardless of whether the three courses are completely different, the quality of flavors and the experience of each dish diversify the overall experience.

For the appetizer, I would prepare fresh cantaloupe wrapped in prosciutto with a light drizzle of balsamic vinegar and mint. I would keep the main course light but tasty, and I would serve pan-seared scallops sprinkled with lemon. The scallops would be so perfectly cooked that they’d speak for themselves. Dessert would be peach and raspberry gelato. With the beaches in the background, I imagine Cannes being breezy, and I think that the three-course meal should be light and satisfying, as well.

FW: Movies like Ratatouille and Julie & Julia have inspired many a home cook to attempt making dishes they otherwise might never have tried. The elevation of chefs and food critics to celebrity status over the past several years has likewise been the subject of numerous film projects. Do you think trends in food have a greater effect on those in film, or the reverse, and why?

LJ: This question is very much like the causality dilemma, “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” While I don’t necessarily lean one way or the other, I would say the food has a greater effect. In the case of Julie & Julia, a woman was inspired by Julia Child and the food she made and decided to document herself attempting Child’s dishes through a blog. The movie is based on this real life story, which in turn has, I’m sure, created many more food bloggers and chefs.

From the examples I can currently think of, it seems as if the food has come first. Films and the media pick up on food trends and chefs that are doing well once the popularity has been tried and tested. The main example that comes to mind is the movie that recently came out called Chef. Jon Favreau, the main chef and star of the film, quits his restaurant job to start a food truck to get back to basics and reignite his passion for cooking. Food trucks have been a pretty hot trend for years, and this movie is a result of that popularity. It’s fun to see how food and film work together in this creative way, and it would be a win for everyone for the two industries to work off of one another and create something beneficial for all to enjoy.

FW: In A Dash of Cinema’s “Eat & Watch” category, you share recipes and the film elements that inspired them. Tell us a film that is at times difficult to watch (due to theme, subject matter, or a particular scene depiction, rather than poor filmmaking quality) but still managed to inspire a recipe, and what aspect of it was responsible for that inspiration?

LJ: This is an interesting question, and it is one that I have carefully considered when thinking about which movies I want to watch and the food I want to make for the purpose of the Eat & Watch series. Typically when I decide to make a specific dish from a movie, the movie itself is more lighthearted in comparison to films that are have heavy subject matters. While I do believe food plays its own role and purpose in certain scenes and movies, I tend to stay away from making the focus of a film about the food if it is a more serious topic. I think I would feel a bit odd making the food that is served during the dinner scene from American History X, for example, with the concern of taking away the focus of what that movie represents. I want the food I cook or bake from movies to make people happy, and if the food comes from movies with darker subject matters, the meaning behind the idea of Eat & Watch might be misconstrued. With all that said, as of now I have yet to draw inspiration for a recipe from a movie that is difficult to watch, and if I ever did, I would put a lot of thought behind it and do it in the most tasteful way possible. Pun not intended, but it works so I’ll go with it.

FW: You’re having dinner anywhere in the world at a restaurant you’ve never visited before, after which you’ll watch a movie you’re never seen.  What restaurant do you choose, what’s for dinner (choose apps, entrée, dessert, drinks), and what movie will you see?

LJ: I would choose a restaurant that overlooks the Adriatic Sea in Puglia, Italy, called Grotta Palazzese. Grotta Palazzese is tucked inside a limestone cavern and is only open during the summer from May to October. This space has hosted Italian nobility banquets since the 18th century, which I find fascinating.

While these items are not on the menu at Grotta Palazzese, I would begin the meal with a warm loaf of rustic bread and salted butter. For drinks, I would immediately order a bottle of Moscato d’Asti to enjoy during the meal even though it is considered a dessert wine. Before the main course, I’d enjoy a baby spinach salad with berries, pecans, and goat cheese in raspberry vinaigrette. The entrée would be a dish consisting of homemade linguine, clams, shrimp, scallops, and white wine sauce. To end the meal, a fresh-out-of-the-oven Molten Chocolate Lava Cake with vanilla bean ice cream would be heavenly, to say the least.

After that perfect meal, I would watch La Dolce Vita, which I surprisingly have not yet seen. If the movie could be screened outside under the stars, then that would be the cherry on top of an already magical evening.

FW: Many people are drawn to foods or films from some geographic locales over others. Tell us the country/countries of origin for your favorite style of cuisine, the country/countries of origin for your favorite film genre(s), and how those favorites influence (or diverge from) one other.

LJ: This is a tough question because I love food from a majority of places in the world. It also depends on what mood I am in and which style of cuisine I am craving, but for the purpose of this question, I will choose one that I could eat in any mood that I am in. Japan would be the country of origin for my favorite style of cuisine, and most of my favorite film genres are American romantic comedies and dramas. Some of my favorite movies include Before Sunrise, The Shawshank Redemption, and You’ve Got Mail.

While at first thought the style of cuisine and origin of film genres might seem unrelated, I would relate the two by comparing the quality of the food preparation and movie storylines. Japanese food is made with such care and attention, and the flavors all work together to make a clean and fresh dish. In the same way as these three American films I just mentioned, the storylines of are smart, well planned, and solid enough to stand on their own over the years.

FW: When you go to the movies, what’s your typical concession stand selection and why?  What’s your least favorite concession stand food and why?

LJ: When I go to the movies, I won’t enter the theater without a treat in hand. It usually depends on my mood, but I’ll either enjoy coffee or chocolate ice cream, Red Vines, Sweet Tarts, or Twix. I’m also always eyeing the Blue Raspberry Icees. If you’ve noticed the trend, I enjoy treats and candies that are of the silent type. I can’t stand when I hear the rustling of a popcorn bag or plastic candy bag during a movie. When I do choose candy, I’ll open the bag before the movie starts and make sure I can grab my treats without drawing attention to myself.

As far as least favorite concession stand food, I have yet to get behind Junior Mints. Unless it’s mint chocolate chip ice cream, I am not the biggest fan of the mint and chocolate candy combination. The same goes for York Peppermint Patties. Now that I’ve admitted that out loud, it seems like a weird thing to not like, but the taste of mint and chocolate together conflict with my taste buds. But again, I have no problem whatsoever with mint chocolate chip ice cream.

FW: Excluding the name of any of your pre-existing blogs, websites, or print/online personas, tell us what name you would give to your memoir about your culinary exploits?

LJ: The title I would give my memoir about my culinary exploits would be Taste As You Go. When cooking, one of the biggest pieces of advice I have repeatedly heard is to “taste as you go.” When you taste as you go, you know sooner rather than later if you need to add more salt, pepper, herbs, or any other ingredient. Not only is this something that I have had to practice, but learning how to identify which ingredients are lacking or are too overpowering in a dish have been another challenge.

Since this is a memoir, I would also sprinkle in some real world situations where I relate this cooking advice to life. You should “taste as you go” in terms of taking your own temperature at different stages in your life to make sure you are on the right track and that you are happy with the life you are creating. You want to make sure you aren’t missing too much of one “ingredient.”

FW: When you aren’t cooking and/or eating delicious foods, how do you most enjoy spending your time?

LJ: When I am not cooking, baking, eating, or watching movies, I love to read and travel. It’s such a joy to experience different cultures, try new food, hear different languages, see famous landmarks and explore small streets tucked away from the crowds, and to escape everyday life through travel. Reading provides a similar escape in the day, and it’s pretty remarkable how vivid the imagination can be. I tend to alternate between non-fiction and fiction books. I recently finished reading The Fault in Our Stars by John Green and I’m now a few pages into Born Round by Frank Bruni.

*Note to readers: After the credits roll on this interview, check out Lauren’s Work on A Dash of Cinema. In addition to running a uniquely memorable food website, she is also active on social media devoted to A Dash. She Tweets, she  Instagrams, she Pinterests, she Facebooks (those last two can be used as verbs, can’t they?) on good food and good film in a way that will inform my every movie-viewing from here forward. Here’s betting it’ll do the same for you.


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