Devour! Festival Gets Cooking With Mouth-Watering Cinema

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Lidia Bastaniach, David Rocco

Cinema doesn't get more epic or yummy than when paired with themed food, wine dinners and workshops hosted by celebrity TV chefs.

Most filmgoers grab popcorn and fizzy drinks before heading into a movie screening at the local multiplex.

But in the WTF-is-that-dish world of Devour! The Food Film Fest, food-themed movies and the inspired (and brilliantly absurd) dishes served up by celebrity chefs after the final credits roll are the star of the show. Take chef Antonio Rinaldo, who, like a crime scene detective, analyzes his stuffed porchetta dish smeared with a plum mostarda like splattered blood.

Rinaldo created the dish for Devour! festgoers after viewing a short film — Monique Sorgen's Sorry, Not Sorry, starring Wallace Langham, Jessica Oyelowo and Blade Runner actor M. Emmet Walsh in a couple's battle that ends in death after a husband eats his wife's plums in a fridge.

"The best revenge in life is living well, so I chose porchetta, stuffed and sliced it and added elements of darkness and loss with the plum mostarda," Rinaldo, a chef at Rinaldo's Italian American Specialties eatery in Halifax, explains after leaving 150 Devour! festgoers in Wolfville, Nova Scotia in thrall as they take their first bites.

More high-drama film and food pairings follow at the Lightfoot & Wolfville Vineyards gala dinner amid wine barrels and iron chandeliers. There's chef Brady Bertrand's fried chicken smothered in buttermilk foam to symbolize the bubbly flowing in deathbed toasts as a family patriarch lies dying in Olivia Saperstein's short Champagne.

They appear in a raw tuna crudo topped with a basil, mint and pistachio sauce that chef Danny Smiles — co-host of Food Network's Chuck & Danny’s Road Trip reality series —hatched after viewing Men Overboard, Alexandre Rufin's moody short film about a fisherman recalling his son drowning in stormy seas.

"The film is extremely dark and I thought if I knew my son was in deep waters, what would be my last lunch together," Smiles said of his film-to-food inspiration. For Devour! co-founders Michael Howell and Lia Rinaldo, film-themed feasts as events offer an antidote to the traditional film festival's existential threat from the streaming space.

"There's no velvet ropes. We're all hobnobbing with the directors and celebrity chefs, while they're separated at other festivals. Lidia Bastianich is walking along the street. This idea that you can go to a festival and not be kept from the stars, whether for food or film, is what we want," Howell explains.

Their collaboration began a decade ago when Rinaldo, a veteran film festival programmer, and Howell, a Wolfville-based chef, combined talents to make a splash by pairing movies and themed dinners. Devour! today goes beyond a core event in Nova Scotia to satellite events worldwide, including in Los Angeles and Sonoma in California, Vero Beach, Florida, the Bahamas and as part of the Berlin Film Festival.

The need for Devour! to continuing expanding and reinventing itself comes as content-hungry streaming platforms increasingly swallow up food-themed movies before they can enjoy long runs on the festival circuit.

"People come for the films, but it's challenging as we're losing titles to Netflix when they come out," Lia Rinaldo said as the 2019 lineup includes Berlin premieres like Honeyland, the award winning documentary by Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska about a Balkan woman using ancient beekeeping traditions to make honey in Macedonia, and Ghost Fleet, a film the exposes slavery in the Thai fishing industry from directors Shannon Service and Jeffrey Waldron.

Indie film remains a centerpiece of Devour!, as Joe Pantoliano, best known for his star turns on HBO's The Sopranos and in the film Memento, was on hand to tout his latest movie, the whimsical Italian vineyard drama From the Vine by director Sean Cisterna. "All of our production equipment had to pulled by scooters, like La Strada," Pantoliano said of shooting the Canada-Italy co-production against the backdrop of Italy's iconic wine country.

Celebrity chef and PBS TV host Lidia Bastianich while attending Devour! adds Wolfville's mountains-by-the-sea climate as it ideally grows local food and wine products also encourages Devour!'s culinary cinema ambitions.

"The local ingredients reflect the terroir. It's the minerals and the sea and the seafood. It's the micro climate, which compares to the champagne region of France. It's conducive to producing the ideal champagne grape because of this change in climate," Bastianich, who hosted a screening of the Tony Shalhoub and Stanley Tucci-starring 1996 Italian restaurant drama Big Night while at Devour!, told THR.

Gerry McConnell, a veteran gold miner-turned-sparkling wine maker, owns Benjamin Bridge, a vineyard taking root near to the Bay of Fundy, and recalls the late Raphael Brisbois, former chef de cave of Piper-Heidseick in France's Champagne district, first sipping his Brut Reserve before agreeing to work with his winemakers, led by Jean-Benoit Deslauriers.

"When he put the sparkling wine to his nose and lips, I saw a light go off in his head," McConnell recounts. After the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year cancelled its Culinary Cinema program, Devour!'s reputation as the industry's mecca for movies and meals has only grown as directors, producers and chefs bring their talents to its cinema and culinary programming.

"If people start thinking of Devour! and not the Berlinale for culinary cinema, and we have more distributors and more of an industry focus, and people wanting to come here and watch and buy beautifully curated food movies, that's our goal," says Devour! co-founder Howell. The Canadian festival has also made its mark with genre-blending events like chefs-and-shorts dinners, where as audiences watch a short film, corks are popped as another food and wine pairing is brought to their dining table.

"We want the festival to be fully immersive on every level," fellow Devour! co-founder Rinaldo adds. That extends to a screening of director Ed Zych's Obsessed with Olive Oil, a feature film that follows Fil Bucchino, a former punk rock musician-turned-olive oil expert, as he visits Italy during its fall harvest to find the best extra virgin olive oils.

During their post-screening Q&A, Zych and Bucchino hosted an olive oil tasting for the cinema audience to experience the complex aromas and sensations of freshly-processed oils. "Once people taste better oils, they'll rethink what they buy and retailers will be forced to sell better oil," Bucchino tells THR after giving his cinema audience tips for buying the best-quality olive oils.

For Lidia Bastianich, a film festival devoted to all things culinary and celebrity chefs cooking up absurd dishes much as top fashion designers creating unwearable garments for the catwalk is about celebrating both tradition and innovation.

"It's this drive that people want to innovate, be different, to get ahead of the game. And then there's the basics that survive time — whether fashion or cuisine. The innovators will move on, but something remains behind. The nouvelle cuisine movement left behind presentation. So now people at home are conscious of presentation, in their own way," Bastianich says.