'Funke': Film Review | LAFF 2018

Courtesy of LA Film Festival
Conventional treatment of an unconventional talent.

Gab Taraboulsy’s feature documentary debut profiles renowned pasta chef Evan Funke of Los Angeles’ Felix Trattoria.

After shooting shortform content for TV and the web, Gab Taraboulsy moves up to feature-length documentaries with Funke, a profile of Los Angeles chef Evan Funke, who specializes in creating handmade pasta dishes at his Felix Trattoria. Narrowly focused and rather too adulatory at times, Taraboulsy’s doc looks best suited for niche cable or streaming audiences, who will likely slurp it up.

If you want to learn the craft of handmade pasta, you go to Italy, where it’s a centuries-old tradition known as “pasta fatta a mano,” and includes over 300 different noodle varieties. For Funke, the northern region of Bologna is the mecca of pasta production, where he trained under local “maestra” Alessandra Spisni at her traditional atelier.

This was before returning to L.A. to create Bucato with business partner Ed Keebler in Culver City, a pasta-centric eatery that opened in 2013 to some acclaim and closed in utter shame with rumors of pervasive mismanagement and fraud two years later. Funke then spent a couple of years on the sidelines of L.A.’s intensely competitive restaurant scene before partnering with Canadian chef and entrepreneur Janet Zuccarini of Toronto’s highly successful Italian restaurant group Gusto 54. In 2016, they announced plans to open Felix on trendy Abbott Kinney Boulevard in Venice.

Funke remains a bit vague on its subject’s descent from culinary star to practical pariah following the 2015 implosion of Bucato, which reportedly involved a raft of lawsuits that ended in personal bankruptcy for Funke. Certainly it’s easier and more affirming to emphasize the positive vibes of his comeback effort, but even that turns into high drama as renovation expenses on the former Joe’s restaurant location climb into the millions of dollars over a year of construction.

Partly it’s due to Funke’s insistence on installing a pricey “pasta lab” satellite kitchen that thrusts out onto the restaurant’s main dining floor to showcase his handmade creations to patrons. Felix’s long-delayed, though ultimately successful, 2017 opening seems to demonstrate that people will actually pay to watch Funke prepare his traditional Italian creations in a bold performance of culinary theater, but doubts seem to linger about the restaurant’s financial viability.

The doc offers a fairly conventional dramatic arc tracing a renowned chef’s efforts to realize his dream project, one that’s been committed to film many times before. There’s no question that this is serious business for Funke, who asserts, “I want to be known as the best pasta maker in the U.S.” His quest has plenty of supporters, from James Beard-awarded cooks to inimitable chef and entrepreneur Nancy Silverton, longtime doyenne of the L.A. restaurant scene (Campanile, Osteria Mozza).

Two other enduring influences cast long shadows over Funke: famed Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold and intrepid culinary explorer Anthony Bourdain. Besides their unassailable enthusiasm for the diversity of global cuisine, they shared a fascination for the cultural context of regional specialties, a commitment that’s often lacking in Funke, as we learn little about Italian traditions beyond the preparation of handmade pasta. Noodle dishes don’t exist in isolation, however; they’re dependent on fillings, sauces and side plates, but that type of context remains largely absent here. Any discussion of classic food pairings with Italian wines is also missing, although Felix boasts a diversified bottle list of regional selections.

Taraboulsy has a well-trained eye for shooting delicious-looking food, but appears way too enamored with the chef to develop much objectivity. So what we get are Funke’s frequent voiceovers praising traditional pasta making, admiring restaurant-scene testimonials about the chef and an abundance of footage on the renovation of the Felix space, which could have been condensed into a few succinct minutes.

Funke’s partner Zuccarini remains a bit aloof, however, and it’s never quite clear why she’s convinced enough by his skill to risk millions of dollars on Felix, especially considering Funke’s past business history. Overall, the footage is well-sourced from a variety of periods of Funke’s career and includes interviews with key mentors and collaborators, all deftly assembled, although fewer repetitive sequences of intensive pasta making would improve the pacing. 

Production company: Tastemade Studios
Director: Gab Taraboulsy
Producers: Alexander Emanuele, Jay Holzer, Cecile Murias, Gab Taraboulsy
Executive producers: Larry Fitzgibbon, Oren Katzeff, Joe Perez, Steven Kydd
Directors of photography: Robert Vroom, Gareth Paul Cox
Editor: Alexander Emanuele
Music: Steven Gutheinz

Venue: LA Film Festival
Sales: Submarine

89 minutes