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Kitchen Stories

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Juan Pablo Ramírez/Filmadora

MOVIE REVIEW
La Cocina (2024)

“La Cocina” is set in Times Square in New York, but was primarily filmed in Mexico City and you can't hardly tell the difference. That's possible because the workers in New York's restaurant kitchens are from all over the world, legal or not. The story takes place over one day in a colossal restaurant kitchen where everything’s about to snap. They nearly always are of course, movies about restaurants being what they are, not to mention "The Bear," but “La Cocina” captures big personalities and hair-trigger moods better than most.

The day begins as we join Estela (Anna Diaz in her film debut), who's new in town but was told by a friend of her mother's to ask for a job at The Grill, where the friend's son, Pedro (Raúl Briones, who also produced), works. The Grill is a tourist trap, full of marks eager for an authentic New York experience without knowing no genuine New Yorker would be caught dead in a place like this. Estela speaks no English so when the manager Luis (Eduardo Olmos) mistakes her for someone else she goes along with it. She's hired along with a waitress named Laura (Laura Gomez), who's older than most of the others waitresses - and they are all women, mostly young, all knees and smiles. The most popular is Julia (Rooney Mara), who can light cigarettes from her fingers without batting an eye. But Julia is in trouble; she needs $800 for an abortion which she'll have performed on her lunch break without the floor manager knowing why she needs a few hours off. The baby is Pedro's; and their situationship was a secret to exactly no one even before Julia started going around asking for loans, but Pedro has given her the money without explaining where it came from. Considering about that amount went missing from till number five yesterday there's a problem.

The owner Rashid (Oded Fehr) is furious at the idea someone in his little fiefdom would dare to steal from him. Yesterday the only white guy in the kitchen, a cook named Max (Spenser Granese), got into such a fight with Pedro one of them pulled a knife; and the chef (Lee Sellars) has had it with Pedro's antics. Good cook or not, there is a limit to the drama even a kitchen will tolerate, but the missing money might be the final straw. At the very least Luis, who is charged with interrogating the workers and identifying the thief, is thrilled for an excuse to humiliate Pedro as he questions him about it. But suddenly Estela is there smiling up at him with a napkin full of his mother's cilantro; and suddenly Pedro uses some of that cilantro to make Julia a sandwich, to try to convince her his love is genuine and not just a way to regularize his immigration status.

They're nearly all immigrants in the kitchen, except for Max and Nonzo (Motell Foster), who's from the Bronx, and who gets an remarkable monologue which he delivers in such style its imagery carries the rest of film. The dishwashers are French-speaking Haitians. On the line they're from half a dozen countries - the only other woman, Samira (Soundos Mosbah), is Moroccan - and there's a very funny and very filthy extended sequence where they all teach each other a vast array of cusses in their own language. At lunchtime the soda machine breaks and floods the kitchen, meaning the waitresses are wading through three inches of water as they rush back and forth. Everyone is screaming and swearing but nothing slows down for a second. And this lunch rush is filmed in an unbroken kinetic shot circling the kitchen, the various stockrooms, the restaurant floor and back again. The impressive choreography of Juan Pablo Ramírez’s camera makes the scale of this place and the pressures within in felt in every moment. And all the while Pedro and Julia are circling each other, trying to decide how they feel: about the baby, about each other, about their hopes for the future. Their sequence in the freezer is a bravura piece of highly sexualized acting, which is also one of only two parts of the film shot in color.

Ms. Mara is the only name Hollywood actor in the cast, but here she's in the grit with the rest of them, smoking as she cleans the lobster tank or sneaking sips of beer while she waits for her plates to be handed over. Mr. Briones, who worked with writer-director Alonso Ruizpalacios before in the extraordinary "A Cop Movie" makes an extraordinary impression here as well, as the beloved pain in the ass who has charmed everyone in the place, but the charm is wearing thin. It's a triumph of mood, this performance, as he flicks between teasing and arguing and yearning and hoping against hope all his hard work will be rewarded.

Mr. Ruizpalacios also wrote the script, loosely based on a play by Arnold Wesker, which does a terrific job of showing how the mood in a job like this, where work and play combine, can shift in an instant. When everyone starts screaming for the chef to sing the national anthem, he can see no one will get back to work until he obliges, so he climbs onto a milk crate, sings “The Star-Spangled Banner” in Spanish and then moons his team as they cheer uproariously. Then the waitresses pick up their trays, everyone gets back to work and it's like it never happened.

The only mistake is in the costume design, as the uniforms of the waitresses look a little too cheap for what's meant to be a high-end experience. But the rest feels incredibly authentic, from the obscene hoots of the waitresses when they realize someone's peeping as they change, to the irritation which everyone shows Estela the moment she's on the line, never mind it's her first day. But they can also be incredibly kind to each other, sharing cigarettes and a sense of camaraderie that's very hard to get right, especially in a multilingual setting. And it all builds to an ending involving the entire crew but split between Nonzo and Pedro, which is about dreams, immigration, food, how we cope under pressure, and what anyone has the right to expect from this life. “La Cocina” is like a pizza with everything you like on it, cooked to perfection. It's so incredibly satisfying. Mr. Ruizpalacios has done it again.

Two others things: firstly, according to the press notes, when Mr. Ruizpalacios studied film in London he also worked in the kitchen of The Rainforest Café. It’s a notorious tourist trap that in the evenings used to turn into a nightclub that let local retail workers in for free. I used to have a hellish retail job in a tourist trap around the corner so that free entry is the only reason I ever went to The Rainforest Café. The nights I was in there dancing with my friends were some of the most frightening of my life, so knowing that Mr. Ruizpalacios also knows that place means I believe what this movie is showing us, down to the toenails. Secondly, I’ve barely worked food service, only hostessing or waitressing, but I’ve heard more than one story of kitchens being flooded with sewage while continuing to serve. Being flooded with clean water is the best of all possible options.

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