The Secret to beating a Master Chef
By Katelyn Liu
Final Recipe is Gina Kim’s 2013 Singaporean-Chinese film centered on the story of Yihan, a young chef who travels to compete in a MasterChef-like competition to save his grandfather’s restaurant. It should be noted that Grandfather Lee’s restaurant is not failing due to poor cooking, in his words, “People don’t appreciate food. They don’t want food. They want a circus.” For the traditionalist, compromising the integrity of his cooking to attract patrons through ostentatious cuisine was too great a tradeoff. Thus, Yihan travels to Beijing and joins the flashiest stage of culinary competition to beat out the world-renown chef, Hanwei. In these three generations—Grandfather Lee, Hanwei, and Yihan—the source of their cooking talent are all rooted in the same kitchen where smell, taste, and memories were all part of their culinary educations. However, amidst the tumultuous clash between the traditional and the refined, Yihan present a hybrid of both cooking styles to remind the upper echelon of chefs that cooking for the ones you love bring the most flavor and depth to one’s cooking.
Throughout the film, Yihan seems like an unlikely contender in a cooking competition filled with professionally trained chefs. Yet, round after round, Yihan’s choices to simplify dishes and focus on flavor, or to elevate peasant dishes by highlighting the simplicity of its ingredients, beats out dishes with expensive ingredients and complicated executions, leading him to be the final contestant to face the master chef, Hanwei. For Yihan and Hanwei, their roots in cooking begin in the same place, Grandfather Lee’s kitchen, but diverge to distinctly demonstrate Yihan’s affinity towards food and Hanwei’s obligation to his prestige. After a long day of competing, Yihan cooks the remaining ingredients for the rest of the contenders, making a pork stir-fry (Figure 1). Using a wok over an open flame, a cooking method that is rarely seen in a sterile, Michelin-starred kitchen, he produces his dish. This dish brings Julia Lee, the television producer who first discovered Hanwei, to reminisce the humble beginnings where she found Hanwei laboring over the same open flame in his father’s kitchen. Alternatively, Hanwei is seen in his dark apartment, alone. When asked what he ate for dinner, he replies, “pizza delivery.” The stark contrast between the Yihan’s laborious cooking in love and Hanwei’s detached and solitary meal indicates that the chef’s years of training has thinned the joy and passion that originated from cooking for his son.
The shocking “twist” that Yihan is Hanwei’s son seems too obvious from the beginning to be executed as an homage to Stars Wars’ famous paternity reveal. From the moment the two talented chefs, Yihan and Hanwei, meet and their kinship is foreshadowed (Figure 2), the audience begins to compare their cooking methodologies. The anticipated paternal development allows a side-by-side view of how the traditional, sensory-driven, and raw talent in Yihan is matched against Hanwei’s similar talent that has been refined and molded by prestige and practice. Perhaps it was an intentional directorial choice by Gina Kim, but the seemingly triteness of the cinematic trope allowed the viewer to observe early on in the plot development how Hanwei’s training stripped his cooking of the familial intimacy that propelled Yihan’s cooking to surpass that of his father’s.
In the end, the three generations of talented chefs are reunited (Figure 3). Yihan has the opportunity to pursue his passion for cooking while Hanwei’s cooking is reinvigorated beyond his years of training and experience. The presence of his family, which he once believed to be dead, revived within him the intense passion he once has; now, he had a purpose and a family worth cooking for. The humility and resolve to abide in the traditional and love-filled cooking that was borne out of a family restaurant was able to overcome out every other qualified contestant in the competition and ultimately reassemble a family that was once broken.
Final Recipe. Dir. Gina Kim. By Gina Kim. Perf. by Michelle Yeoh and Henry Lau. CJ Entertainment. 2013.