Last updated on February 11th, 2015
Two weeks ago, I was lucky enough to see Today’s Special at a tiny art house theater in Washington, DC. It’s a food movie that doesn’t require a foodie audience, nor does it rely on slick styling or drool-worthy shots. Instead, it’s a movie about how much food and cooking can reveal about yourself and your traditions.
It’s based on the one-man play “Sakina’s Restaurant,” written and performed by Aasif Mandvi, who you’ll recognize as The Daily Show‘s “Brown Correspondent.” Directed by David Kaplan from a screenplay writen by Mandvi and Jonathan Bines, Today’s Special debuted in 2009 at the London Film Festival. It received all kinds of accolades from film critics, but was only released in a few major cities across the country. It’s unfortunate that the movie didn’t have a wider release because everything about this comedy is fun, smart, lovable, and thoroughly enjoyable.
The story begins with Samir (Mandvi), a sous chef at a trendy New York City restaurant that is on the verge of expanding. Hard-working, diligent and able to manage any disaster, Samir is primed to be handed the top position at the chef’s newest venture. At the last moment, he finds the job has been given to a much younger up-and-comer.
Furious, Samir demands an answer and learns that his bosses admire his discipline, but believe his stick-to-the-recipes attitude lacks guts and inspiration. Samir quits and impulsively decides to go to France for an unsecured, unpaid apprenticeship. But first, our hero has to take the subway out to Queens to tell his parents, who operate the shabby Tandoori Palace in the Indian neighborhood of Jackson Heights.
Samir enters the kitchen in search of his father and there we encounter the chef—a tyrant with a fuzzy red beard dyed clown red—and his nervous assistant. The kitchen is filthy, the kind we all fear, and churns out greasy fare that appeases no one but the old men who spend their days in the dining room gossiping and watching vintage Bollywood movies. Samir’s father, a proud man trying to hold the family business together, is appalled by his son’s decision to leave his job and work for free, and promptly has a heart attack.
Quickly, Samir steps in to temporarily run the restaurant and learns that it is on the brink of bankruptcy. The red-bearded chef quits in a tirade when Samir demands he remove his paper-cup spittoon from the food prep area. Samir pulls out the recipe book but realizes he’s in over his head and calls on the help of Akbar, a mysterious, vagabond cab driver who claims to have cooked for royalty in Mumbai.
Akbar brings Samir his masala mixing bowl and teaches Samir the art of improvisation, of not always following recipes, but of cooking from here (touches his head), here (places his hand across his heart), and here (points to his groin). Through cooking, Samir learns to infuse both his cooking and his life with passion.
What’s best about Today’s Special is that while the narrative follows the well-worn tracks of formulaic screenplay, it doesn’t fall too hard for any of its tropes, nor does it play into stereotypes. Samir’s family are Muslim Indians and there aren’t any Bollywood caricatures, Ganesh jokes or group dance numbers.
Farrida, Samir’s mother (played by the radiant Madhur Jaffrey), first appears on screen emerging from prayer, serene, loving, and in equal measure a Queens yenta who only wants her son to settle down with a nice Indian girl. (Jaffrey is also an acclaimed author of more than 20 Indian cookbooks and host of a BBC cooking show.) And Akbar, played by esteemed actor Naseeruddin Shah (Monsoon Wedding), doesn’t have a silly accent and plays his character with an attitude one might see as more Italian than Indian. Overall, this peek into the life of a family is as warm and cozy as it is relatable and funny.
My recommendation is to put Today’s Special on your Netflix queue. It hasn’t yet been released, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this film eventually became a foodie cult classic.