Film and Food Converge at BAMPFA

By Mary "Merv" Ladd

In 2012, Babette Café opened at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) brutalist-style structure on Bancroft. It was quickly celebrated for its inspired NorCal take on breakfast and mid-day offerings made by chefs Joan Ellis and Patrick Hooker. The married couple had at first thought “Babette’s Table” would work, but later settled on “Babette.”

When the new museum opened on Center Street in early 2017, the Babette eatery also made the journey, this time with later hours and beer and wine to round out the menu. A tall table with succulents down the middle was also transported.

“It’s not just that you are an artist as a chef, says Joan Ellis. “It’s that you’re creating a space.”

As for “what’s in a name?” Babette’s Feast is the beautiful 1987 Danish film centered around a French refugee named Babette that at first blush looks like a series of Vermeer paintings come to life. Ellis says of the film, “There’s such beautiful character acting. The food stuff is so beautiful.”

The slow-moving but stunning film builds towards unexpected pleasure when Babette prepares a dinner for a rigid religious community. For the first time, a group of 12 diners can enjoy textures and flavors from dishes and wine prepared by a woman who actually worked as a professional and much lauded chef. It is clear that she is an artist as she cooks. Themes of love, nourishment, and living and enjoying life permeate the film.  

When asked about the artistry apparent in her restaurant, Ellis says: “It’s an artistic venture for sure. With every aspect, you’re thinking about how it feels, how it looks, how it is plated—all the pieces together…It’s a very complex form of art in that there are a lot of pieces and it’s visual.”

So it makes sense that two visual art forms—film and gastronomy—would be brought together at a restaurant named for a film about a chef. Babette has launched a Film to Table series, a dining experience that pairs chef-prepared dinners with limited-engagement film screenings at BAMPFA. 

Enjoying the prix fixe four-course Film to Table dinner post-movie is a unique experience: when was the last time you giggled, drank wine and talked to a stranger while eating a gourmet meal at a museum? It’s startling to hear laughter while visiting any museum. One’s overall experience is enhanced by the security staff, who by the way are students, and the other patrons, one of whom—on the night we watched the 1942 film adaptation of Graham Greene’s Went the Day Well?—was famed writer and director Philip Kaufman ( Henry & June, The Right Stuff ). 

During the day, students may be camped out at Babette’s tables, thoughtfully sipping espresso while studying or catching up with a group. For the night time film-to-table guest, Babette presents the chance to be a viewer and then eater, and walking up the stairs after the film can be good stimulus for conversation: “What did that film mean?,” which inevitably leads to, “Where should we sit for dinner? Is my stomach rumbling too loudly?”

There’s a sense of opening up when eyeing the table cloth, petite floral arrangements (short and sweet, all the better for conversation), and the angular beauty of the red walls that frame the long, communal table at which guests convene.  “It feels like every day, you’re coming in and putting on a production, but it’s nice to be reminded of that,” says Ellis.

The two chefs both cook and serve these special dinners ($75 per person), and seem to take pleasure in talking to many of the 15 or so guests—up to 30 guests can attend.

Our table dug deep into issues from black and white film, World War II, Nazis, and Trump. Yes, the movie tie-in gave us visuals that helped round out our mental picture of the president. Ideas volleyed across the table as we dabbed our mouths after bites of warming, delectable rabbit stew, wartime crusty rolls, and zesty cucumber and dill salad.

Film stars have also taken to Babette’s tables. When Liv Ullman appeared at BAMPFA in February, she did a pre-show meal with a party of six. Ellis says, “We were warned ahead of time that before she talks, she doesn’t want to eat much. So, we served the first course. Patrick made this gorgeous scallop mousseline with sole on the bottom and a beautiful tarragon butter…We served it to her and she said, “Oh! That will be my dinner. I’m going to eat that.”  

While we can’t know for sure if the care and attention that went into it her gourmet fish dinner played into what happened when Ullmann appeared on stage, Leah Garchik of the San Francisco Chronicle described the emotional scene that followed in her column:

Gary Meyer attended the first event in the weekend’s series of Ullmann appearances, a reception the day before, at the Berkeley Art Museum’s Pacific Film Archive. Her talk, he said, ‘was one of the most moving sessions with an artist we have seen. It brought people to tears.’

Tears and applause might not come at the end of the average Film to Table diner’s meal, but anyone looking for a fresh and original sensory experience will likely leave satisfied.

Mary “Merv” Ladd lives and writes in San Francisco.

Filed under: Arts + Letters
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