Even fictional people have to eat. Sometimes food reveals what we should know about a character, sometimes it’s a pleasant pause in the action, and sometimes it’s “[closes eyes in amazement, savors, makes pleasure-noises].” Food Fiction is an ongoing feature that looks at some of the most memorable foods in the history of storytelling.

It was quite a summer for food pornography. A lonely moviegoer could wander into almost any multiplex and walk out with his or her appetite all fired up.

The words “food porn” get thrown around a lot when a movie or TV show shares well-lit closeups of food-prep action sequences or lets the camera linger on gorgeously presented final creations. The term almost always gets a laugh—probably because someone said “porn,” and there’s still a little shock value in deploying the word and possibly implying (or allowing the listener to infer) the speaker might possess a degree of familiarity with actual porn. For once, let’s not leave the discussion there.

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Let’s start by holding Jon Favreau to his admission on Conan that the movie Chef, which he wrote and directed, amounts to “food porn.” Some of the cliché hallmarks of actual porn include a ludicrous, or at least unremarkable, attempt at plot or storytelling. The story is just an excuse to get things rolling; wardrobe, makeup, cinematography, and editing choices that glorify and fetishize parts and pieces; long sequences which employ devices to prove to the viewer that what they’re seeing is actually being performed by the actors; and closeup shots that are especially vivid or even lurid. (By the way, I know all this through pop culture osmosis; I’m scared to do primary research on this topic because I use a company computer and don’t know how to hide my browser history.)

All of that applies to Chef: Every move is foreshadowed or utterly predictable. The food looks great, of course, and viewers patiently watch scenes play out, knowing exactly where they’re going, waiting for the screenplay to get there. Meanwhile, the actors have fun with each other and the music and the chopping and the whipping, slathering, and stirring. Every now and then, it becomes apparent that there’s some pretense for all that sensually enticing stuff.

It’s food porn. And it’s enjoyable. The food looks so good that viewers end up enjoying a movie that makes a well-worn point, mostly because of the best parts, which are just watching Favreau cook and share food, learn about social media, and drive around doing fun, manly, somewhat explicit stuff like singing “Sexual Healing” with John Leguizamo and dusting testicles with corn starch.

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The movie comes off like a well-shot vlog. Favreau appears to have used it as an excuse to learn gourmet cooking in his middle age, and he found a Hollywood method of enticing food truck entrepreneur and classically trained chef Roy Choi to teach him. Choi insisted that all the food they cook be more than decorative—he wanted to show Favreau cooking food that would taste good as well. The best example of this is the grilled cheese sandwich Favreau’s chef, Jeff, cooks for his son.

“What’s the gourmet version of the simple food?” Favreau asked while touring in support of the film. “Like, how do you make a grilled cheese sandwich in the way that a chef would do it?” The answer is in the good olive oil spreading over the expensive-looking griddle, the chef taking care to find the hot spots on the grill and checking to make sure the bread is browning perfectly, then adding several types of cheese, evidently pared from different blocks of cheese into pieces of varying sizes and shapes—all very offhand, imaginative, believable, and great-looking.

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Part of what makes Chef’s grilled cheese so beautiful is the way it’s filmed. It’s shot in closeup, and super-closeup, and super-super-closeup. Favreau’s imitation of Choi’s technique is attentive but not fussy, the way you’d imagine an experienced chef cooking. In this sequence, there’s a convincing lack of preciousness, which is the key to great food photography: making food gleam so that it excites our reptile brains without making it so perfect-looking that it seems inauthentic.

During the closing credits we see Choi coaching Favreau on how to make the grilled cheese—“You’re looking for heat, for hot spots… You can see the cheese is starting to evolve. Even now you’re changing, changing position on the grill, but not too busy…” Maybe the only thing missing from the picture until that postscript is an explanation of how this Hollywood guy got so good at cooking: “I know how he got the beautiful women to gaze at him with love and lust; I know how he got the musicians to entertain for us.” By the second or third scene, the camerawork proves that it really is Favreau doing the knife work, as the camera starts out on rapid, expert cucumber-cutting with a beautiful chef’s knife and pans up in one simple movement to show it’s Jon. This behind-the-scenes lesson from Choi settles what is essentially the only mystery in the movie.

Chef makes another technical camera and lighting decision in the way it condemns the dependable, formerly interesting fare that Dustin Hoffman’s successful restaurateur requires his staff to shovel down the throats of people who don’t want change. (People who don’t want change are the villains in many food movies, and this movie even reveals contempt for menus that feature ahi tuna.) Favreau’s crew lights the signature dishes in Hoffman’s restaurant in a flat, unspecific, almost dim light with a white tablecloth as background. The food looks pallid and only a little appetizing. Notably, we aren’t shown the step-by-step.

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In contrast, when we know we’re supposed to be excited by the spices and sauces and proteins, the camera comes in close and notes all the bursts of genius and flights of fancy that go on during the prep. A strong, single light source strikes the food from one side, whether it’s morning sun or the lamp in the chef’s bachelor apartment on the night he loses his job and has to bring all his farmers market purchases home to cook for himself.

That lonely-chef scene seems like a good opportunity for a memorable, touching, dramatic moment: the ironic sadness of a man whose life centers around hosting and creating meals to delight rooms full of customers, now sitting alone and making something complex and inspired for nobody. Brought down by his own bad decision-making, our hero is denied his dream. He mopes, then pulls himself together and cooks this food in an act of symbolic defiance. But in true porn style, the movie invests so much in showing the beautiful food and newly acquired kitchen abilities of the writer-director that the emotional, even heartbreaking idea of that solo kitchen performance is diluted.

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Suspecting that the movie would be like this—enjoyable but unchallenging—I decided to amuse myself by watching the way the actors demonstrate to viewers that the food they’re eating is not just great but truly something special. That’s another porn hallmark: The faces of the performers must communicate extreme satisfaction, and, if possible, delight far beyond what they expected.

I counted nine clear instances of actors eating Chef’s food, then closing their eyes or opening them really wide and exclaiming something, or making a yummy sound. That total doesn’t include the Chef’s son’s two self-consciously understated reactions of “pretty good,” first to the grilled cheese and then to a Cuban sandwich. (It’s hard to respond naturally when Dad is right there watching for your reaction.) All of those reactions were about the same—except when Leguizamo spices up his yummy take with a lot of cussing and swinging his body around in comic disbelief, and when Scarlett Johansson responds to some cooking with near-orgasmic joy. I stopped counting yummy reactions when the food truck crowds appeared.

So as I pivot to director Lasse Hallström’s The Hundred Foot Journey, I’ll start by admitting that Hallström takes care to show us variety in his actors’ reactions to deliciousness. In addition to the yummy face/noises, we see Indian children spitting out French cuisine, a beautiful heroine who flirts by withholding her appreciation of the hero’s brilliant first attempt at “the five sauces of French cuisine,” and a wonderfully stubborn performance as the hero’s charming old father in which the actor Om Puri refuses to behave as expected, waiting until we are paying attention to show us his reaction to anything he eats on-screen.

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Of course, the great advantage this movie has is an outwardly frosty Helen Mirren, who is so deliberate yet unpredictable and believably moved by the omelet our hero makes her. She’s bewildered when she samples a dish mid-preparation and asks both the hero and herself, “What is this flavor that is fighting with the chicken?” In the omelet scene, Hallström shows her initial reaction from fairly far away—alarm, alertness—then shows her from the back. With her shoulders Mirren quickly shows a range of emotions, from resistance to reluctant admission to excitement to hesitance to reveal anything at all. Then we cut to see her sitting over the partially eaten omelet with her head in her hands. She looks hopeless, then she warms to the truth and says over her shoulder the line that could be so deadly but from her is not: “You have it.”

Because The Hundred Foot Journey is slow and less brightly lit and has more old people, it might not be quite as tempting to classify it as food porn. Still, it matches the collection of porn clichés included in Chef. There’s a predictable story, including the trope of recycled, familiar plot points playing out in a new location—this time it’s in Mumbai/French village/Paris instead of Miami/New Orleans/Austin/L.A. There are admiring close-ups of physical beauty during nearly gratuitous action sequences. And there’s the music; the scoring behind the cooking sequences in The Hundred Foot Journey really does sound like stereotypical “brown chicken brown cow” porn music, especially when the hero chef goes off to study molecular gastronomy in Paris.

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Hallström’s cinematographer likely shot miles of food-preparation footage and shot it well. The story of The Hundred Foot Journey, while no more surprising, is more complicated than Chef and takes longer to tell, going nuts in the final third as it tries to hit all the same marks as the novel on which it’s based. Until that happens, The Hundred Foot Journey plays out like many book adaptations set in foreign countries—enjoyably escapist and full of set pieces and charming characters—with the addition of somewhat clunky symbolic food. “You cannot be nervous and make a sauce Hollandaise,” Mirren tells the hero. “The eggs will feel it…”

At the end of both these movies, audiences and critics claim to be hungry. The ad campaign for the recent re-release of Chef cleverly taunts potential viewers to plan ahead for where they’re going to go eat afterward. All that food porn works on our lizard brain.

But that’s what makes movies like Big Night and Tampopo rise above the level of porn. They entertain the whole brain, not just the hungry part. Like assembling the ingredients of a gourmet meal, putting together a movie with great-looking food, emotional stakes, and an unpredictable story—and then getting it to coalesce into an artful whole—is a tricky thing to learn.

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Upcoming: The Moody Foodie, Anton Ego, and other fearsome food critics