Zinos Kazantsakis (Adam Bousdoukos) runs Soul Kitchen, the German equivalent of a greasy-spoon diner in an ethnically diverse Hamburg neighbourhood. Out of his disorderly kitchen he dishes up comfort food, direct from the freezer to the deep fryer – battered fish, chips, meatballs, frozen pizzas. His small, working-class clientele likes the no fuss approach, the consistency and cheap prices.
The opening sequence of Fatih Akin’s 2009 film Soul Kitchen (winner of the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival) makes clear that Zinos is committed to his work – rushing around to set up the restaurant, emptying the dishwashers, and doing all the cooking – even if the food he serves has little finesse. As we see, Soul Kitchen – like Taverna, the restaurant that Hamburg-born Bousdoukos (who co-wrote the screenplay and is of Greek heritage) ran for 10 years and which his childhood friend Akin and other artists regularly haunted – is about much more than the food.
Akin, a German filmmaker of Turkish descent, is interested in the experience of living between cultures. Soul Kitchen is a comedy and covers much lighter terrain than his acclaimed dramas, Head-On (2004) and The Edge of Heaven (2007). But it shares with these films an understanding of the importance of community and the idea of home, here, especially in the face of rampant gentrification. Within this logic, Zinos’ Soul Kitchen restaurant becomes a space for friends to be together, to drink, dance, and listen to funky soul. Soul Kitchen has a soundtrack of around 60 soul tracks (Akin wrote the film’s script around them) from the 1960s and 1970s that heighten the film’s lively spirit.
But despite the good vibes, Zinos is struggling and eventually the tax inspector and the health department come knocking. A series of personal catastrophes, beginning with the departure of his girlfriend Nadine (Pheline Roggan) for work in Shanghai, and concluding with the return of his hustler brother, Illias (Moritz Bleibtrau), on “special leave” from prison, adds to his woes. To make matters far worse, Zinos injures his back, advised by his physiotherapist Anna (Dorka Gryllus) that he shouldn’t stand up for extended periods of time. Of course, cooking becomes almost physically impossible.
Enter Shayn (Birol Ünel). He’s a chef from an upmarket restaurant, recently fired after a rather visceral argument with a customer. While Shayn wants to keep cooking, he’s not interested in oily chips, and while he loves the warehouse space (“This is fantastic. It’s a genuine Romanian café”) when he reads Zinos’ menu of 40, homogenous items, adamantly declares, “I’m not cooking this crap.” But as Zinos explains, “This isn’t a gourmet temple. It is what it is.”
In one of Soul Kitchen’s most memorable scenes Shayn uses Zinos’ trusted ingredients – creamed spinach, battered fish, chips, and ketchup – to create something that looks like the more refined food he once dished up. It’s a summary of how he feels about fine dining itself: “A sale. Selling things that can’t be sold. False passions. An illusion. Window dressing. And gluttony.” Shayn eventually realises that food should be an expression of something heartfelt, and while he begins by serving up plates that look a little too ‘cheffy’ for Zinos’ regulars, his cooking eventually becomes the opposite of soulless. While we could add that word to a list of descriptors for the haute cuisine experience, it’s not a word that could ever be used to describe Akin’s film.
Watch 'Soul Kitchen' at SBS On Demand
Make the meal to watch with the movie
Our friends at SBS Food have a spin on the traditional fish and chips, that makes for the kind of meal Zinos would be proud to dish up in his Soul Kitchen, as you watch Soul Kitchen.