In my youth, food was always hugely important to my friends and family. Food wasn’t just something you brought to a family reunion or put on the dinner table. It was a way that you connected with one another – a cornerstone of life, physically and socially. Even though I don’t dabble to an intense degree in the cooking arts, it’s because of these early experiences that I’ve always held a vested interest in food and how it connects things and people, and that carried over into my taste in anime. Food holds a solid place in a lot of anime these days (just ask any schoolgirl that’s running late on her first day), but shows that revolve specifically around food aren’t exactly common. That being said, some of the few shows that do focus on food hold a special place in my heart for the fascinating ways that they present food, and for how they give food a central role in their narratives. Here, I’m going to look at just three food-centric shows – Isekai Shokudou, Shokugeki no Soma, and Ristorante Paradiso – and dive into the vastly different ways in which they use food for narrative purposes.
If you’re even vaguely interested in anime at this point in time, you’ve probably had some interaction with Shokugeki no Soma (or Food Wars! Shokugeki no Soma), whether you’ve actually watched the show, seen a few stray gifs floating around, or just heard talk about it. In short, the show tells the story of Soma Yukihira, an aspiring young chef who attends Tōtsuki Culinary Academy and attempts to follow in the footsteps of his globetrotting, world-famous chef of a father. During his time at the academy, he and his friends undergo numerous cooking battles, vying for culinary supremacy. In simple terms, the show is a fantastic slice of shonen goodness. It has a memorable cast of characters, surprisingly high production values, and a mouth-watering amount of variety in the food that it presents. All in all, it’s a remarkably good shonen-type show, and most importantly for this piece, it is a show that is very, very centered on its food, so much so that the food itself can overshadow the characters and the chefs who whip up the dishes.
Shokugeki no Soma is, of course, a very character-driven show, and it spends a good bit of time building up the stories and personalities of Soma and his crew throughout its first season (which, incidentally, is all this piece is covering, for context). My saying that the food can sometimes overshadow these characters is not at all to say that they are not unique, or that they are irrelevant – it is simply that the lengths to which the show goes in displaying its foods in such spectacular fashion and lauding them at the same time is easily one of the most memorable aspects of the show. During the cook-offs, a great deal of attention is paid to the preparation of the different dishes, and thought that goes into the preparation by the chefs. Once the meals are served, though, the real magic begins, and the show’s true food-based focus comes fully into play.
With the reveal of any food before a judge in Shokugeki no Soma comes a fairly formulaic pattern – the judges go about sizing up the food, tasting the food, and almost universally, experiencing a state of ecstasy that comes from the taste of the food. Nearly every character that is faced with some food that they have to taste approaches it carefully, making sure to comment on the look, smell, and their overall thoughts on it before digging in. In many cases, the taste is where things go off the rails – usually, there’s some outlandish explosion of flavor or some other effect that leaves the taster reeling, speaking in awed tones about the taste, trying desperately to puzzle out the specific makeup of the recipe, or the harmony of how the multiple flavors mix and mingle together to form an incredible whole. This praising of the food can go on for minutes at a time, especially around the latter half of the series, and in a way, it reminds me of a similar kinds of monologues from shonen battle anime, wherein characters will talk ad nauseam about the power of a move, give a detailed explanation about it, etc. It’s charming, in its own way, and feeds into part of why many refer to the show as “food porn” (the other aspect of which need not be discussed here).
The food always looks gorgeous, as well. While the animation might be a little less so on the characters at other points in the show, the animators never skimp on making the food look as incredible as they possibly could. The food is the show’s true, main focus, and it is not going to let us forget that. The characters are still a huge highlight of the show, but it’s these moments where the characters go head-over-heels for the food that truly make the series shine brightest, and demonstrates that, out of everything else, this show is all about the food.
On the opposite side of the food-centric spectrum, we have Ristorante Paradiso (or Rispara), which is decidedly not all about the food. Rispara is the oldest of these three series, and honestly the one I knew the least about when watching them. As I was watching Isekai Shokudou, actually, I recalled that I had actually watched the first episode or so of this years ago, and I seemed to recall that it was about older bespectacled men working at a restaurant in Rome. Coming back to the show now and watching the series in its entirety, it is very much that, and despite it being a food-centric show, it works consistently to keep these gentlemen as the show’s true focus, rather than the food. To give a short synopsis of the show, because I have yet to meet another person who actually knew what this show was, we follow Nicoletta, a young woman fresh out of culinary school who follows her deadbeat mother, Olga, to Rome in order to destroy her marriage. Olga left Nicoletta behind when she was still quite young to live with her grandmother, and as a result, Nicoletta came to resent her mother with a fury few could rival. However, upon arriving in Rome, Nicoletta discovers that the man that Olga married opened a small restaurant, Casetta dell’Orso, and staffed it entirely with “bespectacled older gentlemen”, according to Olga’s tastes. Nicoletta quickly forgets her quest for vengeance, and instead comes to work at the restaurant, partially because she has fallen for the restaurant’s head waiter, Claudio, and eventually because she also wants to find her purpose and work at something that she is passionate about. It’s definitely entertaining in its own right, but it has its fair share of issues, and is not necessarily a show I would recommend to everyone. That being said, the way in which Rispara uses food to interact with its cast is fascinating to me, and does deserve a look.
What is perhaps the most interesting thing to me about Rispara is that, despite being a show that revolves so strongly around food, it really does not put a great deal of emphasis on the food itself, as other shows with food as a central element so frequently do. In contrast to if you were watching, say, Shokugeki no Soma, you are not going to encounter a character bite into their antipasto and then proceed to gush for half a minute about the intricate layering of the flavors, or how the different aspects of a dish come together in a masterstroke sort of way. There is almost a sort of restraint when the characters remark about the food that is served. Most indications of this variety are often either a simple acknowledgment of the food’s taste and quality, or of how the food and drink involved serve as reflections of the skill or observations of those serving and/or making the food. In the opening scene of the show, for example, the head waiter Claudio is seen serving an incredible-looking dolce to a patron, and instead of focusing on the food itself, she looks at him and asks, “How did you know it was my birthday?” The focus is not on the food itself, but on the sentiment and meaning behind the food, and the connection between server and patron that it signifies.
Numerous other scenes throughout the show follow a format that is fairly similar to the scene above with Claudio. In one episode, Gigi, the restaurant’s near-silent sommelier, comes to serve the restaurant’s owner Lorenzo his wine intermittently, without even needing to check if Lorenzo’s glass was empty. Beyond that, the wine that he chooses, in this instance and others, seems to be exactly the kind of drink that the given person is yearning for in some way. Nicoletta picks up on this, and it sparks a conversation between her and Lorenzo detailing how Gigi can read people so well, and leading into a story about how he and Lorenzo are actually half-brothers. Essentially, the wine served as a reflection on Gigi’s own skill at reading others, and also as an opener for a more personal story. In another episode, Nicoletta attempts to cook for the head chefs of the restaurant, Furio and Teo, as they all work to create the new menu for the spring season. The chefs and apprentice all whip up a number of diverse dishes, all of which they taste, critique, and savor, aside from Nicoletta’s dishes, which most definitely need work. Teo’s harsh, but needed criticism of her food does cause Nicoletta to reflect on her approach to cooking, but it also leaves Teo himself reflecting on his own time as the struggling new chef at Casetta dell’Orso under his old mentor. In these scenes and others, the food is very much a present force, but more often than not, attention is paid to the food only enough that it can be used to draw attention to the characters involved. Really, the scenes above can be thought of as blueprints for how much of the show approaches the interaction between food and people. In Rispara, food is used as a conduit for character development and interaction, and its role in the show rarely goes beyond that. At its core, though Rispara takes care in the presentation and the decadence of its food and drink, the show is ultimately a celebration of its characters.
While Shokugeki no Soma and Ristorante Paradiso appear to be at opposite ends of how they centralize food in their respective plots, Isekai Shokudou seems to fit in snugly between those two. Isekai Shokudou has proven to be a fascinating entry in the Summer 2017 anime season, and is really what kicked off my desire to write this post in the first place. The concept is simple: every Saturday, the door to a restaurant in our world, Youshoku no Nekoya (known more casually by its patrons as “Isekai Shokudou”), appears throughout a vastly different, fantastical world elsewhere, serving its food to whoever comes through its door. The cast is made up of anyone you could think of, from an arena-fighting lion man obsessed with pork cutlet bowls, to a half-elf sorceress that likes to unwind with pudding, to the champion of a lizardman tribe that brings back food to his people and is heralded as a hero. Isekai Shokudou is a show that is very concerned with its food in terms of appearance, the connections that its cast has to the food, and the ways in which the food can enable the show’s story to branch in many different directions. For me, Isekai Shokudou’s interactions with food and the sheer breadth and variety of its cast make this an obvious contender for my anime of the Summer 2017 season, as well as for my favorite food-based anime. Week after week, the show kept its simple, comfortable formula, and it brought me along for a ride to meet fascinating characters, explore a gorgeous world, and experience truly otherworldly food along with the restaurant’s patrons.
In one sense, the main core and focus of Isekai Shokudou is, and should be, its food, and as I said previously, it takes great care in the focus on its food. Perhaps one of the most telling aspects of this is that every episode is named after two different dishes, such as the first episode’s “Beef Stew / Breakfast Special”, and each dish is connected with a different patron of the restaurant. Each episode consists of two separate halves, both of which usually focus on one specific patron. Within these bits, we get to see a bit of their backstory, how they came to find Isekai Shokudou, and the dish that they order and invariably fall in love with. That, or it might detail a subsequent visit to the restaurant, and their renewed love for their dish of choice. Either way, there is adequate focus on the food. To these otherworld guests, these dishes are unlike anything they have ever experienced, and the show takes time to hone in on the way that they interact with the food – whether they wolf it down like they’ll never have a chance to eat it again, or if they slowly, gradually come to experience the food in its full splendor. For example, Alphonse Flügel, an admiral in his country’s navy, is known for his love of curry rice served at Isekai Shokudou. However, when he is offered a new curry rice dish to try, a spicy chicken curry, we get to see his full breakdown of how he tries and savors his food. He examines both the rice and the curry, which are plated separately, and we get some gorgeous views of the food itself. We are meant to experience this alongside Alphonse (and any other patron, for that matter). Slowly, he tries each aspect separately, appreciating each one’s intriguing tones, and ultimately combining them, the way they were meant to be, and experiencing a state of euphoria that resembles that seen in Shokugeki no Soma, but to a much more reasonable, tempered degree. In many ways, this is part of the basic formula for each “menu”, or half of each episode.
Considering the previous two shows (Shokugeki no Soma and Ristorante Paradiso), and their widely varying stances on how food functions in each show, I would have to say that Isekai Shokudou’s philosophy on food falls somewhere in the middle of those two. Shokugeki no Soma has a very flashy, in-your-face approach to how it presents the food in the show, and often, the food is the focus of the show itself, with lengthy monologues about the food’s composition, how they really hit on that umami, and how explosive the flavor is. Even if, say, Soma and his crew are competing in a cooking competition, and they are doing it to advance their culinary careers, it is ultimately being done for the love of food. When we learn more about the characters, it ultimately relates somehow back to food, as well. Ristorante Paradiso is very much the opposite, in that food is important and central to the show, but it works in this fashion more as a facilitator for us to learn more about the people that work at Casetta dell’Orso and their stories. The food is all wonderful, but as much as it is, commentary on the food or discussion thereof turns back to the gentlemen that prepare the food, not the food itself. In essence, it is more about the story and the personalities contained within than the food.
Isekai Shokudou strikes an interesting balance, however, in that its focus lies both in the food itself, as well as the patrons of the restaurant and the world that they live in. We learn, for instance, that the restaurant’s first new waitress Aletta found her way in through the smell of corn potage wafting from the restaurant’s otherworldly door; that a powerful dragon that protects the otherworld visits on a weekly basis simply to have beef stew; that a prince of a desert country visits not only to indulge in iced coffee, but to try to win the heart of a bedridden half-elf princess that also frequents the restaurant. In each of their episodes, we see the pure joy that they experience from the dishes that they have come to love in their days, weeks, or years of consistent patronage to the restaurant. We hear them go into full-on soliloquies about the way that the parts of the dishes mingle together to make a dish that is truly unlike anything that they have ever experienced in their homeworld. We very much see the food, too – if nothing else, much like Shokugeki no Soma, no expense is spared when visually presenting the food, and it consistently makes my mouth water with each episode. In short, part of the show’s central focus is presenting the sheer joy of food.
As much as the show plays with the concept of the joy of food, it also uses food as a catalyst for character growth and world building. Aletta, for instance, initially came to Isekai Shokudou because of the food. The owner gave her a place to work and eat, but eventually, the work brought her to find herself a place to stay in her homeworld. We discover that Shareef, the young prince of a desert country, deeply enjoys the restaurant’s iced coffee so much that he and his sister actually introduced it to their home country, resulting in an economic boom of sorts. We even find that the half-elf sorceress Victoria Samanark has such a love for pudding that she has researched a way to bring it back with her and keep it cold through what is essentially a magic-powered icebox. Beyond all of these smaller points, we get to see plenty of locales across this otherworld and learn bits about the different people groups, cultures, and separate histories that populate it. We don’t learn any amount of information that I would consider extensive, but it’s enough that it makes the otherworld feel like a living, breathing place, and it makes me want to know more about it. The same goes with the restaurant patrons, as well. We see them visit, return in later episodes, mingle with other guests, and honestly have a lot more interaction and presence in the show than I thought that they would initially. Our knowledge of them is, again, not what I would call extensive, but it’s enough to have me be invested in them, their love of food, and the short bits of their lives that we get to share with them through this show.
I still deeply enjoy Shokugeki no Soma and Ristorante Paradiso, because the ways in which they present and play with food in their respective narratives make for entirely different ways of viewing how we interact with food – as both flashy centerpiece for the sake of itself, and as subtle accentuation for character and story. That being said, I feel that for myself, Isekai Shokudou strikes that perfect middle-of-the-road balance between the show being all about the food and being all about the story and the characters involved. In splitting the focus and not placing an undue amount of stock on either side, it makes for a relaxing and engrossing experience, and it’s one that harkens back to the time in my youth, where a dish was both a delicious meal, and perhaps also a story in and of itself – a recipe handed down through generations. It’s difficult to find this kind of balance and still build a world that feels alive in the way that Isekai Shokudou does. It certainly does, though, and I’m glad for it – this hole-in-the-wall Western Restaurant is one that I can see myself coming back to time and again.