Eat to the Beat

Soul Kitchen serves up a side order of old-school

Within the first three minutes of Soul Kitchen, an amiable comedy set in and around a rundown restaurant owned by a shaggy-haired German-Greek, Zinos (Adam Bousdoukos) is called an asshole by two different people: his girlfriend and an old boat builder he shares the building with. He takes it in stride because he's used to this kind of thing. Or at least you get the sense that he's used to this kind of thing.

The restaurant Zinos runs — which he named Soul Kitchen after his favorite kind of music (his cell phone's ringtone plays Roger Troutman's "I Want to Be Your Man") — serves precut chunks of frozen fish alongside shots of stiff whiskey to its not-too-discriminating customers.

Zinos attends his girlfriend's going-away party (she's moving to Shanghai for a job) at a fancier restaurant down the street on the same night its hotheaded but brilliant chef Shayn (Birol Ünel) is fired for telling off a customer demanding hot gazpacho. Meanwhile, Zinos' brother Illias (Moritz Bleibtreu) has been released from jail on a work-release program and needs a job.

Soon — and only after Zinos hurts his back lifting a broken dishwasher — these characters are working together at Soul Kitchen, which Shayn immediately wants to transform into a classy restaurant. "This is no gourmet eatery," Zinos tells Shayn. "It is what it is." But after Shayn whips up a delectable dish with the basic ingredients Zinos has on hand, the owner relents. Naturally, the working-class regulars are turned off by the new menu — they want to know where the hamburgers and pizza are. Shayn storms from the kitchen and calls them "uncultured peasants," and they all leave. For good.

With Soul Kitchen empty, Zinos lets a musician friend use the space for band practice. Their fans begin showing up to hear their rudimentary garage rock, and before long they're demanding to be fed. Shayn's gourmet food is a hit. Illias spins R&B on the turntables he stole from a snooty DJ. People dance and make love on the tables. And for the first time ever, Zinos' restaurant is making money. But he misses his girlfriend, and a devious former classmate has his eyes on the place.

Most of the time, Fatih Akin's movie — which often plays like a tribute to traditional European comedies — goes exactly where you'd expect it to. Many of the best scenes don't even take place in the restaurant, but it's always the center of the characters' world. Like Zinos, Soul Kitchen doesn't have much direction. But by the second half, you'll accept this as part of its charm.

At its heart, the movie is an ensemble piece (Zinos' longtime waitress and Illias' thuggish pals also figure into the plot, which juggles a half-dozen different stories). The kitchen scenes with Zinos and the cranky Shayn are particularly delicious. The focus isn't so much on the food here (Soul Kitchen isn't a foodie film like Big Night or Julie & Julia), but Shayn's occasional dishes will make your mouth water. The tastiest bits are in the appetizers Akin and his winning cast — especially Bousdoukos, who co-wrote the screenplay with the director — serve and the desserts they dish out when you think you don't have room for anything else.Send feedback to [email protected].

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