Nigel wasn’t your average football-loving nine-year-old lad, growing up English in the 1960s. When his father heard him, “ohhhing,” and “ahhhing,” through the bedroom door, suspecting all sorts of naughtiness in the dark, he never considered that his son could be pouring over a cookbook between the sheets.
But that was the childhood of British food celebrity Nigel Slater, as poignantly, if unevenly, told in the film Toast, which opened in select theaters over the weekend. Slater hasn’t quite made a name for himself on these shores of Jamie Oliver proportions. He is a one-time chef who went on to write about food for Marie Claire and other outlets before penning the memoir Toast: The Story of a Boy’s Hunger and becoming a regular on the BBC. This adaption of his book was first aired on the British television.
As a coming of age story produced by the BBC, Toast effectively hues to many of the conventions of the genre: charming set pieces, tensions with daddy, budding sexuality (of the same-sex variety), and lots of drab spouts of rain. Where it stands out is in its depiction of food.
Nigel’s love for eating and cooking was, as depicted in the film, spawned from the inabilities of his ailing mother. Her back-up meal was toast, which Nigel relished, in favor of her usual boiled canned foods. One of Nigel’s last meaningful encounters with his mother was her attempt to make good on a promise of making mince pie with him. But even that resulted in failure.
Indeed, food is a source of as much sorrow, as it is joy for the young Nigel, who after his mother passes away, tries to become the cook in the family. But after a mishap with a smoked haddock, it becomes clear he has a lot to learn. Mrs. Potter, the cleaning lady, happens to be a whiz in the kitchen, and she soon finds her way to Nigel’s father’s stomach and heart. (Helena Bonham Carter plays Potter, turning out yet another one of her cracking, comical performances. Next to the food, she is the film’s brightest spot.)
As an arms race of cooking abilities heat up between Nigel and his stepmum, Nigel hones his skills in the kitchen, eventually perfecting a lemon meringue pie. I’ve never been a fan for the sweet myself, so it’s a testament to the production values of the film, and the food styling by Katharine Tidy, that the pie looks like heaven on earth.
The presentation of the food — from hams to Shepherd’s pies to cakes to pasta — is consistently delicious, waxed in nostalgia and impeccably shot. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for the storytelling. Director S.J. Clarkson and Billy Elliot screenwriter Lee Hall can’t quite find a consistent tone, cluelessly skipping between sorrow and whimsy. And every film needs tension, but is Mrs. Potter really all that bad? Nigel seems to think so. But their relationship is never fully realized.
Still, we’re food lovers here, and Toast is brimming with tea and sympathy for a childhood obsessed with food. Some dishes that are half-cooked are still worth tasting.