A very tasty inclusion to this year’s L.A. Film Festival was Director/Producer Gabriel Taraboulsy’s documentary film with Tastemade, “Funke.”
Although at the center of the film is Chef Evan Funke, handmade pasta maestro of Felix Trattoria and son of Oscar award-winning Visual Effects Director Alex Funke, this documentary is largely about the struggle of the Los Angeles restaurant business—making the balance between art and business, navigating L.A. Building and Safety red tape, courting fickle restaurant patrons, keeping up with the culinary landscape as a whole, and working the scary math throughout.
But tucked within is also a beautiful film about the art of pasta making and Funke’s sincere love and appreciation of handmade pasta. Taraboulsy goes deeper than the honing of skill or the mastering of the dying art that is handmade pasta. He takes us with Funke through his process, watching him work magic with semolina, eggs, and human will.
“Funke” follows Chef Funke through his reflections on his movement from his time with Wolfgang Puck at Spago, through to the collapse of his restaurant Bucato with then business partner Ed Keebler, to his partnership with Janet Zuccarini to open Felix on Abbott Kinney.
Featured commentary by Chef and Restaurateur Nancy Silverton (chi SPACCA, Pizzeria Mozza LA, Osteria Mozza), Eater LA’s Farley Elliot, Vinny Dotolo of “Hell’s Kitchen”, Executive Chef Lee Hefter of Spago—who puts Funke within the “1% of the best chefs to come out of his kitchen”—and more, lend a sympathetic and keen perspective on the ever-evolving and fast-growing L.A. Food scene.
Funke himself and his willingness to bare and expose the failure of his first restaurant is both heartbreaking and eye-opening. From an outside vantage point, Bucato looked to be a success in its prime Culver City location. But the events that lead to its very sudden closure are murky, including how that closure relates to then-business partner Keebler, who simply “disappears” and never speaks in the film—a fact that may be due to potential or ongoing litigation. Sadly, however, the film does not elaborate—a singular issue. The event, however, signifies toward a turning point in Funke’s life and career.
“I’ve been through so much fucking shit the last two years, I’m lusting after the moment when I get to begin. When I’m allowed to begin.” – Funke
Where the film excels in is in its focus on Funke’s passion, his sincere desire to create and make innovative pastas, feature them unique dishes, and make it before our eyes.
In a return to Italy, Funke refreshes his skills, reconnects with his learned culinary background and his pasta maestra,
The film is filled with sensuous scenes of Funke kneading pasta dough, working the “mattarello” and the rolling, slicing, pinching and molding to form a wide variety of shapes of fresh pasta—much as he does live in the Felix “Pasta lab.”
“The culinary archaeology associated with pasta is my life’s work,” said Funke, during a scene in his pasta lab.
The Trofie pasta with a pesto sauce and dusted with cheese, or the Pappardelle blanketed with a rich looking Ragu Bolognese. Although the film is an honest and bolder look into food creation and the business of food—not a typical association with the Tastemade brand—these are the images that brought Tastemade to the documentary filmmaking table.
Included are glorious scenes of traditional pasta making by the maestra and other pasta “mamas,” as they have done for over 40 years just as casually as if they were knitting socks. A craftsman works on a Mattarello—a long, slender rolling pin for creating the thin-until-sheer sheets of pasta—a tool Funke personally treks to Italy to courier back to the U.S. in order to avoid warping or damaging in shipping. Yes, he’s that serious about his craft.
But Taraboulsy also zeros in on how painful process opening a new restaurant can be—from idea conception, property purchase, and renovation nightmares, to permits, inspections, shutdowns, and opening day jitters.
“I’ve been through so much fucking shit the last two years, I’m lusting after the moment when I get to begin, ” said Funke. “When I’m allowed to begin.”
At the core is Funke’s partnership with Zuccarini and the opening of their restaurant Felix within Abbott Kinney’s bustling restaurant scene. Although a successful restaurateur in Canada with Gusta 54, Trattoria Nervosa, and Gusto 101, Zuccarini’s tangible nervous apprehension during the process and Funke’s frustration over last-minute restaurant inspections and staff mishaps give a palpable tension to the film.
Aside from overall design and menu concept, Felix also centers around a stand-alone temperature controlled “Pasta Lab”, an extension of the kitchen and a literal fishbowl view of pasta making in the center of the restaurant that is key to Funke’s own vision. Made clear is that the lab would take up valuable patron real estate within the restaurant. Funke, confident in his wish to bring the art of his pasta front and center, shares from experience that such a risk will either work or fail. In this, both Funke and Zuccarini take that risk together.
Issues of gentrification and the restaurant business in L.A. are touched on. However additional perspective is given through the highlighting of a disturbingly long list of recent restaurant closures in Los Angeles, including those of landmarks like the Formosa of 92 years, Trader Vic’s of 62 years, Marie Callender’s of 52 years, and the Border Grill of 26 years, outlining just how precarious a thread the restaurant business is on and how such failures are affecting local real estate.
Although history already speaks, the film’s suspense rests in its cross-hair aim at that fine line between success and failure, and brings us along on this partnership’s wild ride toward the opening of Felix.
Coming out of the film, if you ever wanted to open a restaurant in Los Angeles, you may change your mind. What you will come back with is likely an improved appreciation for the hospitality industry, empathy for the L.A. restaurant business as a whole, and a deep longing for a hot plate of fresh pasta. Go ahead. Treat yourself.