Writer/director Petra Haffter first visited Palm Springs in 1981, on a publicity tour for one of her films. She moved to Los Angeles from her native Germany not long after, and she often enjoyed getaways to the desert—even though the area, she says, had lost most of its former Hollywood sheen.
But that turned around—Haffter credits the arrival of gay couples with dual incomes and “great taste”—and a few years ago, she bought a house and moved to the Coachella Valley full-time. She’d planned to move here after retirement—she and her partner continue to commute to Los Angeles for work—but she decided to make the leap in part because of the area’s enthusiasm for high-culture elements like film and architecture, and its commitment to abundant and diverse cuisine.
“First of all, I’m a filmmaker. Second, I’m a foodie,” Haffter said in an interview.
When she moved to the desert full-time, she knew she wanted “to do something for the community, giving back with the experience I have—and the experience I have is filmmaking.”
She set out to develop an event “that includes dinner and a movie, but not as it usually is—connected to a festival or short event.” She found a partner in the Palm Springs Cultural Center, which produces the Certified Farmers’ Markets that operate at three locations across the valley, and happens to occupy the classic Camelot Theatre building, with its three screens and full restaurant and bar.
Thus, Culinary Cinema was born. The monthly series, each pairing dinner by a local chef with a food-related film on the third Wednesday of the month, launches Aug. 21 with the 2014 movie The Hundred-Foot Journey, directed by Lasse Hallström and produced by Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg. Helen Mirren stars as proprietor of a Michelin-starred restaurant in a small French village who goes to battle when an Indian family opens a competing establishment across the street.
“It’s one of my favorites of all time,” Haffter said. “It deals with two of the major cuisines of the world, French cuisine and Indian. So I thought it would be a very good entrée, to show that we are embracing diversity, and that we are accepting everyone at our table.”
Following each screening, guests will enjoy a dinner inspired by the accompanying film. The venue for the post-screening dinner will vary; for the inaugural event, the dinner will take place on the Camelot Theatre stage, prepared by Chef Daniel Villanueva of Daniel’s Table.
“I thought for the very first one, it would be great when the film is over, as the curtain is closing, that we have this long table there, and we just can come have a glass of champagne and then walk to the table like we’re a family,” she said.
Family is a recurring theme in the films that have been announced thus far. September’s selection will be the German film Mostly Martha, about a bullheaded chef whose orderly life begins to unravel when her young niece is suddenly placed in her care. Chef Teresa Attardi is known for her authentic family-style Italian food, which guests will enjoy after the screening at her Palm Springs restaurant, Il Giardino.
In October, private chef and recently repatriated Coachella Valley native Amanda Escamilla will bring her farm-to-table approach to Mexican cuisine to accompany the 2001 comedy-drama Tortilla Soup, about three sisters and their aging father, a veteran chef slowly losing his sense of taste.
In November, the Vietnamese film The Scent of the Green Papaya (described in a press release by the Cultural Center as “so placid and filled with sweetness that watching it is like listening to soothing music”) accompanies a dinner by chef Chad Gardner at his restaurant, 533 Viet Fusion.
The international scale of the first four selections speaks to another theme Haffter hopes to infuse into the Culinary Cinema program: travel. After starting out in feature films, Haffter spent the better part of the past decade directing documentaries around the globe—an experience she values while acknowledging that for many people, extensive travel is not possible. But Haffter thinks some elements of foreign cultures can be imported through food.
“What is really original to a country is the taste of it,” she said. “Food means embracing the entire world.”
Tickets to the initial screening are free, and will cost $10 in the following months, while screening-and-dinner packages will cost between $85 and $120. Haffter is grateful for the early support of local businesses—Savory Spice, Hot Purple Energy and Ferguson Bath, Kitchen and Lighting Gallery are sponsors—and hopes that others will follow.
“When local sponsors believe in us and help us, then the price (can) go down, and that would serve the people,” she said.
Haffter said she’s happy the series is beginning in August, generally considered the quietest month of the year in the Coachella Valley.
“It may be a little risky, but we want to proclaim we’re not doing this just for snowbirds,” she said. “We are doing it for the Coachella Valley. We are doing it for moviegoers; we are doing it for foodies; we are doing it for people who want to travel without traveling.”
Culinary Cinema kicks off at 5:30 p.m., Wednesday, Aug. 21, with a free screening of The Hundred-Foot Journey. After the film, a dinner prepared by Chef Daniel Villanueva will take place, and costs $120, at the Palm Springs Cultural Center, 2300 E. Baristo Road, in Palm Springs. For tickets or more information, visit palmspringsculturalcenter.org.