If you are anything like me, it’s no doubt that you will find yourself lost in the Netflix streets trying to find a show that’s worth watching without wasting time from the hundreds of shows already showing. After all, the streaming service introduces new shows and movies every day.
African upbeat music in the background switching to a dramatic countdown, eggs whisked, oil heating, bananas chopped. Pancakes with fruits and fresh cream have been served and the judge says they are good but it was done with a pinch of salt.
“Seeing myself on Netflix, I have to punch myself every day. Like, is that really me?” asked actress Tendaiishe Chitima, star of the first Zimbabwean feature film acquired by the streaming pioneer.
“Cook Off” was shot in 2017, just months before the fall of Zimbabwe’s despotic ex-president Robert Mugabe, whose iron-fisted rule brought the economy to its knees.
The romantic comedy had a meagre starting budget of just $8,000.
“It was not like a luxury shoot where you have your own trailer and you are big on wine,” said 29-year-old Chitima, sparkly-eyed as she recalled the experience from her parent’s house in Johannesburg, South Africa.
“Everything was very minimalistic. We had to get things right the first time or the second time.”
Chitima plays main character Anesu, a single mother too busy making ends meet to pursue her passion for food… until her son and grand-mother sign her up for a reality cooking contest.
The movie starts with our main character Anesu cooking for her son; Tapiwa who is timing her and preparing her for the “Battle of the Chefs” but Anesu is not confident enough even though the people she sells food to compliment her cooking. The next scene shows typical Zimbabwean or rather an African family setup, the judgemental know-it-all “aunt” being her mom and a supportive dad and grandmother. Anesu is quite supportive of her son but she feels her big dreams remained just that. Her mom and son get her a set of knives and join the competition on her behalf. Anxious the next day, she manages to get off from work early but gets to the auditions late. Is this the end for her?
Something happens between her and the guy in the reception, nothing serious but just a spark so we call him Mr Sparks for now. She gets squeezed into the auditions and she has to make something with an egg. It’s intense, dramatic and the chef’s comments were confusing but Anesu felt good about it. Two weeks pass, her friend and Tapiwa keep assuring her that she did well. Whilst attending to customers, a call comes in from the Battle of Chefs…
Congratulations and celebrations are sung for her and we are taken behind the scenes the making of the show where we find out that Mr Sparks’ name is Prince and he is part of the show. The show has 16 chefs and Tapiwa has already picked who should be eliminated first. Her grandmother keeps encouraging her and invalidating the negative comments passed by Anesu’s mom.
The show has started shooting and Anesu is late and she bumps into her son’s father; Jacob who turns out to be married to one of the contestants; Milly-Ann. Prince and Anesu have a vibe but Milly-Ann tries to create tension with Anesu but it seems other contestants see-through Milly-Ann. If you have watched chopped or master chefs or like cook shows then the scenes that follow will make you wonder if Anesu is getting eliminated in episode 3 of Battle of the Chefs. Prince walks away from Anesu in disappointment and Milly-Ann adds salt to the wound.
Who knew cutting carrots could be so romantic as Prince agrees to help Anesu with her cooking and Tapiwa thinks they are dating. Anesu strains her relationship with her boss and her usual customers defend her cooking when one lady tries to mock her cooking. Anesu’s mom still dislikes the path Anesu has taken and Anesu doesn’t appreciate Prince randomly visiting her. Episode 5 of Battle of Chefs leaves Milly-Ann breaking things on set as karma police kicks her out of the show and Anesu first. However, her boss fires her for being late for work.
Milly-Ann pays off a contestant; Ophelia whilst Anesu is being Radio interviewed. Prince and Anesu have a date and Tapiwa spills the beans to Anesu’s friend; Charmaine. The dinner ends with Prince rushingly kissing Anesu and we are shifted to Anesu’s mom feeling proud of her daughter after her friends give good compliments about her performance on the show. Prince tells Anesu not to hold back of they go against each other
Semifinals have started and out Ophelia gets access to her phone after lying that she needed the toilet. Anesu’s grandmother, Tapiwa and Charmaine watch the show and Ophelia accuses Anesu of cheating. Anesu is embarrassed on live TV but no one believes that she was framed. Prince doesn’t believe her either and as if things couldn’t get any worse, she gets mugged. Tapiwa believe her but the papers have printed it already, Anesu’s mom avoids her friends and something catches Prince’s eye at the bar.
A pep talk from a musician lifts Tapiwa’s spirit and he doesn’t give up on his race even though fellow contestants try to spite him. Ophelia develops a guilty conscience and sets Milly-Ann up with Prince’s help. Prince apologies to Anesu and breaks it to her that the show wants her back in front of Tapiwa and Charmaine. The radio ambushes Milly-Ann who seems to be losing her husband who realised he can never have Anesu again.
Would you give up your place for someone you love? Bar customers chose the cooking show over soccer and Anesu’s mom watches the show by herself. A pompous and overconfident Chef discredits everyone’s efforts and we are left sitting at the edge waiting for the results. Did she win or she just proved to be an amateur chef?
I won’t ruin the results for you so fast forward, to the dinner table which has Prince and Tapiwa talking a lot. Anesu finally confronts her mom and light is finally gets shed on their unresolved issues.
Cook-Off is not your typical Rom-Com that is produced with an all-star lineup and a $50 Million dollar budget. For a movie that was done on a tight budget that could barely cover water for actors on set, the Zimbabwean movie managed to show that budgets do not really matter as long as you have a good storyline and a dedicated team. Netflix saw the potential made it available to its more than 100 million subscribers.
I found the movie really appealing, it reflected on some issues that are mostly stereotyped. It touched on how much pressure is put on single mothers, the perception single mothers have when going back into the dating scene, how at times knowing someone can easily get you an enemy. It also shows how easy it is to strain a relationship unknowingly especially mother-daughter relations. The movie gives hope, shows how easy it is to give up but most importantly shows that not all dreams come on your timeline. I love how it shows how one can get hurt by love and also fall in love without trying so hard. It exposed that love is sacrificial and how those sacrifices grow and develop partners. I really wanted to see their wedding though but overall they produced a movie that’s worth repeating.