The film, Cooking with Stella, is a comedy, set in New Dehli, about a young, naïve, Canadian embassy family and their relationship with Stella, their cook. Stella has worked with Canadian embassy families for the last thirty years and is trusted by all. The film juxtaposes the lives of those struggling to rise above poverty in New Delhi with the privileged lives of diplomats who ‘drop in’ for a few short years.
The family of three consists of Maya, the diplomat, Michael, her house-husband and their baby. Michael is a chef who had worked for the Canadian Governor General in Ottawa before heading to New Delhi. He asks Stella to be his culinary guru and help him expand his palate and repertoire by showing him how to cook ‘real’ Indian cuisine. Food and cooking are key metaphors in the film. They represent the spiciness of Stella’s life and the fact that she is always cooking up a scam. For her, cooking is a means of making a living and provides a conduit into her other activities. For Michael cooking is an ideal, it is an opening into another exotic culture.
There are many scenes of Stella and Michael, in the big family kitchen, chopping fresh vegetables of all colours and shapes, deboning meats and fish, adding ingredients to searing oils in large frying pans and enhancing tastes with brightly coloured spices. There are also scenes of Michael, ever the new age chef, artistically plating the prepared foods as if he were being filmed for The Food Network. The rich visuals are balanced by the decisive sounds of chopping, pouring, stirring and sizzling. The sense of smell is supported by the visuals and the scenes of Michael inhaling the scents of the exotic dishes he is preparing with Stella’s help. The viewer is in that kitchen with the two of them, living that culinary experience.
While the Canadians’ trust in their cook is absolute, Stella is actually doing more than cooking their meals. In reality, Stella is cooking up schemes for her black market business, selling foreign products which she has lifted from the family’s duty free supplies – liquor, packaged food items, disposable diapers, etc. She boasts to the young Hindu nanny, “For them it is duty free, for me it is fully free!” She also has kick-back scams with local merchants when she takes Michael grocery shopping and pretends to get the ‘best price’ for him.
When Stella hatches a plan to ‘make a killing’ at Michael and Maya’s expense, she fakes her own kidnapping and asks for a ransom of $20,000; the Canadian ambassador counters the demand with a reward of $40,000 for information leading to the arrest of the kidnapper. Stella ends up cooking in prison for two years because she cannot resist the temptation. She asks the nanny to betray her so that the two can split the reward money after she completes her sentence.
It is in the kitchen that Michael and Stella come together and share some common ground. However, Michael never quite gets the taste right. Stella is the expert chef and she can manoeuvre the underground black market world as easily as she slices and dices her way around the kitchen. He thinks he is experiencing this mysterious culture, but, in fact, he cannot rise above his own naivety as symbolized when he delivers the ransom money in a diaper bag.
There are many twists and turns in the film which entertain the viewer and point to the Stella’s overall shrewdness in controlling her environment. The sensory representation of her culinary practices shows how vibrant and diverse that environment really is.