The New York Food Film Festival: Florent, Queen of the Meat Market

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The guests eagerly await entrance to the venue. [Photographs: Leah Dougas]

This past week saw the first events of the Fourth Annual New York City Food Film Festival. On Thursday, I checked out the world-wide premiere of Florent: Queen of the Meat Market, a new documentary from director David Sigal. The film profiles famed NYC restauranteur Florent Morellet, whose eponymous restaurant in the meatpacking district transformed the neighborhood during its nearly 25 years of operation. The screening was attended by dozens of Florent's nearest and dearest—leading to a fun event that felt like a friendly party rather than a film festival.

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The evening was hosted by the hilarious Murray Hill (center).

Before the film began, the Food Festival's head chef, Harry Hawk, talked about the night's menu. Featuring boudin noir, hamburgers, French fries, and goat cheese salad, the menu paid tribute to some of restaurant Florent's best dishes. Chef Hawk described the mission of the Festival menus as such: "We want you to be able to eat what you see on the screen." I smiled; this was a movie screening for me. Florent himself also got up to give a short speech, thanking his "adorable" director and pleading with his friends to stop asking him to open a new restaurant. His effervescent grin and halting English lent to his undeniable charm—he was the portrait of a successful restauranteur.

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Festival director George Motz, Chef Harry Hawk, film director David Sigal, and Florent himself.

So, onto the film. Restaurant Florent opened in 1985, when the meatpacking district was still, well, full of meat. The streets reeked of butchery, and the neighborhood was somewhat unsafe and shady. But Monsieur Florent only saw opportunity. He opened a 24-hour diner in an area devoid of any retail businesses, and soon it exploded with clientele.

Openly gay and proud, Florent welcomed people of all shapes, sizes, and preferences into his diner. Soon, the restaurant became known as a gathering space for edgy, intellectual, and exciting individuals. Throughout the movie, ex-staff and customers of the restaurant named dozens of influential people who had dined regularly at the small diner. It was inspiring to hear about the overlap of ideas and cultures that could converge in such an unlikely neighborhood of the city.

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There was a huge crowd for this screening.

Florent was also known for his advocacy efforts. After being diagnosed with HIV, he began raising awareness of the disease and became a model of how to live and thrive even in a culture that was terrified of his condition. He also promoted political activism, almost always using his restaurant advertisements as a place for tongue-in-cheek campaign boosts or issue spotlights. Florent's restaurant was more than just a place for dining. His staff and patrons were his family, and everyone felt comfortable and welcome.

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The facade of the always-packed restaurant. [Photograph: moriah. on Flickr]

Interestingly, though Florent is from France originally, he seemed to have little interest in transplanting French cuisine through his restaurant's menu. While there was admittedly little mention of food in the film itself, commentary before the film and shots of the dishes throughout the film implied that Florent was more attached to a traditional American diner concept than a French bistro. I was expecting more discussion of the food in this film—but it was also fascinating to watch a documentary about a restaurant that revolutionized the concept of a restaurant. And as well as being an institution in itself, this little restaurant made the meatpacking district a destination—and led to its transformation into the nightclub-filled land it is today.

This film was touching and memorable. It didn't tell the restaurant's story in an especially linear way; instead, the emphasis was on preserving the stories and emotions of the restaurant's lifeblood, its clientele and operators. Tear-jerking, hilarious, and profound, Florent: Queen of the Meat Market is a success of story-telling. It is an appropriate homage to a man with such a profound legacy in New York in the past 25 years.