"I stayed there the entire day. The only time I wasn't allowed to film was during the lunch break, which was a shame. All the employees sat amidst their creations and ate the food they had brought, which looked exactly like the imitations all around them. You could almost imagine one of them biting into a wax roll by mistake."
-Wim Wenders, Tokyo-Ga
Wim Wenders' made the documentary Tokyo-Ga in 1985 as an homage to Ysujiro Ozu's narrative film Tokyo Stories. He uses the same slow style as Ozu, pausing at several different spots in the city, from a nondescript park, to a pachinko parlor, to a wax food factory, letting the common moments unfold to help describe Tokyo city life.
In the wax food factory, we see the process of making a "sample meal" or "sampuru." These models are displayed in restaurant windows to illustrate the menu and entice customers. Restaurants can either buy food elements à la carte or commission specific dishes to be made. Custom-made dishes command high prices for the craft involved. Each element of the dish is cast in gelatin, then wax models are poured, painted, decorated, and plated to create the finished model.
Surprisingly, it is not dissimilar from cooking. Watch the sequence beginning at 4:32 of the tempura shrimp being dipped (or fried) in a batter of wax; a dish of noodles being warmed in the oven to help them take shape on the plate; and a sandwich layered with bread, slices of meat and lettuce before having the "crust" trimmed off by a hot knife.
Kappabashi street in Tokyo is the hub for restaurant supply and the epicenter for this fake food distribution. While traditionally made in wax, many pieces are also now made from sculpted polyvinyl chloride. On the list for our next trip!