On ‘The Menu’
What does it mean that chefs in movies now are shown to be broken?
This contains spoilers for The Menu, which is streaming on HBO Max if you’d like to watch it before reading, as well as Boiling Point and Toscana (Netflix).
The last couple of years have seen a surge in movies where a chef character is not a rock star but a broken man. As a critic of the chef ideal in food culture, I’ve welcomed this. I will watch any movie or TV show where a fine dining chef becomes disillusioned and seeks redemption, either through more “homey” fare or full immolation of the self, the audience, the restaurant.
While I’m not qualified to tell you whether a movie was good or not—though while a teenager picking a movie out with friends at 112 Video, I was told I couldn’t choose because I thought “like a critic,” which is to say I was an English major—I can discuss this common thread, in which a chef breaks down and must reckon with the realities of fine dining: its pressures, its absurdities, its predictable clientele. This is a new food culture, where the chef is not speaking from on high but is just some guy who knows that what people really want is not going to be put on a white plate with tweezers. It’s the end of food as concept and the recollection of food as nourishment.
At least in the movies, namely The Menu, Pig, Toscana, and TV’s The Bear. A cheeseburger. A foraged mushroom tart. A risotto. An Italian beef. These are the recipes for the soul, redemption, transformation. Women, in these worlds, are still side characters—we’re not killing off that kitchen trope too quick!—who push the Great Chef toward their epiphanies. In Pig, the women aren’t even alive, yet they are significant, and the film’s best scene is the ex-chef, now-forager character of Nicolas Cage telling a former protégé what a failure he is for opening a fine-dining restaurant rather than the pub he had once dreamed of. (I realized this whole trope while discussing the film with Matt Haugen for his Terrain podcast, on movies with ecological themes.)
In Toscana, a great man of New Nordic cuisine finds out his long-estranged father has died and left him a villa in Tuscany with a failing restaurant. He comes to find its worth after making a grilled eggplant sandwich and a risotto with red wine, a departure from his father’s recipe, which includes white. He could sell the villa to pay for his dream restaurant, a clear rip-off of Noma, but instead chooses the calmer life in Italy. In The Bear, a once-promising fine dining chef takes over the family’s Chicago sandwich joint; at the end of the season, he learns he can realize his dream restaurant—we have to wait for season two to see whether this spot acts as successful a bridge between his worlds. (I think it’ll be the prime narrative tension, of course.)
The Menu, to me, was rip-roaringly funny for how precise it was in its parody of a restaurant and chef that had aspects of Noma, Willows Inn, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Eleven Madison Park, Alinea, and surely many more, as well as its takedown of all the “types” who go to these kinds of places. (When they get agitated over the lack of bread… excuse me, but: chef’s kiss.) That it spirals into violence and terror, with wish-fulfilling class rage at the fore, heightens the absurdity of this kind of allegiance and obsession. The obnoxious “foodie,” the clueless rich people, the name-droppers, the investors, the sous-chef who will never be as good as he wants to be—it’s satisfying to watch it all be rendered so meaningless. Recognized as meaningless.
These are different from a movie like Boiling Point, where a chef has substance abuse issues and at the end of a particularly bad shift, decides to change for the sake of his family (the off-screen wife made to bring a message to his son) before a collapse. There’s no real redemption, no real promise; that would go against the tone of the film, which is aggressive, nonstop tension that seeks to emulate the feeling of an important kitchen shift. The point is the grueling nature of the job-as-beast; it cannot be fixed.
The box-office success of The Menu ($69.8 million with a $30 million budget), despite poor critical reception, is fascinating to me: I’m always wondering how much everyone really knows about this fine-dining world, how interesting it can really be to people who don’t pay endless attention to it despite finding it to be a bit silly. Is it Chef’s Table fatigue? (Is this shift why Chef’s Table dedicated the last season to pizza?) Missing Anthony Bourdain? Why do people want to see what is essentially a horror movie about the dangers of seeking fine-dining perfection? Is it that we want to watch the rich burn while we eat a cheeseburger, off to the side, having known all the while this kind of food is bullshit?
It’s meaningful, too, that the cool restaurants now are not fine dining, in the chef-y sense, at least not from my vantage point: They’re Jupiter, serving pasta, and Lord’s, an English bistro, in New York. They’re wine bars with a well-curated, homey menu. It’s Superiority Burger, which predicted this whole thing years ago, returning soon (we hope). What comes after the chef? Food.
This Friday’s From the Kitchen dispatch for paid subscribers will include a coconut-almond cake with coconut glaze that uses up one whole can of full-fat coconut milk with none left behind. See the recipe index for all recipes available to paid subscribers.
Nothing! I’ve been working on my class, mainly. I’m open to assignments, though!
Culinary Capital by Kathleen Lebesco and Peter Naccarato and Foodies: Democracy and Distinction in the Gourmet Foodscape by Josée Johnston and Shyon Baumann. This service Perlego has been saving my ass without public library access.
Nothing special. Above is the go-to every vegan and ex-vegan knows very well: salad and fries. The oven fry recipe went out to paid subscribers last Friday.
Preorder my forthcoming book, No Meat Required: The Cultural History and Culinary Future of Plant-Based Eating, out on August 15.