Occasionally, it is necessary to convene a conversation between Vulture writers to discuss an important and timely issue in culture. Sometimes, however, we must call for reinforcements — so we got Grub Street writer Chris Crowley and former New York restaurant critic Adam Platt together to discuss what The Menu gets right about the world of very fine dining.
In Mark Mylod’s viciously delicious dark comedy, the world of interminable, ridiculously priced tasting menus, high-minded diners (and critics), and egomaniacal chefs gets its comeuppance. The film follows a food-obsessed diner named Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) and his date Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) on their journey to Hawthorne, a destination restaurant located somewhat menacingly and realistically on a private island in the Pacific Northwest. The chef is Julian Slowick (played with malicious delight by Ralph Fiennes), who’s assembled a cultish crew of kitchen slaves for this dinner, along with a rogues’ gallery of the usual suspects — assorted plutocrats and insufferable tech bros, haughty editors and critics, a C-list food-show host played by the excellent John Leguizamo — who inhabit the upper .01 percent of the restaurant world.
The Menu unfolds the way all great meals do, course by course (including specials like “Tyler’s Bullshit”), and the filmmakers enlisted a team of real-life professionals, including San Francisco chef Dominique Crenn and food stylist Kendall Gensler, to consult on Hawthorne’s parade of overwrought foams and preciously rendered ingredients. Does the movie’s bleakly comic finale ring true to our resident fancy-meal experts?
Chris Crowley: There is one question I would really like to ask you first. You ate at one of the Noma pop-ups —
Adam Platt: I’ve eaten at several of them, actually.
CC: You’ve been to more of these places than almost anyone else has. Did you ever feel like the chefs at these restaurants were going to hunt you?
AP: Did I ever feel like I was being hunted? Not really, but many things about the movie ring true even as comedy: the clueless pretensions of the diners (I know because I was one), the ego of the chef, and his cultish crew. Restaurant movies are tough to do as a rule. It’s hard to get the tone right. It’s too affected, or inaccurate, and, basically, who gives a crap? But recently there have been good restaurant movies and shows, maybe because the generation of people making them are obsessed with all things food. The Bear was great, and I thought this was great too in its send-up of this stilted form of dining. I mean, you could still imagine being served these dishes during the course of some endless tasting menu.
CC: Yeah, the scallop dish served on a rock with all the different plants from around the island — the foraging is very Noma, the architecture of it. Just the other day I saw a tweet: “once again I am begging restaurants to stop serving food on rocks.”
AP: All of the characters were parodies of a certain kind of character that you see haunting the world that I no longer occupy. Fiennes was excellent as the chef, Julian Slowik. Everything that he talks about — the high pressure, the pretension, this priesthood — essentially, this is a movie about a personality cult, and anyone who’s gone to Noma or El Bulli has to say that they’re personality cults too.
At the high end, the chefs are like fighter pilots. They got giant watches, they got giant egos, nobody’s fat. They’re crazy detail-oriented. They have these teams that will literally run into fire for them, to a certain extent. They are philosopher kings. They’re like high priests of their own religion.
CC: They mention in the movie that his restaurant was featured in the show Chef’s Table, which is the ultimate example of this stilted presentation: There’s classical music playing, all the talking heads are fawning over the chef’s genius. The adulation obscures so much about them, doesn’t allow for a complete picture of them. They’re artists to worship. The plot of The Menu was a clever way to make use of the class issues and resentment in these high-end restaurants.
AP: Somebody who was a guest in the class I teach at NYU, they used the phrase when describing a certain brand of upscale-food writer: “a journalist for the 1 percent.” And of course, it’s totally accurate. If there was ever a journalist for the 1 percent, it’s me.
This style of dining is something that’s taken off in the last ten years. And I’m on record of not being wild about that whole culture. The high-priest chef, who’s actually usually a lot nicer than Fiennes, with the open kitchen and the chants of “Yes, chef!” Everyone’s moving in unison and everything’s choreographed. I thought the way they broke down the movie in courses, the way they presented you with the menu and like, “This is this is this” — that was pretty good. I was entertained.
CC: Yeah. I could tell.
AP: Maybe it’s because I’m out of it. Maybe because I’ve left that world behind. Now I can look back and chuckle and say, “Thank God. Thank God it’s ended.” Most people in my world, most critics, don’t like that style of dining. I’m not going to say it’s not fun. I’ve been to Noma. It’s fun. It’s also faintly ridiculous and you’re aware of that while it’s going on. You’re aware of being swept up in this kind of theater. You’re almost trapped in it.
The critic, Lillian, played by Janet McTeer, who views herself as almost on par with the chef — she was awesome.
CC: What did you like so much about her?
AP: She was funny. I don’t know many critics wandering around like that, although even the most well-intentioned restaurant critic finds themself falling into parody now and then. The critic is part of the system and supporting the system. They’re creatures in that rarefied lagoon.
CC: Do you feel like there is a derision towards critics and criticism in the movie?
AP: Sure, and why not? The fact is that critics create these restaurants to a certain extent. There was a little bit of that in Chef. There was a little of it in Ratatouille, and in this film you had a little bit of the madness of your favorite movie, Midsommar, thrown in. I felt like they were going to all get eaten, frankly. I think the intent of the filmmakers was they should all die. They’re all reprehensible.
McTeer plays a very old-fashioned kind of critic: Somebody who knows the chefs, who takes an almost maternal, paternal view of them in nurturing their careers. Somebody who likes to show up at their restaurants and eat free. When you get into these fancy, glossy magazines, you’re not a daily critic, you want to perpetuate these restaurants that you want to be in your magazines.
CC: One thing I feel they were trying to skewer the customers for was that none of them think about the fact that there are human beings involved in all of this, and how much they’re being asked to do. It’s dark comedy, but it’s rooted in the sacrifice that the service working class is expected to make to the benefit of —
AP: That’s true, but let’s be honest. Nobody is in those fancy restaurants involuntarily. For one, every single applicant is there willfully. But it’s a bit of a nutty system. It’s more like the Adam McKay view of the world, which is, “Let’s just turn things upside down. Nobody’s paying attention, they’re all a bunch of idiots. Let’s open people’s eyes a little bit.” The writers must go to these restaurants a fair amount. They clearly had the psyche of those places.
CC: I just didn’t like the part with the cheeseburger. At one point, Taylor-Joy’s character, Margot, is sneaking around while sent to fetch something for the kitchen. In Slowick’s house — which is off-limits even to his staff — she sees a photo of him as a beaming young man with great hair, from his early, innocent days as a hamburger cook. He looks so happy in that photo, in complete contrast to his dour demeanor in the movie’s present. So when she returns to the dining room, she asks Slowick to cook her a cheeseburger, which he does. He just wants to make her happy — he’d noticed that she’d barely touched her food — but this also makes him happy. That to me felt like just the most rote decision they could’ve made. This is just a goofy trope in the world of fine dining: “Chef who wants you to spend $200 on elaborate meal actually thinks simple cheeseburger is better than anything he does.” You know, the way Thomas Keller talks about In-N-Out.
AP: It looked good, though.
CC: I worked in restaurants for a brief period of time. My brother is a chef. I meet a lot of these people. I do think there’s an aspect of resentment that’s baked into the job. What is the mental toll that it has on someone, to devote their life entirely to this group of people that they feel don’t actually care about them — and don’t care so much about the craft as just being able to pay for it? I’m not saying that’s the only feeling. People want to do this. But this is a thing that people in the restaurant industry talk about, especially cooks: hating the customers.
AP: That’s the genius of it. All the ingredients are there. Kitchens are, generally, a difficult, repressive, high-pressure environment. Even if it’s the best restaurant in the world. And they all have one guy in charge. Oftentimes it’s a man, and oftentimes that man is a bit of a lunatic in his uniquely obsessive way.
CC: Why don’t you think anyone has made a movie like this already?
AP: Parodying it is almost too easy. But when you mix it with the whole murder, suicide, chaos, dark-madness thing, it gives it another dimension of entertainment that it makes it all much more watchable, much more interesting. I said during the screening, “These people all deserve to die.”
CC: You also said, “That’s me and I deserve to die.”
AP: Yeah. “That’s me and I deserve to die.” I have to say I don’t go to those restaurants anymore. It could be that I have a little bit of pent-up aggression and anger toward that whole bullshit experience.
CC: Did you ever wish that a chef would have just murdered you?
AP: No. Nor did I ever wish that I hurt the chef. But when you factor in the costs, and the travel, and the level of pretension and preciousness — I mean, of course it’s insane.