Synopsis: Disgruntled chef gives his wealthy clientele a piece of his mind. (Streaming on HBO Max and Amazon Prime as of February 2023.)
Ralph Fiennes’ Chef Slowik runs Hawthorn, a very high-end restaurant where he aims to provide diners with a once in a lifetime experience. Well, more than once in a lifetime, if they can afford it.
The Menu‘s release happens to be roughly contemporaneous with the announcement that Chef Rene Redzepi’s famous New Nordic haute cuisine Noma, heralded as the world’s best restaurant, will be closing in 2024. Redzepi came to the conclusion that ultra high-end dining with extremely time intensive preparations (like little fruit leather beetles) was an unsustainable business model. Diners paid roughly $500 for a prix fixe meal. Not even thirty or so unpaid interns (called stagiaires) could keep the coffers full.
The Menu‘s chef has come to a similar conclusion about sustainability– mostly for seemingly selfish and possibly psychotic reasons. Reasons that won’t be revealed until well into the movie. At first Chef will be passive aggressive and then aggressive to a very particular seating of clients.
What food does Chef prepare for his wealthy clientele? Well, dishes like scallops arranged on rocks, and a bottle of wine gleaned from a single vine of grapes. Diners, and haute cuisine critics, are enthralled with his concepts (longing and regret for one course) and theater (staff arrange branches around a plate/floor). Back to Noma for a sec…
Noma was first situated in Copenhagen, Denmark before being re-located nearer to Freetown Christiana (a long-running hippie commune) where it would be adjacent to its own produce farm. The menu was seasonal, for example highlighting locally caught seafood in the winter.
The movie Chef’s Hawthorn restaurant is on an island (beach scenes were filmed on Jekyll Island, Georgia, USA). The menu items are fished, slaughtered, foraged and gathered there. The dozen or so staff must be hard-pressed since, after farming and preparing foodstuffs all-day, they then need to prepare everything in a kitchen that is in full view of the patrons. I bet Chef’s investors don’t offer a retirement plan to the overworked employees either.
The Menu’s action begins slowly as guests wait at a mainland dock for the boat that will take them to the island for their dinner seating. Front and center is the always excellent Anya Taylor-Joy, she of the entrancing preying mantis eyes. The actor is Margot, the not-rich date of Nicholas Hoult’s rich Tyler. While the movie is interesting, Hoult’s role is not; he’s just an entitled guy who stans Chef. Janet McTeer and Paul Adelstein are, respectively, revered (and feared) restaurant critic Lillian and her sycophant, Ted. John Leguizamo is a washed-up B movie star who brings along his personal assistant, Felicity (Aimee Carrero). Rounding out the cast are an older couple, arrogant Richard (Reed Birney) and his longsuffering unnamed wife (Judith Light). Ugh, I almost forgot– there are three youngish, newly-minted tech millionaires (not all tech peeps are billionaires).
With the exception of Anya’s Margot, the other diners’ characters are paper thin. But Anya and Ralph Fiennes are beguiling as they match wits and wills during the course of the dinner. Just like in all seven hours of The Queen’s Gambit, Ms. Taylor-Joy carries every scene. Meanwhile, seasoned actor, Mr. Fiennes, has a light and steady touch as Chef; similar to his turn in The Grand Budapest Hotel.
The Menu digs into the horrors of rentier capitalism with a vengeance. And Chef has many an axe to grind with its extremely greedy practitioners. He also–cue the dark humor–has a number of petty axes to grind.
When the diners are ushered into the restaurant and the presence of Chef, the only person who seems unimpressed is Anya. She gives off a jaded vibe; we suspect she’s been mistreated by the rich in some service capacity.
Chef doesn’t like his staff. He drives them mercilessly, expecting perfection and obedience. So, yes, typical restaurant work environment. It’s clear that Chef also doesn’t like his customers. How do we know this? Well, besides the haughty froideur that he exhibits while enumerating rules (eg., no food photos) and announcing course themes, he has a bread course with no bread. This is cruel.
The tech bros complain to Elsa (Hong Chau) the maître d’hôtel who gives them a firm NO. Chef explains that bread is for the common man and no one present fits that description. Except for, possibly, Anya’s Margot. When she slips away from her table to have a palate-destroying ciggie in the restroom, Chef intercepts her: You weren’t supposed to be here. Turns out she was a last-minute replacement date for Tyler’s ex. But why does it matter? Why indeed…
One of the early courses are tortillas–yum! But these tortillas are threatening because they are personalized with photos and receipts exposing each person’s dirty/ criminal secrets. Meek rebellions are anticipated and quelled by Chef and his harried/brainwashed staff. Sorry, tech bro. No hurled chair can be effective in smashing the windows for an escape. Longsuffering Rich Wife tries flattery after a spoonful: I usually don’t like foam. (Kudos to Judith Light who comes close to pathos with her line interpretations.) Ok, let’s take a break, because The Menu is pretty heavy. Just like with food, even cinema’s high-end offerings can be nausea-inducing….
Have you ever wondered what it’s like to work at Olive Garden? I have. After all, it’s America’s answer to the question: What would happen if we could deconstruct Italian food into an inauthentic Italianate food experience–at midprice range?
You see, I wouldn’t want to be confronted with Noma’s high bill, nor–as a vegetarian– would I appreciate having Reindeer Heart Tartare foisted in front of me. And, three Michelin stars or not, I will pass on the Moldy Egg Tart as well. But Olive Garden? Unlimited soup, salad and breadsticks, people!
Roaming the internet, the general consensus from servers seems to be that Olive Garden is an okay place to work if you have a good manager. But what of the Olive Garden chefs and sous chefs (not pastry chefs though, because the desserts are shipped frozen to the many locations)? Tis a mystery; nary a chef seems to have whispered online of the Olive Garden chef’s way. But the company claims that, pre-pandemic, select staff were annually brought to Italy to train. Sure, let’s read some notarized testimonials. Back to the movie…
The Menu convinced me to stay away from pricey island restaurants whose only population is a maniac chef and his culinary henchmen and henchwomen. Better to go somewhere with Never Ending Dipping Sauces for their unlimited breadsticks with a garlicky, buttery ever-so-salty coating.
P.S. Please note trigger warning for suicide depictions. The movie has moments of gore related to assault too. And if you are phobic about capes made of marshmallows–look away!
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