Monday 23 January 2023

The Menu

In the documentary series Chef’s Table, each episode portrays a singular chef. The best episodes travel far, and provide insight into how history, culture and politics shape the dishes of the chefs, and how concerns about the environment and access to food systems beyond industrialised production influence what ends up on the plate. Mark Mylod’s The Menu references Chef’s Table – Nicholas Hoult’s Tyler has seen the (obviously fictional) episode starring Chef Slowik many times – and it uses the same techniques when filming the plating of the dishes, presenting them in a way that resembles tiny landscapes, befitting of Slowik’s description of some of them as entire ecosystems. 

Chef Slowik’s restaurant Hawthorn is the epitome of exclusive. Only twelve guests are served each night, the restaurant is on a privately owned island that can only be accessed by boat, the tasting menu is prohibitively expensive. Tyler and his date Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) arrive at the harbour, Tyler vibrating with excitement and obsessive enough about what he is about to experience to correctly identify that they will be sharing the experience with famous food critic Lillian Bloom (Janet McTeer), while Margot, trying to sneak a smoke, seems like an outsider from the start, unlikely to be swayed by the event and not very impressed by the bits and pieces that Tyler tells her (and not very impressed by Tyler’s insistence that she stops smoking so as not to destroy her taste buds). 

Like Chef’s Table, the illustrious guests – a rich couple (Margot recognises the husband), three finance bros who are exactly as you would imagine them, a movie star over his peak – are introduced to the environment that informs the dishes they will eat, although their interest varies. Chef Slowik sources his ingredients from the island, has his own smoke house, bee hives, goats. It’s the kind of ultra-local cuisine that is en vogue, but also demands a kind of responsibility and attention to detail that appears to be beyond these particular guests. 

And then service starts. I think it would have been interesting if The Menu had been promoted as a film about food, with even fewer hints into what was eventually going to happen – the best way to see it is to know nothing, and to slowly come to realise that this is a horror film along with the guests, who are slowly acclimatised to the idea so that when it hits them, it’s already too late. They could have maybe guessed earlier, like when they see the cramped and minimalistic staff dorms, but in light of what they have paid for this exclusive experience, it just seems befittingly eccentric that they appear to have no space to themselves, and never leave. Slowik introduces his dishes like artworks, interwoven with ideas about history and deep reverence for the ingredients. He implores his guests to taste, not eat – this is not the kind of food that is meant to truly nourish anything except the mind. It’s food as art – Tyler, later, talks about it as art made with the ingredients of life itself, more authentic and true for its proximity to death (how close, we’ll soon find out). 

 The second course, Chef explains, is the bread course. Bread, historically, is the food of the common people, and nobody who could spend this much money on a tasting menu is common, therefore, the guests are only served tiny drips of accompaniments. It is the first direct hit Slowik delivers – opting for a tasting course in a restaurant means, to an extent, giving up choice, and everyone here is now at his mercy. It causes outrage, as Hawthorn is famous for his bread, and the absent bread is introduced in all its glory, rare obscure grain and all. The finance bros demand it, in a deeply satisfying interaction for anyone who has ever worked in customer service – Hong Chau Elsa’s absolute “no” cannot be bargained with. The conversation reveals that they work – for, not with – the angel investor of the restaurant, and therefore feel powerful – but all their power comes to nothing. 

The only irritation for this immaculately planned dinner is Margot, the surprise guest. It’s clear from the outset that each guest is intimately known here – in a later course, the tortillas are laser-imprinted with the guests’ sins (Tyler’s are photos of him transgressing the “no photos” rule again and again) – but Margot is an unknown quantity, a last-minute substitution for a different date. She makes Slowik uneasy. It all escalates, truly, with the fourth course titled “the Mess”, which is introduced with the suicide of sous chef Julian, a man who bought into the dream and found it empty. It is a moment so horrible and out of the expected that some of the guests assume that it is a dramatic, but staged, death, but any hopes for that disappear when Richard, the rich husband, attempts to leave and loses a finger in the process. It becomes clear that nobody will leave alive, that chef despises each of them. Richard, for example, has dined in this exclusive, once-in-a-lifetime restaurant eleven times, and cannot recall a single course – the greatest crime, beyond the specific ones (making a disappointing film, being privileged enough not to be burdened with student loans, the very existence of the breed finance bro), is being served something exceptional, and then forgetting about it as if it were nothing. 

I’ve been thinking about this argument since viewing the film, because it is interesting to consider Chef Slowik either as the traditional horror movie villain who has transgressed rationality – some of the hatred he has for his guests is petty (it is difficult to see what Judith Light’s Anne has done wrong, beyond being married to a horrible man), other arguments hit something deeper, a question about how any art can be produced with dignity, without loss of self, in an environment where everything is commercialised and whoever has the money to finance it has the power to determine its content (the angel investor is killed, dramatically, setting Slowik free from his bounds, for the crime of thinking that having put money into this venture gives him absolute ownership over it, and turning these chefs and cooks and staff into puppets). Slowik thinks of the world in dualistic terms – there are those that dine, and those who cook, the privileged and the shit-shovelers who cater to them, and he is insist that this is an important distinction even in death when he tries to categorise Margot, who doesn’t quite see how it makes a difference when the outcome, in the end, is death (but then, food is ephemeral also, and only exists to be eaten in the end). Margot, it turns out, is actually Erin, a sex-worker, whom Tyler, who knew what was going to happen, recruited because there are no tables for one. She has her own horror stories about finding out about the depth of human depravity in her job. Her position becomes liminal, one of the workers but still seated with the diners. The men are given a (doomed to fail) chance to escape, perhaps mainly to demonstrate to the female diners how willing they are to abandon them – ultimately, they are returned (in one of the few genuine laugh out loud moments in the film, the last one to be found is crouched in a chicken coop, and received a complimentary Passard Egg course). Tyler is punished for his many faults, the main of which is the hubris to think that knowledge about the workings of the kitchen means he can be, genuinely, elevated above the other guests – he is asked to cook in front of everyone, and, trembling, serves a horror-course of badly chopped, under-sautéed leeks and raw lamb, after which the chef berates him about destroying his art and sends him off to fall on his sword. 

Margot, now part of the staff, is sent off to retrieve a barrel, and kills Elsa (delightful Elsa, RIP), who is jealous of her promotion (a mystifying course of events, truly, the greatest weakness of the film is that so many stories aren’t told, as if the staff, who have chosen death also, are interchangeable while the diners are individuals). She enters Chef’s living quarters and figures out the magic words to escape – here he is, young and happy, making a burger, the kind of food that is both affordable and nourishing, crave-able. Margot has not eaten, she is still hungry, and she orders a traditional cheese burger. Chef makes it, and looks, for the first time this evening, happy and fulfilled. It’s a kind of reverse Ratatouille, but also a strange thing to unpack in this film – is this an argument against elitist art that has obsession but not love, for art that is accessible and greasy, dripping with melted American cheese? Margot takes one perfect bite, and then asks to take the leftovers home with her. She is allowed to leave, because she has solved the puzzle of Chef’s discontent, has found the place in this personal history where he took the wrong turn. From a boat off the course, she watches as the final dessert course comes to fruition and the guests become human s’mores, appearing to finally have given into their fate, or become exulted by the idea of being a literal part of the Menu. She eats. 

2022, directed by Mark Mylod, starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Fiennes, Nicholas Hoult, Hong Chau, Janet McTeer, Paul Adelstein, John Leguizamo, Aimee Carrero, Reed Birney, Judith Light.

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