The Lowdown: The Menu

by 24britishtvNov. 19, 2022, midnight 14
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The story of a ‘fearsome celebrity chef’ you say… this isn’t the long-awaited Marco Pierre White biopic​ is it?​

Sadly no. In fact, most mentions of that film appear to have been mysteriously expunged from the internet. No matter, though, because in the meantime we have The Menu​, which follows Ralph Fiennes’ fictitious uberchef Julian Slowik.

What’s it all about then?​

Slowik’s restaurant, Hawthorne, is set on its own island; has a loyal in-house brigade that are seemingly all happy to bunk together in their own staff barrack; serves just 12 guests a night; and charges £1,250 a head for dinner, presumably without drinks - which doesn’t sound all that implausible given the prevailing dining trends. Set over a single evening, the film follows as a group of diners – including a trio of affluent tech bros, a famous food critic, a washed-up actor and an overly enthusiastic foodie – are invited by Slowik to experience his magnum opus: a multi-course tasting menu where every dish is served with a side order of increasingly sinister moral decadence.

A little different from dining at The Fat Duck then. Is it any good?​

It’s certainly intriguing, although those hoping for a shrewder satire of the fine dining world may find that it lacks real flavour. On its surface it’s a somewhat tonally inconsistent black comedy; a pulpy horror that starts out cynical before descending into violence as the guests begin to realise that this dinner may well be their last. The comparison with The Fat Duck is an astute one, though. The Menu​ is arguably at its best when skewering the pretentious nature and overly elaborate execution that’s considered to be a cornerstone of many high-end restaurants. Like Blumenthal, Slowik is a molecular gastronomist. “Do not eat,” he demands of his guests as he introduces his menu, instead asking them to “taste, savour and relish”. As the film progresses, each dish is accompanied by its own title card in a way that’s reminiscent of Netflix’s popular Chef’s Table​ series, which Fiennes apparently studied prior to shooting the film. They include ‘The Island’, a dish of foraged plants, manila clam and seawater served on a bed of rocks (pictured below), which leads Janet McTeer’s food critic to exclaim “we’re eating the ocean” without even a hint of irony.

We’ve seen several high-profile screen examinations of the restaurant world in the last year or so, how does The Menu ​compare?​

Those expecting a propulsive, visceral journey into the heart of a relentless restaurant kitchen will find themselves much better served by the likes of Boiling Point​​​, the Stephen Graham-led British thriller that was released earlier this year; or US TV show The Bear​ on Disney+, which follows a young chef who ditches the New York world of fine dining to take over his family’s grubby sandwich shop in Chicago. In contrast, The Menu ​isn’t all that interested in the real-world realities of working in a restaurant kitchen; although it does take a swipe at the cult-like status afforded to many of the industry’s top chefs, as well as touch on topics including the industry’s poor record on sexual harassment in the workplace and the financial assistance given to businesses during the pandemic. What holds it together, ultimately, is Fiennes’ Slowik who, in the film’s best moments, makes for a thoughtful character study of a high-calibre chef who has grown weary and resentful of the world he inhabits professionally, and specifically the vain clientele he almost exclusively has to cater for.

What’s with the sudden interest in restaurant-focused dramas?​

The world of restaurants and restaurant kitchens have always been a reliable source of drama and tension in film and on the small screen. Sometimes the results are great – the likes of Big Night​, Chef​, Ratatouille​, and Pig ​to name but four - and sometimes less so – the less said about Burnt​, the better. It’s a world often inhabited by big egos, and that consistently requires serious skill and precision delivered at speed. Mistakes can lead to mutiny; just look at how often teams turn on each other during an episode of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmare​s; a series that regularly reposts old clips on YouTube and garners hundreds of thousands of views, despite the fact the show is no longer being produced. It’s an exciting and addictive environment, both for the chefs who inhabit it and the viewers who watch it.

Any recommendations for restaurant-related films I may have missed?​

Absolutely. For those happy with subtitles, seek out A Taste of Hunger​, an intelligently told story of a Danish couple who sacrifice everything to try and ensure their Copenhagen-based restaurant earns a Michelin star. And if you have Netflix, then you can’t go far wrong with Uncorked​, which follows a young oenophile in Memphis who’s torn between wanting to pursue his dream of becoming a master sommelier and following his father’s wish for him to take over his family’s BBQ restaurant. We’ve all been there.

The Menu is out in cinemas on 18 November​​

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