A Former Hospitality Professional's Thoughts on The Menu
When I'm not a writer and a musician, I am an accountant, but I began my career as a food & beverage buyer in the hospitality industry. I've never actually cooked on a line, save for a few days slinging french fries at one of my workplaces to get accustomed to the pace of the restaurants I bought for (according to the General Manager I was quite good!), but I've spent a lot of time in kitchens and around chefs, helping them to source the best ingredients they can to achieve their culinary visions and provide their guests with a special, unique gastronomic experience.
I've also seen firsthand what the politics of a kitchen can look like. The structure of a traditional professional kitchen - le Brigade de cuisine - was developed by Georges Auguste Escoffier, one of culinary history's most important chefs and also one of the codifiers of French haute cuisine. The system is based on his experience in the French military and is extremely structured, hierarchical, and rigorous. The professional kitchen's roots being derived from the French military explains why the head of a kitchen is known as the Executive Chef. Chef is French for "boss" or "leader." In extremely formal kitchen environments, you never refer to the Executive Chef by their name. They are always “Chef.” When Chef gives an order, if you are in his or her brigade, you respond immediately with "Yes Chef!" (or if you're really hardcore, "Oui Chef!") to acknowledge them and to show your respect for their authority over you.
Chefs and cooks work hard, live hard, and because of the stress of their job, they tend to party hard, too. Anyone who has read Anthony Bourdain's seminal book Kitchen Confidential - the book that made him a culinary and literary star, which pulled back the curtain on the reality of life in a restaurant kitchen - knows this. But as time has gone on, it's clear that that way of life can be very toxic. One study I read recently stated that chefs are nearly twice as likely to be addicted to alcohol and drugs (especially cocaine) as the wider population. Sexism, sexual harassment, and sexual assault are rampant, as it is still a very male-dominated industry (the booze and coke certainly don't help). Bourdain, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, before his untimely suicide in 2018, wrote an essay on Medium condemning his former colleagues Mario Batali and Ken Friedman in light of their multiple allegations of sexual harassment. He concluded by stating: "To the extent which my work in Kitchen Confidential celebrated or prolonged a culture that allowed the kind of grotesque behaviors we're hearing about all too frequently is something I think about daily, with real remorse."
Oh yes, and suicide. Bourdain was long out of the kitchen when he sadly took his own life (and the circumstances of that action had nothing to do with being a kitchen veteran - so to speak), but he is sadly not the first or the only chef to commit suicide. Chefs are 9% more vulnerable to suicide than other professions. In a 2017 survey, 51% of people who worked in kitchens confessed to extreme stress, anxiety, and depression. An organization called Culinary Hospitality Outreach and Wellness (CHOW) was founded in 2018 by John Hinman, a baker in Denver, along with food writer Alexandra Palmerton, to provide a safe space for culinary professionals to connect and find access to resources to help address career-related mental health and substance abuse issues. (If you work in a kitchen and are struggling, check them out - they are doing amazing work.)
Alongside these basic, hard truths about the reality of kitchen culture, the rise of television cooking shows - not your gentle, charming Julia Child-PBS fare, but high-octane cooking competitions like Top Chef, Iron Chef, Hell's Kitchen, and other modern shows about the restaurant industry like Kitchen Nightmares (the British version is far superior to the American version, for the record) and Bar Rescue - has made the average restaurant diner more aware of exotic ingredients, new recipe trends, molecular gastronomy, best customer service practices, and immersive dining "experiences" that are just as much about the room you're in and the people you are dining with in addition to the food you eat.
As a result, the scrutiny on a chef - especially one in a famous, white-tablecloth establishment - can be harrowing. The restaurant industry is perilous - food costs are high, alcohol costs are higher, staffing is difficult, restaurant critics are ruthless, and customers are fickle. One bad review from a critic can be the difference between being heralded as a genius or having to close down your establishment. And of course, the COVID-19 pandemic also had disastrous effects on the restaurant industry, for obvious reasons.
It's a hard life, being a chef, (that's probably the understatement of the century) and Mark Mylod's film The Menu (released on November 18th), mixing the genres of horror, thriller, satire, and farce, throws all of the worst aspects of this career choice into stark relief. Chef Julian Slowik, played by Ralph Fiennes, owns and operates Hawthorne, a restaurant on a private island where every night he hosts an extensive, multiple courses, highly conceptual menu to a group of 12 guests. The guests have to take a ferry to reach the island, reservations are nearly impossible to book and require several months' lead time, and you probably need to set up a separate savings account just to set aside money to pay the bill. In real life, fancy, elite, and ambitious restaurant experiences like this do exist: Chef Ferran Adrià used to keep his restaurant elBulli open for only six months a year, spending the rest of the year perfecting recipes and concepts for the next open season (elBulli sadly closed in 2013. It's a tough industry, even for a celebrity chef), and ChefJosé Andrés owns two restaurants: minibar in Washington DC and é in Las Vegas, that serve prix fixe menus of small courses to only 9-12 diners at a time.
elBulli, minibar, and é are all obvious inspirations for Hawthorne, but the team at Hawthorne really turns things up to 11. The sous chefs, line cooks, servers, and sommeliers all live on the property in quarters adjacent to the restaurant, smoking meats in a custom smokehouse on site, sourcing fresh seafood from the water surrounding the island, and the chefs spend hours developing recipes and executing dishes under the guidance, mentorship, and iron hand of Chef Julian while his devoted Maitre d' Elsa (Hong Chau) manages the front-of-house team. (Chef Julian has his own separate home on the island.) The Hawthorne team devotes every aspect of their lives to the success of the restaurant. Elsa has the additional task of performing background checks on their customers in order for the chefs to tailor each night's meal specifically to the mix of guests in-house. If Chef Julian's tight ship in the kitchen is unsettling (the way he claps his hands to signal his team to snap upright in formation from their positions on the line takes the notion of the military-inspired kitchen brigade to a disturbing extreme), Elsa's FOH management is also creepy, as she polices the behavior of all of the guests in the room, keeping everyone in check and threatening to dismiss anyone for breaking the established rules - for instance, not allowing anyone to photograph the food for Instagram, which Chef Julian feels eliminates the mystery and mystique of the Hawthorne experience. (I won't lie, he's not wrong...)
Anya Taylor-Joy does a spectacular job as Margot, the only skeptical diner during one fateful night's seating, sparring with her date Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) over his obsequious fanboy obsession with Chef Julian. She mocks Chef Julian's pretentious explanations of his food creations and the fussy, over-tweezed presentation of each course, calling out the other guests for blindly accepting the inherently ridiculous (and frankly bizarre) atmosphere of the entire evening. Ultimately, she makes the point that a less "elevated" dish created with simple high-quality ingredients and true passion for the act of cooking (instead of performative culinary grandstanding) is almost always a more satisfying meal than any food manipulated with liquid nitrogen or other science-y techniques to appear to be something it's not in the name of an "experience." Chef Julian, on the other hand, is able to suss out who she really is (she was not the original guest Tyler intended to bring to the restaurant that evening, which fundamentally affects the meticulously curated meal), and therefore, her position as an outsider to this specific subculture of foodies allows her to learn his insidious plan for the night's seating - and makes her a threat… or perhaps an ally.
I do not want to give away what happens. It's too good, too wild, and too funny to spoil, especially to anyone who is familiar with kitchen culture and the nuances of the elite fine dining experience. I was laughing audibly when I watched the film in my local theater, filled with memories of my younger days pricing out exorbitant menus at an upscale resort and searching for ways to save money on ingredients during the recession without sacrificing quality, as well as remembering some of the chefs I met who struggled with the stresses with that lifestyle. Despite the humor, the film is also thematically very heavy, and it really struck a chord with me. I watched it with my boyfriend, who has had a long career in hospitality finance but hasn't spent nearly as much time in kitchens with chefs as I have. He thought the farcical humor of the plot was overly silly, bordering on the absurd.
But that is exactly the point of The Menu - it points out the absurdities of what fine dining culture has turned into, and shines a bright spotlight on the psychic toll it takes on chefs with regard to mental health and sexual harassment. That spotlight is bright, jarring, and very shocking in places. The film has been advertised, on television and in its trailer, as a horror film, but it's not; it's a very dark satirical farce masquerading as horror, and the farce only serves to underscore the actually quite serious topics it is addressing about life as a culinary professional.
Many would read what I wrote above about the film to be "overthinking" it (including my lovely boyfriend). Come on, Reeya. It's a quirky horror thriller with a lot of gallows humor! Not everything has to be a political statement about mental health and the safety of women! Not everything is about how social media can be a destructive force! It's Ralph Fiennes playing an eccentric chef! Creepy stuff happens! Can't we just leave it at that?
No, we can't. Or at least, I can't. This movie is trying to do a lot more than just provide jump-scares and comically overwrought monologues about the emotional and spiritual meaning behind an epic salad presentation. If you like jump-scares and absurdity, there's plenty to enjoy here. If you like stacked casts (the film also features appearances by Judith Light and John Leguizamo as fellow guests along with Fiennes, Taylor-Joy, and Hoult), you won't be disappointed. If you like beautiful art and costume design, drink it all in, folks. It's a gorgeously shot and lit film, eerie, ethereal, and brutalist. But if you know kitchen culture - if you've seen it, lived it, or experienced it, in any way - this film will make you laugh; it'll also punch you in the gut. One scene in particular, featuring Chef Julian's cruel dressing down of his executive sous chef, literally left me breathless.
On a broader scale, if you consider culinary art to be akin to visual, literary, and musical art (which I do) and you identify as an artist, there will be aspects of this film that resonate with you too: The idea of chasing fame and debasing yourself in the process. The ugly reality of how marketing and publicity have mostly become about gaming social media algorithms. The idea of perfectionism - letting the perfect be the enemy of the good - and how it can destroy your creativity and your passion. At one point towards the midpoint of the film, when it became clear what Chef Julian was up to, I was reminded of a moment during Season 8 of Top Chef, when late in the competition, the contestant (and eventual winner) Richard Blais, the resident molecular gastronomy expert, puts up his latest meal in response to the weekly challenge, leans against his prep station looking like he might cry (or puke), and says, "I hate everything I make."
"No, no, no," fellow contestant Tiffany Derry tells him. (They were all used to his neuroses by that point.) "Don't do that. We don't have time for that right now."
"But it's true," he replies weakly, "It is."
That's the plight of any serious artist on some level, isn't it? And it's what drives Chef Julian to carry out his diabolical mission for the night.
This is a weird little movie with a lot of thorny big things to say. Go watch The Menu. You'll laugh, you'll gasp, you'll bite your nails… and you'll never look at a restaurant meal the same way again.
Reeya is a musician and writer based in NY's Capital District. Her debut album The Way Up was released on January 27, 2022. She can frequently be seen in her car on the NYS Thruway cursing traffic on her way to the Hudson Valley for band rehearsals or to Brooklyn for recording sessions. In her other life, she works as a staff accountant for a management company that oversees veterinary practices nationwide, enjoys watching Law & Order SVU returns while eating gummy bears, and has a film degree from Vassar College that she does not use.