The Menu Review: Chef’s Kiss–of Death

Don't see it on an empty stomach!

If restaurants with small portions and big prices are your jam, then The Menu is the movie for you. It’s a food-on-film buffet with a dark edge. Restaurants like Hawthorne, run by Chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), are all the rage these days in the age of Michelin star chasing Instragrammer foodies. Folks might cough up $95 for a deconstructed Caesar salad, but it’s really just lettuce chucked on a plate when you look at it. However, experiential dining is an acquired taste. For those of us who like it, there’s admittedly a giddy thrill to a four-hour immersion in culinary artistry and wines paired with scientific precision. There’s a lot more to a good meal than simply filling up.

The Menu smacks its lips and skewers up a satirical look at the out-of-control mania of foodie culture. It is wickedly funny as it serves an array of dishes one could never whip up at home. That’s the art of Hawthorne, though: Chef Slowik invites guests to his exclusive island from which all ingredients are sourced. That means tickets are $1200 a pop for the four-hour meal. (With a boat ride and tour of the island on top!) Dining at Hawthorne is therefore only for serious foodies and exclusively for the wealthy.

It’s posh enough that Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) had to book so far in advance that he had time to get dumped and find a replacement dinner date. Cue Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) who lacks her date’s enthusiasm and palette. Tyler loves the oyster served with seafoam, algae, and whatever that they’re offered en route, but Margot admits that she prefers just a plain ol’ oyster. For folks like Margot, the spectacle of haute cuisine is bullshit of the highest order.

 

Guests on the Menu

Chef Slowik serves course upon course of piping hot, immaculately crafted bullshit throughout the evening. There’s a scallop—just one!—plated beautifully atop a rock from the island, garnished with herbs, weeds, and nearly frozen droplets of seawater. It’s the ocean in a forkful. Then there’s a breadless bread course, which really rankles Margot. It’s obscenely pretentious, almost patronising with its invitation for guests to soak up oil, butter, and tapenade with no bread.

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The other guests include the Lillian Bloom (Janet McTeer), the food critic who put Slowik “on the map”; an actor (John Leguizamo) with ambitions to be the next Stanley Tucci; a trio of dudebro bankers (Rob Yang, Arturo Castro, and Mark St. Cyr); a wealthy married couple (Reed Birney, Judith Light) whom Margot recognizes; and Chef Slowik’s mother (Rebecca Koon) who doesn’t eat a single bite, but guzzles wine as if she’s auditioning for The Lost Weekend. The lack of bread sounds an alarm for many, although Lillian tut-tuts a shoddy emulsion on the platter. Like the ingredients, the guests are sourced to perfect the evening’s menu. As Chef Slowik introduces each dish on the menu, the night presents itself to be an unexpected experience.

Writers Seth Reiss and Will Tracy structure the story beats with the courses on the menu. Title cards introduce each dish and its ingredients. They’re drolly tailored to the tone and lingo of haughty high-end eateries. As the night becomes more sinister, the dishes show creative juices flowing. This night serves the meal to end all meals, and the courses become increasingly inspired.

 

Satire with a Side of Blood

The satirical bent of The Menu allows Mylod to go big when he wants to, but smartly lets the tension simmer. The writers intuitively find tasting notes for all sorts of ills—capitalism, narcissism, sexism—that fester in the stew of the haute cuisine world. There are smatters of violence and dashes of blood, yet the tone of the film, like the dishes that flow from the kitchen, reflects a chef’s discipline. It’s sinister and sharp without overdoing it. As Chef Slowik says, if they burn anything, it’s intentional.

It helps, too, that the ensemble cast tucks in with gusto. Fiennes anchors The Menu with his stern, self-serious taskmaster chef. Everything in Slowik’s composure—he runs his restaurant like a drill sergeant—feeds upon the joy of cooking. He embodies the coldness of fine dining to perfection. Taylor-Joy, meanwhile, makes Margot a worthy foil for the master chef, while Hoult seems to have a lot of fun embodying intolerable influencer types who feed on status and likability, but lacks any appreciation for what makes great art. Around the restaurant, McTeer brings an acerbic sense of comedic timing to sharpen her critic’s chops. Hong Chau, meanwhile, is a scene-stealer as the head of service. Like Fiennes, she’s deadpan funny playing the cold, calculated host fixated on perfection. The Menu gives each actor a moment to chew the scenery and the cast gobbles it up.

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The Menu has all the right ingredients for a cutting black comedy. It is deliciously funny eat-the-rich cinema. Foodies especially will savour this slice of escapism that lets diners be the object of the joke, while also getting a laugh from it. Satire that inspires us to laugh at ourselves? Chef’s kiss.

 

The Menu is now playing in theatres.



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