On The Menu (2022): The Authority of the Chef, Accompanied by a Breach of Trust

 

by Philine Schiller 

The Menu

The chef claps once, and the room falls silent. The chef gives an order and his cooks, in perfect unison, exclaim “Yes, Chef!”. Structure is the order of the day, and the mise-en-scène seems perfect. The chef exudes authority and competence, and the guests trust that their high-end restaurant experience will be a spectacle. “The Menu,” (2022) a horror-satire movie about the fine dining industry and the people entangled in it, offers a compelling study of the relationship between the chef and the restaurant’s diners, and the ways in which imperative authority is created and upheld – sometimes to unreasonable lengths. It also critiques the high-pressure work environment of the professional kitchen, and the capitalist system it thrives in and suffers under, by examining the figure of the chef as both celebrity star and service worker. As showcased by the movie, these complicated relations produce destructive powers, through which the characters must navigate by adhering to or refusing the ritual conventions of the dining room.

The movie’s premise is straightforward: The story centers on an exclusive dinner in the high-class restaurant Hawthorn, secluded on a little island where only Chef Slowik and his crew, as well as twelve selected guests – the most stereotypical manifestations of high-end restaurant diners – will be present:

“drooling one-percenters have each dropped $1,250 to wrap their gums around Slowik’s fabled tasting menu. Among them are a star-struck foodie […] and his last-minute date, Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy); an arrogant restaurant critic […] three odious tech workers […] and a fading movie star […] hoping to pitch a culinary travel show. All except Margot have been carefully chosen, and all are about to become players in Slowik’s elaborate opera of humiliation, self-loathing and revenge” (Catsoulis 2022: NYT Review).

The Menu progresses along the structure of the tasting menu itself, and the viewers are guided through the experience of beautifully crafted dishes along with the diners. As the courses are served, however, the menu descriptions turn increasingly mocking: compare the amouse bouche “cucumber melon, milk snow, charred lace” with course number two, “Breadless Bread Plate – no bread, savory accompaniments,” and the final course “S’More – marshmallow, chocolate, graham cracker, customers, staff, restaurant.” The atmosphere turns exceedingly threatening, finally culminating in mass-murder and/or suicide.

 

The Breach of Trust

The illusion of an ordered dinner is irrevocably shattered with the fourth course, called “The Mess,” in which sous-chef Jeremy Louden commits suicide in the middle of the dining room as a part of the course itself. Although in uproar, some diners still hold on to the idea of spectacle – surely it is all part of an act, a well-choreographed move in the ritualistic dance of chef, diner, and restaurant. Ritual is essential to social co-existence and commonality, and thus also a key component of a restaurant visit: “What does ritual do? […] ritual—secular or sacred—binds groups together, ensuring their harmonious functioning by generating and maintaining orders of meaning, purpose, and value” (Stephenson 2015: 38). As represented in the movie and in real life, ritual aspects of the dining experience include a well-rehearsed social script, established order of both hierarchies (between chef, sous-chefs, cooks, waiters, guests) and procedure (the progression of courses), as well as clearly situated identities (service laborers versus diners). Regarding the ritual aspects of the dining experience, food scholar Gwen Hyman points out in her essay “The Taste of Fame: Chefs, Diners, Celebrity, Class” that “the rituals of the formal dinner reinforce the sanctity, the magic, of the chef’s food” (Hyman 2008: 49). This ritual structure also makes the guests trust in the chef’s authority – even when he serves them a bread course without bread. “The truly high-class diner, the dining room narrative implies, knows enough to trust the chef, eats ortolan and sweetbreads, never turns away a strong-smelling cheese or an offering of offal, exquisitely prepared. His ability to eat such food is a marker of his discernment.” (ibid. 48) This inherent trust even leads the diners in The Menu to try to deny the death they have just witnessed in front of their eyes. Even when it becomes apparent that the suicide was not an act, the guests submit to “Chef,” who wears the title like a name and who is used to unquestioning obedience. Rightly so, for when Chef and his staff tell the people to calm down, the guests sit down and wait for the next course. “This is what you’re paying for (…) this is an exclusive experience,” (The Menu) he tells them. Even in a non-murderous setting, the chef (and his entourage) and the diners are entangled in a power struggle – what Hyman calls a “dining room discourse of control” (Hyman 2008: 47). In the over-the-top staging of the movie, this relationship becomes pointedly obvious and overdramatized. As Hyman explains: “The diner is, it seems, always at the mercy of the danger and horror of the restaurant – and the more he seeks out the celebrity power of the chef, the greater the abjection he risks” (ibid. 49f). Both power struggle and abject horror are major themes in The Menu. As the situation increasingly escalates and turns more violent, it becomes apparent to both the characters and the viewers that no one is supposed to leave the island alive – which, finally, they don’t, apart from Margot. The celebrity power of the chef drew the guests to Hawthorn, but it also destroyed the chef’s sanity. The chef as a calculating, murderous antagonist who breaks under the pressure of his own profession serves as an ironic commentary on the contemporary state of the fine dining industry, and the figure of the genius chef in general.

The Chef

Tyler, who embodies the cliché of the conceited foodie fanboy, neatly represents contemporary attitudes towards the chef as a genius and a rockstar. “You know how people idolize, you know, athletes and musicians and painters and stuff? Yeah, those people are idiots, what they do doesn’t matter […] chefs, they play with the raw materials of life itself, and death itself” (The Menu). The chef as a celebrity figure today attracts more fame and popularity than ever before. People now care about who cooks their food, not just on a level of skill and qualification, but, notably, of personality and para-social connection. The “story of the celebrity chef is the story of how we construct ourselves in public through food” (Hyman 2008: 43). Movies about chefs and fine dining, apart from being mere entertainment, perform the function of granting readers access to the spaces of high culinary art, where only few can enter. Recent highly successful restaurant-centered series/movies like The Bear (2022) and The Menu (2022) are a case in point. “A key role in the creation, maintenance and enhancement of the celebrity chef status in a westernized context has been played by the Hollywood movie industry (Wright, 2015), further underlining the blurred line between performer and chef” (Giasmololouglou 2020: 2). The relation between performer and chef is also apparent in The Menu, where kitchen and dining room are part of the same space, and the diners can watch their dishes being prepared. The restaurant as a stage very much resembles a theater: “the emergence of celebrity chefs and their ‘open kitchens’ has introduced the public to the ‘backstage’ (Goffman) of professional cooking, whilst conferring an element of glamour into the occupation” (ibid. 4). Goffman’s 1959 conception of front and backstage human behavior (i.e. how we perform when we are observed vs. when we are not) draws on his performance theory: “In their capacity as performers, individuals will be concerned with maintaining the impression that they are living up to the many standards by which they and their products are judged” (1959: 251). Chef, as a performer of his role, crosses the line between front and backstage not only literally but also in the sense of Goffman – perhaps even to the point where he can no longer distinguish between his selves: his profession envelops his sense of self until nothing else is left.

The idea of front and backstage performance is further complicated by the literal back and front stage of the Hawthorn restaurant, which also serves as a class boundary. While the whole room is a stage where all the participants act out their situated ‘frontstage’ identities, the service workers are in the back and the guests in the front. The dining room is understood as a “realm of class production” as exemplified, i.a., by the “contrast between the seated diner and the rushing waiter” (Hyman 2008: 47). Margot, who is later revealed to be a service worker herself, finds herself having to choose where she wants to belong. Chef tells her: “In order to proceed, I have to know where to seat you. With us, or with them […] the question is, do you wanna die with those who give, or with those who take?” (The Menu). Margot finally takes the side of the chef’s brigade, although the decision is made for her by Slowik: “You belong here, with your own breed […] I know a fellow service industry worker when I see one” (ibid.). This decision opens a chance for her to escape.

The Escape

Escaping the island becomes paramount for survival. However, the guests do not find a chance to escape. After a few attempts that are either too feeble (trying to smash the window with a chair) or are overpowered with violence (one man who demands to leave gets his finger cut off), they all seem to succumb to their fate as moribund prisoners of the restaurant. Chef muses about their complacency, saying: “Ask yourselves, this entire evening, why didn’t you all try harder to fight back? To get out of here? Honestly, you probably could have. Something to think about” (ibid.). The rich people’s unrevolutionary spirit stands in stark contrast to Margot, the only working-class guest, who happened to be at the restaurant by chance. She is also the only one who manages to get off the island, a fact that is tied closely to her background, which not only sets her apart from the refined guests but also allows her to bond with Chef Slowik. What is notable about her two attempts to escape is how they play out.

Her first attempt is to run away and to physically engage in a fight: After she is sent to the smokehouse on an errand, she breaks into Chef’s private lodgings. However, the front-of-house-manager Elsa followed her and attacks her with a knife. What ensues is a desperate physical struggle, where Margot stabs and kills Elsa in self-defense. In the house, she discovers photographs depicting Slowik’s humble (but happy) beginnings as a burger flipper – and a radio. She returns to the restaurant triumphantly, sure that help will arrive. And it does, seemingly. However, the single coast guard whom the radio reaches is also an act, in on the whole play. After a stellar performance, he leaves them all behind in the restaurant. Margot’s attempt fails, and all seems lost. Chef admonishes her: “In a kitchen, we all work together […] you, Margot from Nebraska, you, you’ve betrayed our sacred bond of trust, and you’ve shown your craft to be careless” (The Menu). The kitchen gets ready to serve the final course, when Margot, after a moment of intense consideration, gets up and claps just once, effectively reversing their roles. The following dialogue ensues between her and Slowik:

Margot: “I don’t like your food.”

Chef: “What did you say?”

Margot: “I said, I don’t like your food, and I would like to send it back.”

Chef: “I’m sorry to hear that. What about my food is not to your liking?

Margot: “For starters, you’ve taken the joy out of eating […] When I eat your food, it tastes like it was made with no love […] You cook with obsession, not love. Even your hot dishes are cold. You’re a chef – your single purpose on this earth is to serve people food that they might actually like, and you have failed. You failed, and you bored me. And the worst part is, I’m still fucking hungry.”

Chef: “You’re, you’re still hungry?”

When Chef Slowik asks her what she would like to eat, she tells him she wants a cheeseburger, perhaps remembering the joyful photographs she saw of him or recalling the moment when he told her that he hadn’t “desired to cook for someone in ages, and one does miss that feeling” (The Menu). The scene in which he prepares her the cheeseburger is filled with genuine emotion and depicts the first true smile we, the viewers, see on Chef’s face. He serves the burger to her with crinkle-cut fries. Harking back to Gwen Hyman’s “dining room discourse of control,” here we see that “the diner shows the chef who’s boss [and] demonstrates that he controls the boundaries of his own body, that the chef can’t put anything past him, in him […] This isn’t hot enough, he insists […] I will not be broken, he insists […] and in this way, the diner reasserts his freedom, his individuality in the exchange economy; and, at the same time, makes clear the chef’s subservience” (Hyman 2008: 49). Margot’s escape, thus, succeeds because of an adherence to ritual and the enactment of social convention, not because of physical violence. She questions and undermines Chef’s authority by criticizing his food, but she also inspires him and reminds him of his roots. During the course of the dinner, her and Chef establish a genuine connection. When she tries the burger, savors the bite, and then asks, “Can I get the rest to go?”, their positions as customer and chef are ultimately re-established, and Chef does what any good service provider would do: he gets her a to-go bag, and he lets her leave.

In the following dessert course, the restaurant and everyone inside it are set on fire by the Chef in one last act of revenge and vindication, bringing an end not just to the movie but to the gastronomic relationships depicted within it. The movie thus also speaks to a contemporary trend of anti-capitalist media that reckons with the privileged super-rich in an act of catharsis. The movie’s message is as blunt as it is entertaining: instead of eating the rich, set them ablaze. “Eat the rich” has become a rallying cry – representing “a tote bag slogan era” of anti-capitalist sentiments, but one that seems futile, as Patrick Sproull contends: “Anti-capitalist art is now a genre, one safe enough to be reproduced by the very people it’s supposed to target” (Sproull, The Face). Like the chef, who was granted celebrity status despite his working-class origins but ultimately was destroyed by his environment, anti-capitalist art will fail by necessity if it is fearlessly reproduced and supported by the forces it critiques. Nonetheless, The Menu depicts this contemporary unease and spearheads the fine dining industry and the figure of the chef as representatives of a dysfunctional system that ultimately harms those who keep it going – until they reach their breaking point.

 


About the Author

Philine Schiller is a doctoral student at the University of Heidelberg, Germany, where she received her M. Ed. for English and Spanish philology in 2020 and currently works in the department of education. Her academic and literary interests include contemporary literature, food studies, popular culture, fantasy, horror and science-fiction. She can be contacted at schiller@heiedu.uni-heidelberg.de.


References

Catsoulis, Jeannette. “‘The Menu’ Review: Eat, Pray, Run!”. The New York Times. 17th Nov. 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/11/17/movies/the-menu-review.html

Giousmpasoglou, Charalampos, Lorraine Brown, and John Cooper. “The Role of the Celebrity Chef”. International Journal of Hospitality Management 85. 2020.

Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. 174: Sociology. New York: Doubleday, 1959. Anchor Books.

Hyman, Gwen. “The Taste of Fame – Chefs, Diners, Celebrity, Class”. Gastronomica, Vol. 8, No. 3 (Summer 2008), pp. 43-52.

Ruhlman, Michael. The Reach of a Chef: Professional Cooks in the Age of Celebrity. Penguin, 2006.

The Menu. dir. Mark Mylod. Hyperobject Productions/Searchlight Pictures. 2022.

Sproull, Patrick. “Why All ‘Eat the Rich’ Satire Looks the Same Now.” The Face, 7 Dec. 2022, https://theface.com/culture/all-eat-the-rich-satire-looks-the-same-now-anti-capitalism-critique-film-tv-glass-onion-menu-white-lotus-triangle-of-sadness.

Stephenson, Barry. Ritual: A Very Short Introduction. Vol. 421. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. Very Short Introductions.

Wright, Scott Douglas. The Compulcelebrity Effect: Upmarket Chef Proprietors and Compulsory Celebrity. Diss. Auckland University of Technology, 2015.



Cite this blog post
The Editors (2023, April 19). On The Menu (2022): The Authority of the Chef, Accompanied by a Breach of Trust. HCA Graduate Blog. Retrieved February 23, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/pg63

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