Every once in a while, there is a film so unexpectedly witty, dark, brilliant and heartless you can’t help but love it. Today, we’re going to be talking about one such contender for the crown and the real-world culinary influences that helped shape it.
The Menu—A wickedly dark (2022) American horror comedy directed by Mark Loyd.
Some details, like the spice racks in the background, are direct recreations from the now-closed Spanish restaurant, El Bulli.
Apparently, several crew members saw the Cooking in Progress documentary during production, which made a significant impact on certain choices for the set design.
The granola gift bags are most likely a nod to Eleven Madison Park‘s giftbag offerings. And the “perfectly ripe strawberry” anecdote seems to come from Chef Rene Redzepi.
But there are hundreds of little details and small influences that have made their way into what amounts to a ten-course meal in movie form. So, here are just a few.
The Island Restaurant
The film—based on an original script by one of the writers, Will Tracy—follows an eclectic cast of obscenely wealthy individuals that board a boat destined for a remote island where the elite pay exorbitant prices for once-in-a-lifetime culinary experiences presented by mysterious celebrity Chef Julian Slowik.
Apparently, Tracy got the idea after dining at a Nordic restaurant, Cornelius Sjømatrestauraunt, which is only accessible by ferry. And the “Nordic Tradition” meat smokehouse seems to be taking a page out of Chef Magnus Nilsson Fäviken’s book.
Fäviken was known for building out an ever-shifting menu of double-digit courses and harvesting his ingredients before closing his doors in 2019, citing burnout. So, it’s not hard to see the comparison between real-Swedish Chef and fictional Chef Julian.
The “Chef” in question maintains a compound-like oasis complete with an almost undisturbed ecosystem capable of providing everything they could possibly need, all while commanding a small army of trained chefs through a domineering force of will and cult-like personality.
The toxic work environment at Hawthorne and its artsy island concept seems to borrow heavily from Blaine Wetzel’s very real restaurant, Willows Inn.
With all the real problems it became infamous for before shutting its doors earlier this year.
In short—Hawthorne is a high-minded arthouse nightmare where douchey tech bros, washed-up celebrities, snobby food critics and self-proclaimed foodies go to preen over each other and prop up their mutually perceived sense of class and sophistication.
It manages to capture every archetype of the fine dining world, from the contemptuous m’aitre d’ to the insufferable foodie who uses mouthfeel unironically in spectacular fashion.
At one point, the sommelier mentions the wine was “hyper-decanted using an immersion blender,” which is a real thing.
All while the diligent chefs who’ve dedicated their lives to making great food stew in a pot of resentment that’s about to boil over.
Let’s just say the trailers do NOT do this film justice. What appears to be some vaguely artsy The Platform clone with a cannibalistic chef is anything but.
Unlike previous years, the Chef has decided it’s time to take his Menu concept to the next level. And the result is absolutely unhinged.
From start to finish, The Menu is a dry, witty and sharp deconstructive take on fine dining and avant-garde food culture. And while it’s busy hoisting gastro tourism by its own petard it manages to be a succinct, more-developed spiritual successor to Velvet Buzzsaw by leaps and bounds.
Which brings us to the real star of the movie—the food.
The Menu (Literally)
The film’s events are bookended by title cards announcing each course’s beginning and end. This is both a reference to the “conceptual experience” Chef Slowik is trying to create for his exacting guests within the film AND a literal menu we experience by proxy through our film surrogate Margot.
This literary device seems to serve two purposes—it helps reveal critical insights about the Chef and his guests and creates a sense of vindictive delight in the viewer as we watch things progress from ‘weird and artsy’ to ‘actually insane.’
There’s an enlightening interview with Filmmaker Magazine, where Peter Demming goes into great detail about his cinematography work on the Menu that I’d highly recommend.
However, today, I’d like to focus on the courses and the real-life influences behind them. Because yes, the food world really is that serious.
And the Michelin-starred Chef who helped bring these dishes to life (Dominique Crenn), did an incredible job from start to finish. It’s very likely, based on reviews of her food, that Crenn’s signature style has also managed to infuse itself into the final product.
Raw Oyster With Lemon Caviar (Appetizer)
Our first introduction to Chef Slowik’s “menu concept” for the evening is a humble raw oyster topped with lemon caviar in a white, frothy mignonette.
This less-than-satisfying ‘bite’ underlines a severe lack of substance in the guests present and their tendencies to critique rather than truly enjoy the food they’re paying for.
The Island (Course One)
Course One begins with a single, resounding clap as Julian brings the room to attention and introduces himself to the guests with an introductory monologue that brings at least one foodie to tears.
By all accounts, this bizarre collection of freshly harvested scallops, plants, flowers, and “slightly frozen seawater” carefully arranged on a hunk of rock with teeny tiny tweezers is exactly NOMA’s style.
Rene Rezepi’s highly regarded Copenhagen restaurant has been serving boundary-pushing dishes focusing on hyper-specific local ingredients for years.
And, the four-time “Best Restaurant In The World” award recipient recently decided to close and reopen as a test kitchen after Redzepi decided NOMA was “unsustainably both financially and emotionally.”
Which sounds a lot like the internal struggle fictional Chef Julian is battling in the film. To the point that some people are blaming the Menu for Chef Rene Redzepi’s decision to close.
Which is more than a little silly.
The Menu explores a lot of very real issues in the competitive world of gourmet food, from perfectionism to toxic workplaces and creative burnout, all without pulling any punches.
What it does pull are influences from every corner of the culinary world. And seeing those influences side-by-side with the end product is a fascinating, enlightening experience.
There was clearly a lot of love and attention to detail put into the film by every member of the production team, cast and crew. And the end result pays off in dividends.