Tonight you will dine at Hawthorne, one of the most exclusive restaurants in the world. For the foodie experience that awaits you, you’ll pay 13,000 per bag, and the culinary epicenter is on a small, picturesque, isolated island that can only be reached by chartered private boat. As one of a select few, for four and a half hours you will be treated in a way you could only dream of. You will see things you have never seen before. Try flavors you never thought existed and meet people you wish you never met.
That’s the premise of Mark Mylod’s horror satire The Menu, which certainly spares no punches when it comes to poking fun at the pretentious upper class in general and the gastronomic phenomenon in particular. Twelve carefully selected characters now arrive on the island, all with some sort of background and history of the legendary chef, Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). All but one, Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), who arrived as “plus one”. She arrives at the establishment with an obsessive, self-proclaimed food connoisseur, Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), but she doesn’t quite believe in the concept of fine dining. In the company of an annoying know-it-all like Tyler, it’s easy to see why it’s hard to appreciate a simple yet oh-so-flavorful oyster mignonette. The other guests are made up of a bunch of chatterboxes with made-up titles and their best years behind them. Bitter food critics, retired actors, greedy hedge fund brokers and lisving assistants. One couple dined at Slowik’s eleven times without even being able to tell whether they were eating cod or halibut.
Margot doesn’t belong here. She didn’t care less if the dairy cow was killed for 152 days or 153. She doesn’t care what it sounds like when a scallop dies or if the cuisine is Thalian or French. She shakes off a wine that she smells sweet and sour with longing and sadness, and the fact that the dishes served are as beautiful as small works of art doesn’t bother her. She is there to be fed. Don’t recite food chronicles or listen to stories from the bloated chef’s childhood, which start early, cutting between Slowik and his waiting guests. From the very first course, it’s clear this is going to be a special night. “Breadless Bread Plate” is exactly what it sounds like. An empty plate of bread. Where a note describing the bread is left in place of the product itself. Is this a game of molecular gastronomy or is it a mockery of the whole growing expectation trend? Where you simply expect to receive award-winning sourdough bread, a bread so special that songs have been written about it. Now that it’s missing completely, the whole world is upside down for the select diners on the spot. It’s like a slap in the face and you can hear the indignant whispers. “How does he get away with it?? But what we hear, Slowik also feels. If someone complains about a cracked emulsion, he can expect more of the same. Someone tries the old and true technique of domination “You know me?” but he gets the coolness. Slowly but surely, diners begin to realize that this is no ordinary tasting menu.
The menu impresses on many levels. It’s a sly satire that really manages to put its finger on the whole issue of classism, where everyone owns someone and throughout the film there are references to the underpaid and often thankless service profession, where a passion for the creative process is pitted against its wealthy clients, who are only there because they believe money can buy everything. They pretend to know everything about cooking but in reality they’ve never put together a bouillabaisse at home in the kitchen, probably never even fried a hamburger. They slap loud labels on someone else’s life’s work, without even being able to pronounce the ingredients correctly. They love snow on plates, but only because it’s in it, because it’s trending on social media right now. They take low-light photos that don’t do the dish justice. They are self-proclaimed connoisseurs who take everything for granted and ultimately show the power of the media in society. Who can single-handedly bring down an entire company or destroy a dream with a few bad words. The way this issue is addressed in The Menu is nothing short of masterful.
Slowik is not a hero, rather he is a stone cold psychopath and a full blown narcissist, but nevertheless he is the character I feel for the most. When he tries to please the impossible, he ends up losing his purpose on Earth, the joy and desire to please. This is also the film’s biggest problem. Of all twelve dinner guests, there is none who deserve my empathy. It’s a big generic lump of one-dimensional, arrogant characters that I wouldn’t grieve for a minute, if they themselves ended up on the plate. I understand why, though. Because it is a set that also somehow represents society at large and, with a little imagination, all seven deadly sins, with lust, greed, pride, gluttony, sloth, anger and envy. Less flattering qualities that can actually be pasted on all visitors, but some more clearly than others. For example, we have a wealthy older man with a taste for young women, money-hungry hedge fund brokers where a life of mediocrity is never an option. We have the food critic who considers himself above everything and everyone and Tyler himself who is the very essence of gluttony. Everyone has a part to play in this chef-d’oeuvre.
A total of seven stories are served up on beautiful plates this evening and here we set aside all norms and delve into the heart of the art of cooking. What separates a stellar restaurant from a decent joint. Fantasy, presentation, love and the drive to always be the best and to do so at all costs. Sometimes you have to sell everything you own and have, sometimes you have to move to your own island and isolate yourself from civilization in order to cook the best lamb steak money can buy. In a perfect world, Hawthorne would have been a gift, a boon, and a favor. For anyone who wants to drown their pains in something beautiful, for those who seek inspiration and don’t worry about what tomorrow holds, but just want to live in the here and now. For anyone who just wants to escape from everyday life for a while. But here it becomes a meeting place for anxiety. A home for truth and a final destination for dreams.
The Menu is a film that is so insanely good at times that it makes your mouth water and your pulse race. Here, photographer Peter Deming has really outdone himself by creating a presentation that is not infrequently reminiscent of a Chef’s Table, albeit with a much less pleasant atmosphere in the kitchen. The colors and shapes come to life right before my eyes and become small works of top-notch culinary art. I can almost touch the ingredients and feel the flavors caress the rubber seal in a symphony of aromatic eroticism. Add Colin Stetson’s orchestral score and there emerges a sense of sinister elegance that is extremely hard to resist. This euphoric sense of perfection persists in both the starter and the main course, but the dessert is sadly, as is often the case, underwhelming. After indulging in scallops, freshly picked island plants and flowers, and wallowing in pressure-cooked veggies, bone marrow, and beef jus, we’re forced to end the night with an ending that leaves very little to the imagination. In a way, it’s a perfect ending, as that’s usually the real-life feeling once the dessert arrives and turns out to be a tired version of tiramisu or boring sorbet. On the other, it feels incredibly flabby and also a powerful face wash to all of us who have assumed that we will get some explanation as to why this is happening, right here, right now. Despite this, the menu is a delicious dish that is worth enjoying. Enjoy your meal!