‘The Menu’ (2022).

    The high mass in the gastronomic cathedral has begun with the hermetically closing of the thick wooden door. “Welcome to Hawthorne,” says chief Julian Slowik (a creepy Ralph Fiennes – you also know him as Voldemort) in The Menu with an affable smile to his guests. They have just been taken by boat to his world-famous restaurant on a deserted island.

    That menu starts with a dish of melting saltwater ice and shellfish that have emerged from the sea before the eyes of the highly honored public, laid down on decorative stones by an upright army of chefs with pincer precision. The insufferably haughty restaurant critic – one of the twelve lucky ones who can share in this ultimate gastronomic total experience – naughty pricks a water plant on her fork. ‘This chef’, she teaches her fawning table companion, ‘tells a story. I call it… biomic. We are surrounded by and part of it ecosystem from which we are fed. We eat literal the ocean.’

    Aftertaste of longing and regret

    The same restaurant critic starts to chuckle nervously when she sees this scene in the cinema, because she may have accidentally said something so significant about leaves on a stone. In fact: all the remarkable statements and incidents in the first part of The Menu (before the great humiliation, mutilation, and murder begins) are not news to people who have ever settled into the walnut seats of restaurants like Noma, Fäviken, or Lighthouse Island, or studied their expensive cookbooks or glossy Instagram pages.

    Restaurant Hawthorne embodies the most influential culinary movement of the 21st century so far: Scandinavian, rugged chic, endlessly in love with local, small-scale produced or home-picked and fermented seasonal products. The extensive tour of the company, the so-called storytelling who has to load the food with all kinds of extra meaning – it is warp and weft.

    For example, Hawthorne, where a place setting costs $ 1,250, serves a loaf without bread to draw attention to hunger and poverty in the world. The cheerful sommelier serves a biodynamic cabernet frank, ‘from our friends from the Loire, with beautiful smoky and cherry notes and a subtle aftertaste of longing and regret.’ Everything looks frighteningly familiar – and yet it is also immediately clear that something is very wrong.

    Netflix series 'Chef's Table'.  Image

    Netflix series ‘Chef’s Table’.

    Take for what follows the sectarian horror of Midsommar and cook it over high heat with the slick food porn of the Netflix series Chef’s Table. David Gelb, who Chef’s Table made, worked on The Menu, just like the French three-star chef Dominique Crenn, who designed the dishes. All this was then poured over with a greasy, spicy sauce of social satire in which a spoiled urban upper class (like Marie Antoinette in her rustic fakefarmhouse with perfumed sheep) likes to lay down a fortune to feel closer to nature, craftsmanship and a romanticized image of ‘the common man’ again – and eventually has to pay for that decadence with her head.

    It is striking how dark and hopeless the restaurant films and series that have been released in the past year are. As if the hospitality industry, awakened from its years of covid coma, has lost something essential in innocence and fun.

    Insufferable restaurant critic

    In Boiling Point we witness the cloister of Andy Jones, chef of a restaurant in London. In the film, all the problems that will currently sound familiar to many catering entrepreneurs pile up in one hellish evening: staff shortages, major money worries due to rising prices, an insufferable haughty restaurant critic (have you got her again), then the inspector of the food – and commodity authority, and a forgotten nut allergy. Boiling Point is also shot in one feverish take, leaving no room for Andy (played very convincingly by Stephen Graham) to take a break or think about why he’s doing all this, and how he’s ever going to dig his way out of this hole again.

    Series 'The Bear'.  Image

    Series ‘The Bear’.

    In the great restaurant series The Bearabout a young star chef who inherits a family business in Chicago, the same stuffiness and raw hopelessness dominates – although that series does have a happy ending.

    Feature films and documentaries about the restaurant business and chefs over the past fifteen years have been consistently positive, joyful and romantic, full of delicious, hungry images and wise lessons about the values ​​of fair trade and authenticity. In movies like Chief with John Favreau (2014) and burnt with Bradley Cooper (2015) and also The Ramen Girl (2008) and No Reservations (2007) the heroes may have had rough edges and bumps in their stormy lives, but deep down they were sweet, fine, sincere people. As a reward, they all found business and creative success and new love between the pans at the end of their film.


    In documentaries like Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011), El Bulli: Cooking in Progress (2010), Sergio Herman: Fucking Perfect (2015) and Noma, My Perfect Storm (2015) we saw how hard and perfectionistic real chefs could be on themselves and their environment, but what counted most was their genius, the high culinary art they produced – the tantrums here and there seemed to be mainly in service of that, as a sign of how terribly important it all was.

    Noma Documentary 'My Perfect Storm' (2015).  Image

    Noma Documentary ‘My Perfect Storm’ (2015).

    And then there’s the aforementioned Chef’s Tablein which adversity in the lives of chefs is mainly presented as a background against which even better, even more photogenic dishes can be made, which can then be filmed in slow motion with swelling music.

    decadence of the nineties

    It was especially after the financial crisis of 2008 that the chef was hoisted up as the bony folk hero, the honest, passionate anti-banker, who really made something with his big, fireproof hands (the Amsterdam star chef Ron Blaauw walked around in the advertisements for ING at the time). Moreover, the decadence of the 1990s and alienating ‘molecular cuisine’ of the early 2000s had given way to something more local, something more genuine, something less elitist that also had political and sustainable ambitions, and at the same time the public could not get enough of watching chefs – both in open kitchens and on television. Like the bigoted Tyler in The Menu says, “People idealize athletes and pop stars, but chefs play with the raw material of life and death itself.” To what kind of nightmare that game can lead, he will experience personally later.

    'Pig' (2021).  Image

    ‘Pig’ (2021).

    In the movie Pig (2021) widower and disappointed top chef Robin Feld (a subdued Nicholas Cage, unrecognizable by his huge beard and face beaten to a pulp twice in the film) has retreated to the forest as a hermit. When his truffle pig is stolen, he returns to the Boston restaurant world for the first time in fifteen years. What is striking is that there, all sorts of new talk about deconstructed scallops and dishes with names like ‘milk – smoke – denUnfortunately, nothing has really changed at all.

    The restaurants are still in the hands of big money; chefs and restaurateurs continue to be flogged, used and squeezed by investors, landlords and the culinary press, and in turn do the same to their own staff. The food industry is still dirty business as usual, where only the hype and the outside count and real taste and creativity is usually suppressed. And those cute bearded and tattooed food hipsters from 2010? Once grown up, they turn out to have become just as capitalist bastards as their gastronomic fathers.

    Wild picking

    In these new films, restaurant food is primarily a vehicle for power, pretensions and class differences, the restaurant the war zone in which bosses and servants, givers and takers, possessors and non-haves fight, oppress and tease each other. Especially against the barren background of the world as it is today – with climate change, financial uncertainty and the constant threat of war and political unrest – the movie restaurant is no longer a romantic, self-sustaining ecosystem.

    It is either, at best, barely averted chaos, or the type of sectarian order that, in the wrong hands, can develop into a death cult. And then the naive foodies who still imagine that with very expensive luxury restaurants and foraging, they could change the food system and inherent wickedness of human beings? Chief Slovik says, “What’s happening in here is meaningless compared to what’s happening outside.”

    'The Menu' (2022).  Image

    ‘The Menu’ (2022).

    It is striking that the only bright spot, the only possibility for a kind of redemption, in these films always turns out to be with the food. A perfect cheeseburger, a simple mushroom pie, an egg baked by a child, the unforgettable, rustic dish you ate on that special night with your loved one. Restaurant life may be a cynical hell and the boss a dangerous lunatic, but there remains an unwavering faith in the possibility of real, honest, uncorrupted, simple food and cooking as something essential, as a way out – just like the style ridiculed in these films. made after 2008 was seen as a solution to what was then considered decadent. And so we eat.

    ‘Oh what precious,” says the restaurant critic The Menu, who does not yet know what all-scorching grand dessert will soon hang over her head. ‘You also taste that little note of goatiness in this dish? A tiny bit of goat – right at the end?’

    The reviewer in the room bursts out laughing – with a knot in her stomach.

    'Tampopo' (1985).  Image

    ‘Tampopo’ (1985).

    Four more iconic restaurant films

    Tampopo (Juzo Itami, 1985) Unforgettable ‘ramen western’ interspersed with funny, super-sensual vignette scenes. Two truckers help nervous single mom Tampopo improve her noodle restaurant.

    The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (Peter Greenaway, 1989) Terrible things happen in the posh restaurant Le Hollandais when gang leader Albert Spica comes to dinner with his beautiful wife Georgina. Sex, power, and (ultimately) cannibalism.

    BigNight (Stanley Tucci, 1996) Two Italian brothers open their Paradise restaurant in New Jersey. Should they cook authentic Italian food, or adapt to the taste of the environment? Bittersweet comedy to make you hungry.

    Ratatouille (Brad Bird, 2007) Disney film about a boiling rat in a Parisian restaurant.

    Five stars for ‘The Bear’

    The Bearseries about a fictional family restaurant in Chicago (on Disney Plus), recently received a five-star review in this newspaper: ‘No thriller can compete with the nail-biting tension that hangs in the small kitchen of the fictional restaurant The Original Beef of Chicagoland. ‘