If you have spent any time at all in the weird ecosystem of tasting menu restaurants then you’ll appreciate just how well “The Menu” nails both the language of this world and the characters who inhabit it. This thriller-comedy, its humor as black as squid ink, is set at an exclusive dining destination on a coastal island called Hawthorne. Here, the privileged and the obnoxious gather to worship at the altar of chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), who announces each course with a bone-ringing clap of his hands, a list of ingredients, and an anecdote. It’s the kind of place where the kitchen crew shouts “Yes, chef” in unison and the sommelier spiels each pour in ridiculous language. (“This wine has a bit of barnyard funk and it’s just a wonderful match with roasted protein.”)
While the script turns a jaundiced eye toward all the unsavory status seekers who go to such restaurants, it most deliciously fleshes out four archetypes who will be familiar to just about anyone who has eaten a Michelin-starred tasting menu in Chicago. They are (in descending order of odiousness):
The insufferable foodie
We all know a Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), who has proudly “seen every episode of ‘Chef’s Table’” and uses the word “mouthfeel.” Hell, he even owns a PacoJet. Tyler constantly shows off his knowledge, takes pictures of everything he eats, and lunges for his date’s uneaten food.
On the amuse bouche of “cucumber melon, milk snow, and charred lace”: “Jesus Christ, I want to live inside this thing!”
On Julian: “I’ve seen him explain the exact moment a green strawberry is perfectly unripe.”
The pretentious restaurant critic
Lillian Bloom (Janet McTeer) has long been a champion of this chef but has put others out of business with her acid pen. She throws out ridiculous words and opinion as if from Mt. Olympus and often makes the tired comparison between fine dining and theater (“The curtain rises.”) Picking at a puddle of “broken emulsion” on her plate, she sniffs, “You really shouldn’t see that at a restaurant of this quality.” (This may remind you of a jerk at this magazine who complained of an unpeeled carrot at Alinea.)
On the first course called “The Island,” which contains seaweed and a just-harvested scallop topped with barely frozen filtered seawater: “He always pays homage to the sea around us, but I’ve never tasted anything so clean, so utterly… thalassic.”
On Julian: “He’s always been keenly aware of food as a marker of class, as have I.”
The contemptuous maitre d’
Elsa (Hong Chau) presents a placid mien but underneath her pleasant manners (“My esteemed guests can continue their conversation this way.”), she seethes with contempt. She can put people in their places with a withering look.
To the dining guests explaining a day’s work at Hawthorne: “We harvest. We gather. We ferment. We slaughter. We butcher. We chop. We marinate. We steep. We smoke. We temper. We liquify. We spherify. We gel.”
To a guest dissatisfied with the paltry “Breadless Bread Course:” “You will eat less than you desire and more than you deserve.”
The tyrannical chef
Yes, he’s a monster, but the script suggests that all the hangers-on in the dining room pushed him to his particular monstrosity. In addition to Lillian (“We’ve fed each other’s egos.”) and Tyler (“You are why the mystery has been drained from our art.”) there are the slimy tech bros who work for his benefactor, a minor celebrity hoping to grab his spotlight, and a rich, old white couple so deadened by their money and privilege they don’t even know what they’re eating.
To the room at the beginning of the meal: “I have to beg of you one thing. Do not eat. Taste. Savor. Relish. Consider every morsel you place in your mouth and stomach. Be mindful. But do not eat. Our menu tonight is far too precious.”
Little do they know what they’re getting for dessert.
- The beautiful and definitely destination-worthy food was created by Dominique Crenn, who runs the Michelin three-star Atelier Crenn in San Francisco.
- Script co-writer Will Tracy got the idea after dining at Cornelius Sjømatrestaurant, a restaurant on an island in Norway accessible only by ferry.
- The movie was filmed in coastal Georgia. While that southern state is popular with filmmakers thanks to its advantageous tax laws, it wouldn’t likely attract a chef like Julian Slowik because the Michelin Guide doesn’t go there.
- At one point the sommelier says a wine was “hyperdecanted using an immersion blender.” This is a real thing.