clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Fine Dining Is Ripe for a Takedown. ‘The Menu’ Serves It Up.

Marketed as an upscale spin on horror, ‘The Menu’ interrogates a culture that has taken the chef from faceless grunt to something of a cult leader

Searchlight Pictures/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Even if you’ve never been to a restaurant like The Menu’s Hawthorne—and at $1,250 a head, chances are you haven’t—you know the type. Hawthorne is named for its remote island locale, which also provides most of its ingredients. The menu is prix fixe, meaning the diner doesn’t decide what to eat; the chef decides for them. And the chef in question isn’t just a celebrity. He’s a guru, a magician, a luminary—all titles that can double as a euphemism for “cult leader.” Maybe he’s that, too.

Hawthorne is not a real place, but it has plenty of peers that are. On the positive end of the spectrum, there’s Noma, the Danish restaurant that pioneered the use of foraging and has repeatedly topped lists of the world’s best restaurants. On the negative end, there’s the Willows Inn, the establishment accused of endemic harassment and deceptive sourcing. Or Eleven Madison Park, which continued to operate a “secret” meat room amid its poorly received vegan pivot. Or Blue Hill at Stone Barns, which earned a three-part exposé earlier this year outlining everything from abusive management to a compost oven that couldn’t actually cook.

Fine dining, in other words, is ripe for a takedown, which is what The Menu, in theaters this Friday, positions itself to be. Decades ago, the chef was a faceless grunt whose artistry went underappreciated; in the years since, our culture has overcorrected, and seems overdue for some dissent. The Menu is an ensemble, featuring strong performances from the likes of Hong Chau and Janet McTeer. But it’s also a binary at heart. On one side, we have Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), Hawthorne’s resident Rene Redzepi. On the other, we have Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), a skeptical guest brought along as a last-minute plus-one. Julian instructs his guests to taste and savor, but never eat: “Our menu is too precious for that,” he admonishes. Margot thinks she’s arrived at “base camp of Bullshit Mountain.”

The Menu is written by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy, both alumni of the satirical newspaper The Onion. Tracy is a producer on Succession, a show that shares far more with The Menu than over-the-top extravagance. Director Mark Mylod and producer Adam McKay serve in the same capacity on the HBO drama. The overlap even extends to acting; Rob Yang, best known as Vaulter founder Lawrence Yee, plays a finance bro who works for Hawthorne’s main investor. But the parallels are plain enough even without a spin through IMDb. A signature dish of chicken thigh al pastor is to Hawthorne’s patrons what ortolan is to Tom Wambsgans: a piece of poultry that’s also a status symbol.

Tracy and Mylod previously partnered on “Tern Haven,” a Season 2 Succession episode that builds to a dinner party gone deliciously—pun intended—awry. The Menu doubles down on that setup: The entire film consists of a single dinner, its tight 100 minutes unfolding even faster than real time. Hawthorne is the kind of restaurant that does just one seating a night, collecting every archetype of obnoxious customer in one place. Margot’s date Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) is a culinary groupie who can’t stop talking about mouthfeel or taking pictures of his food. Critic Lillian Bloom (McTeer) turns over pretentious turns of phrase like stones in her palm. When pressed, a rich regular (Reed Birney) can’t name a single dish he’s been served at what’s supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. This crew is ripe for a comeuppance, and as creepy intensity starts to cross into something more sinister, that seems to be what Slowik plans to serve up.

In interviews, The Menu’s writers and director have cited Gosford Park and The Exterminating Angel as inspirations. But it would be impossible to talk about The Menu’s chosen milieu without invoking Chef’s Table, the Netflix docuseries as responsible as anything for elevating the chef into an auteur. (Besides an authoritarian streak, one thing Julian shares with Blue Hill’s Dan Barber is an episode in his honor. Tyler’s watched it three times.) Working with cinematographer Peter Deming and culinary consultant Dominique Crenn, another former subject, Mylod expertly apes Chef’s Table’s signature style: close-up, overhead shots of completed dishes, captioned to break down their component parts. Like Reiss and Tracy’s ear for sommelier speak—one mid-meal wine has “barnyard funk and just a wonderful mash of proteins”—such precision is a signal The Menu comes from a place of knowledge, or even affection.

The Menu has been marketed as an upscale spin on horror. Such branding builds on the success of directors like Jordan Peele and Ari Aster, who are to their genre what Hawthorne is to the local greasy spoon. (There’s nothing wrong with the latter, but sometimes fancy is fun.) It’s also inherent in the story; isolated on an island, Hawthorne’s guests have relinquished control over their evenings, a power Julian wields like Jigsaw in a chef’s jacket. But The Menu makes the odd, intentional choice to dispense with horror’s chief mechanism: suspense. The first half of the movie ramps up gradually, as we might expect. Then, at The Menu’s midpoint, a switch flips.

The nature of said switch is a spoiler, but suffice it to say The Menu unmasks its endgame early on. From there, the movie shifts gears. Before this pivot, the action escalates with every course, each of which is announced with its own title card; after, the rigid order of the meal stands in contrast to the mounting chaos and panic that surround it. The Menu no longer wants us to ask what will happen, but go along for the ride to its prescripted conclusion.

This new register unlocks some of The Menu’s most striking setpieces, and also its most unwieldy ideas. The movie mocks Julian’s pretension; a bread course served without bread implies that the emperor has no toque. But the longer it goes, the more The Menu positions him as a kind of Robin Hood figure, rebelling against a system that commodifies his creativity. Yet it also wants to interrogate his role atop a cruel, sexist hierarchy, letting a female sous chef (last name Keller, in a nod to Thomas) say her piece to her boss. Fitting for a food movie, this equal-opportunity critique bites off more than it can chew. Guests are both victims and deserving targets. When an actor’s assistant calls a pickled Japanese plum an “emoji,” we’re asked to join in the sneering condescension The Menu otherwise mocks.

The worldview we’re left with is one of deep nihilism, a disposition that goes deeper than food. By the closing credits, The Menu has drifted away from specific references like the Tehachapi Grain Project and into a broader parable of artists and their audience. Only Margot emerges unscathed from The Menu’s free-flowing disdain, though certain twists threaten to undermine the coherence of her character. The Menu sets up a dichotomy of server and served, but through Margot, it argues both sides of that equation have drank the same brand of Kool-Aid.

Over the course of an evening, The Menu trades in its chef’s knife for a much blunter instrument. The two modes may not always match up, but they’re always entertaining. In this, The Menu understands what Julian Slowik does not. Hawthorne’s menu may technically provide sustenance, but it’s mostly a means for its architect to make a statement. The Menu values quality of spectacle over clarity of message, a bowl of popcorn with no need for a Michelin star.