/ 3 February 2023

One Show Two Takes: The Menu

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Food for thought: Julian (Ralph Fiennes) and Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) in ‘The Menu’.

We’re in the thick of award season and that means none of us can resist reaching for our phones and letting the whole world know why we, and we alone, know which films and music deserve to be honoured as the best. 

Taste in art is often at the centre of how we choose to identify and it’s mostly harmless. But when fandom or creation becomes an obsession, we tend to forget it’s just art. It’s meant to connect us, entertain us, heal us, or liberate us, not drive us to the point of obsessive perfection, sucking the soul dry of the very thing we fell in love with in the first place.

Mark Mylod’s The Menu is a black comedy exploration of the pursuit of unrealistic perfection. A group of society’s elite take a ferry to an island to relish six courses of bleeding-edge cuisine — for $1 250 per person. Some have dined there many times but can’t remember the name of a single dish. Others are reviewers with a reputation for driving restaurants to closure. There are even self-identifying foodies who obsess over every minute detail but seem to care little about enjoying food.

Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) is the executive chef and ringmaster. His humble beginnings as a cook at a burger joint ignited his love for food. This set him on a mission to push the boundaries of cuisine, attracting the attention of an angel investor who helped him set up his island retreat, Hawthorne. 

But what happens once you’ve reached the pinnacle — you run an exclusive island restaurant only the ultra-elite can afford to dine at and you’ve obsessed over every ingredient known to man to the extent that you’re comfortable serving a breadless bread dish?

Some have dismissed this film as neither funny nor particularly cinematic. But what it asks of you is simply to chill out. We’re all so stuck-up we’ve appointed ourselves as judges and jurors to all things that define great art. But when last did we sit back and just enjoy a work without trying to intellectualise it? 

To help us answer this question is Margot Mills (Anya Taylor-Joy), the indifferent outsider roped in by uptight foodie Tyler Ledford (Nicholas Hoult). When his date dumps him, he hires Mills, a prostitute, to join him, knowing full well Slowik has planned a night that will be more than just fine dining.

Mills’s rejection of the ridiculous nature of the menu and its infinitesimal portions sets the stage for her freedom. Slowik will see his punishment through, make no mistake, but he’s delighted someone has finally stood up to him and brought back the joy that inspired his love of food in the first place — making an old-fashioned American cheeseburger.

So, the next time you engage with a piece of art, ask yourself the question: “Are you going into it craving inaccessible (and potentially nonsensical) cuisine or do you just want to enjoy a simple, delicious, unadulterated cheeseburger? — Rifumo Mdaka 

Yes, Chef! Right off the bat, The Menu shows itself to be a brilliant satire of haute cuisine’s tendency to turn enjoying a delicious meal into an overly intellectual exercise that lacks flavour. 

At Hawthorne, the uber-exclusive restaurant that costs $1 250 a pop, The Menu proves there is no tastier meal than the rich. It shifts from comedy to horror very quickly as each course is served.

Hawthorne’s “bread course” is served without bread because it is described as the food of the poor (if true, then who wants to be rich?), while foams, gels and mousses are accompanied by wordy monologues. 

The Menu is a tasteful treat that is a social commentary on how those who dine on some of the “finest” food in the world are usually the worst people.

Cocky finance bros, pretentious food critics, old-money Caucasian folk and a nattily dressed, yet pathetic, foodie who has seen every episode of Chef’s Table are some the guests dining at the secluded restaurant, hosted by the world-renowned chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes).

But among these cringy wealthy people sits Margot Mills (Anya Taylor-Joy), who — like many middle-class people — finds fine dining utter garbage, parodying an intellectual exercise. Mills is not part of the wealthy elite but cut from a different cloth to her fellow diners. She is not afraid to tell Slowik he takes the joy out of eating because he cooks with obsession.   

If you have watched Chef’s Table, then you will recognise the slow-motion macro shots of each course and the sheer obsession chefs cook with to achieve greatness in their field. 

The character who steals the show is Elsa (Hong Chau), Hawthorne’s hostess who, despite the chaos, is terrifyingly cool, calm and collected. Just her delivery of the word “tortilla” during the Taco Tuesday course is Oscar-worthy.

Elsa’s words, “You’ll eat less than you desire and more than you deserve,” shifts the tone of the experience from exclusive dining to a luxury trapping of a doomed evening with no escape in sight. The Menu is one of those satires that is so close to the bone that you can’t help but cringe.

The film speaks to the service industry’s unsustainable culture of overconsumption, exploitation, the fight to survive and greedy, pretentious intelligentsia. 

The Menu fits into the same genre as the 2019 thriller-horror Midsommar in that it is sparkling with highly saturated hues which are beautiful to look at but shock audiences enough to remind them this is a horror movie.

However, the film does have a suicide scene and there is no warning at the start or on any of the streaming sites.