The Menu (2022)

Rating: B+

Dir: Mark Mylod
Star: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Fiennes, Nicholas Hoult, Hong Chau

The Chef’s Table series on Netflix is a bit of a beloved hate-watch. For every episode which taps into the joy of food – both its preparation and consumption – there’s one which is full of arrogant pretension. Molecular gastronomy, beetroot flavoured gels, anything involving liquid nitrogen. All costing hundreds of dollars, yet I suspect leaves customers in need of a drive-through visit on the way home. It’s this attitude which is largely skewered here, with Fiennes playing rock-star chef Slowik. His remote island restaurant is the peak of such affectation, for example, offering a bread plate where the bread has been removed, supposedly a comment on class, with the missing item being a working-class staple.

There’s only one problem. Chef Slowik is now barking mad, having cracked under the pressures of top chefdom. Now he and his devoted sous chefs and other workers have something very special planned for tonight’s sitting. The guests include Slowik devotee Tyler (Hoult) and his late replacement date, Margot (Taylor-Joy), who is not a fan, shall we say. Reading the synopsis (“A young couple travels to a remote island to eat at an exclusive restaurant where the chef has prepared a lavish menu, with some shocking surprises”), I’d have bet this was going into The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover territory, and they would end up eating somebody. It’s not so simple: this is all considerably more twisted, imaginative, and all the better for it.

On the one hand, none of the guests are truly likable: indeed, their sins are largely why they are in the restaurant. Margot is an exception, and it’s this which bonds her to Slowik – they’re both burned out by the stresses of their respective professions – and leads to him trying to get her to defect to his side. It’s a little bit of a stretch, and the film works better when they are in adversarial mode. What the film nails perfectly is the look and feel of top tier food snobbery, where the presentation matters more than content. We laughed especially loud at a throwaway line, “I usually don’t like foam…”, but there’s a lot of similar moments.

It’s not surprising, since David Gelb, the creator of Chef’s Table, was a second-unit director here. This may not have been entirely wise, considering I’ll never be able to watch his show the same way. The performances here are excellent though, especially Fiennes, who is completely convincing as the leader of his foodie cult. It’s difficult for anyone to stand up against his blistering depiction, a man obsessed, who has turned his precise talents to performance cruelty. Taylor-Joy does her best, and acts as a surrogate for the audience members, increasingly calling out the BS, first of Tyler, then of Chef Slowik. It ends in a thoroughly appropriate way, and this menu proved to be very satisfying. My compliments to the chef, even if I was left craving a well-cooked cheeseburger.