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‘The Menu’ proves that a chef is the perfect modern movie villain

Ralph Fiennes attends “The Menu” Premiere during the 2022 Toronto International Film on September 10, 2022 in Toronto, Ontario.  (Araya Doheny/Getty Images)
Emily Heil Washington Post

There are well-known archetypes of movie bad guys, and each says something about the culture from which they sprang. Menacing Russians were a Cold War-era staple, and given the turn of world affairs, they’re enjoying a recent resurgence. Evil tech bros have been cast as villains for years, reflecting our modern unease with the men manipulating the machinery on which we’re ever more reliant.

The character who serves as the malevolent force in the new horror movie “The Menu” doesn’t fall into those familiar tropes, though he seems particularly ripe for the cinematic-baddy treatment: Ralph Fiennes plays Chef Julian Slowik, the high-cuisine ringmaster who presides over Hawthorne, an uber-exclusive farm-to-table restaurant located on a remote island that guests reach by ferry – and only after securing an impossible reservation and paying $1,250 a head.

Slowik, dressed in an immaculate white jacket as he directs his coterie of kitchen minions with percussive hand-claps, has all the attributes of the modern celebrity superchef. He is revered by diners, including Tyler, a privileged groupie who snaps photos of each dish and fawns over their “flavor profiles.” Slowik is obeyed without question by his brigade, who perform the dance of preparing and plating elaborate dishes for guests in the restaurant’s open (of course) kitchen. And he is perfectly in control, the human equivalent of a pair of tweezers applying a moss garnish. It doesn’t take much imagination for those traits, so celebrated in the last few decades of chef worship, to curdle into something poisonous.

The premise is established early in the movie, before the blood starts spattering, when Tyler explains to his dinner date – Margot, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, the one guest who doesn’t buy into the chef’s mythology – the existential depths of his fanboy obsequiousness to Slowik.

“You know how people idolize athletes and musicians and painters and stuff? Yeah, those people are idiots,” he tells her. “What they do doesn’t matter – they play with inflatable balls and ukuleles. … Chefs, they play with the raw materials of life itself. And death itself. … I’ve watched him explain the exact moment the green strawberry is perfectly unripe. I’ve watched him plate a raw scallop during its last, dying contraction. It’s art on the edge of the abyss, which is where God works too. It’s the same thing.”

The idea of the chef as deity goes beyond the celebrification of the profession. In so many ways, chefs control and manipulate: They may create an “experience”; their dishes evoke memories. The moment you’re licking foam out of a dish cast from a mold of the chef’s mouth, you have to wonder who really holds the power. “Do not eat!” Slowik commands his guests. “Taste!” They obey.

Traditionally, chefs of Hollywood lore have been merely exacting and obsessive; think of Tony Shalhoub as Primo in “Big Night,” fussing over his risotto and calling a customer who wants a side of spaghetti with it a “philistine.” They might be explosive, as Jon Favreau’s titular “Chef” who blows up his career by ranting at a restaurant critic, or Jeremy Allen White’s raging Carmy in “The Bear.”

But a chef as horror-movie villain feels novel – and just in time.

Our culture’s chef-worship continues, but the very idea of it is being challenged, as chefs are being knocked off their foam-bedecked pedestals right and left. Mario Batali, the once-revered celebrity chef and restaurateur, was acquitted of charges of criminal sexual misconduct, but a recent documentary makes the case that he escaped justice. Other kitchens are being called out as toxic work environments, such as Blue Hill at Stone Barns, the Michelin-starred New York state restaurant where, according to reporting by Eater, chef Dan Barber would yell at and humiliate workers and didn’t take a cook seriously when he alleged that he was raped by a kitchen manager. The model of the chef-auteur whose brilliance excuses his soul-crushing treatment of those below him is giving way to an understanding – or so many in the restaurant world hope – that a restaurant is the product of teamwork, not just the haute-cuisine vision of a single (usually male, usually White) artiste.

“The Menu” presents Slowik as the product of the forces that created him, and in some ways, the movie is a food-service revenge fantasy. Each diner at Hawthorne, from the trio of finance bros who don’t care so much about the food as the status their meal confers (“at least we can say we’ve been here,” one says, before they toast to money) to the food critic eager to pass judgment to the wealthy couple who have dined at Hawthorne many times and yet can’t name a single dish they ingested, gets their comeuppance by the time the credits roll.

And if we do see Slowik as the product of “foodie” culture, that makes him even scarier. After all, the most terrifying bad guy didn’t just spring out of the womb that way; the most chilling thing about him is that if we created him, that means we must have wanted him. And the thing about creating monsters is that you have to live with them – at least as long as they let you.

”The Menu” opens in limited release on Nov. 18.