The Menu stars Anya Taylor-Joy and Nicholas Hoult as a couple who board a boat for an eccentric (and expensive!) dinner on a remote island. There, at an exclusive restaurant, renowned Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) promises the diners the meal of their lives.
Those guests also include a movie star (played by John Leguizamo) and his assistant (Aimee Carrero), married couple Richard (Reed Birney) and Anne (Judith Light), restaurant critic Lillian (Janet McTeer) and her editor Ted (Paul Adelstein), and a trio of business buddies (Rob Yang, Arturo Castro, and Mark St. Cyr). As the night progresses, this group quickly realizes that some of the chef's surprises are deadlier than others.
"You have this incredible mix of tones. It's a broad social satire, it's a Grand Guignol horror film, it's a very dry comedy, it's a high tragedy," says Carrero.
"One of the things that drew us all to the project was that lovely mashup of tones," adds Mylod. "It's quite a small target to hit. But we were all attracted to how specific that was."
When the film hits theaters on Nov. 18, the cast believes it may change the way viewers approach food in film, on TV and even on social media. Here, Metacritic explores why.
Open any streaming service or flick to any channel and viewers are bound to come across at least one — if not several — food-centric series. From competition shows to documentary formats, the increased number of projects that tackle food and consumption has blown up, turning many chefs into household names in the process.
"The more of Chef's Table I watched, the more that I was in awe and amazed by these singular-minded, dedicated chefs who committed their whole lives to their craft," Hoult says of preparing for his role.
Chef Slowik is no exception, and the movie references that several times throughout. But his obsession has also turned the chef into someone living a solitary existence. The effort he puts into his art is grossly underappreciated, and as the movie carries on it's clear he's reached a breaking point.
Sure, patrons eat with their eyes first. However, foams, gels, emulsifications and other gastronomic terms have become something of the norm with foodies, taking all mystery away from the plate. The Menu argues there's a place for these elements, but the pretension of including them for the sake of an expensive meal or a social media post is no replacement for real taste. And that is another satirical nod to the growing poverty gap in America.
"The political and social commentary of this film taps into something that's happening, especially in America, maybe across the world as well," Leguizamo says. "The disappearing middle class, and these billionaires who think they can control our democracies, control our social platforms, control us, and how they separate us and keep us out and go into their little special bubbles. It's a great commentary on the privilege that's happening in America, and entitlement and people creating an 'us vs. them.'"
There's a line in The Menu in which Chef Slowik implores his diners to "taste," not "eat." The line could be a metaphor for all aspects of current consumer culture, from the endless items people buy online to the food on a restaurant-goer's plate. It's meant to remind viewers that there is joy in the simple pleasures, if you can slow down enough to savor them.
Most of the characters in this movie have so much it's become impossible to savor, except for one: Margot (Taylor-Joy). Her refusal to play into the downright snobbery of the game at this dinner party flummoxes Chef Slowik, to say the least.
"As an audience member you will feel this formidable presence and this fear, whenever he's there," says Taylor-Joy. "All of our scenes together felt so warm and intimate even when we were being quite rude to each other, when the stakes were pretty high."
In the movie, the service and kitchen staff are equally important to the overall story. That crew is headed up by Elsa (Hong Chau), a no-nonsense, front of house manager who is as dedicated to serving Chef Slowik as she is to ensuring the dinner service goes off without a hitch.
Normally, the patrons at this kind of restaurant wouldn't pay any attention to those helping to create such a rich experience for them, but Elsa and co. ensure that isn't the case on this special evening.
"I was hoping to find moments where we could create some sort of intrigue and draw some curiosity and interest from the audience about who Elsa is outside of the restaurant or how she came to be a part of Chef Slowik's crew," Chau says.
Chef Dominique Crenn, who has also appeared on everything from Chef's Table to Top Chef and The Next Iron Chef) serves as the food consultant on the film. She helps the team recreate jaw-dropping plates and pretty dishes meant to spark hunger and jealousy. However, like many fancy, multi-course dinners out there tend to do, viewers may walk away hungry for more. In that case, they'll probably want to reach for a good old-fashioned cheeseburger. With fresh-cut fries.
"There's a very specific turning point in the film where things do start to get dramatically darker. And up until that point we'd all been having quite a nice, if odd dinner party," says Taylor-Joy. "The way that this scene was shot was so visceral, it kind of shocked all of us when it happened. That led us down the new tone of the film. Less of the laughs, more of the gasps."