If you’re someone who considers themself a foodie (and I totally am), chances are there was a moment in the last few years when you had The Awakening. It may have been when the waiter was describing the veal marrow with beat foam served with baby lettuces from New Zealand. It may have been when you were eating the red snapper that was cooked halfway through, like a rare steak, and you thought, “I love sushi, I love cooked fish, but I’m not sure this is really the best of both worlds.” It may have been when you saw the bill.
Whatever the trigger, that was the moment you looked up from your plate and realized that high-end foodie culture has become a serious annoyance. It’s gotten too fussy, too pricey, too full of itself, too not filling (of yourself), too avant-garde and conceptual, too tied to The Salvation of the Planet, too much of an ordeal. Did I mention too pricey? It used to be that if you wanted to ridicule culinary mania, you mocked someone like Guy Fieri. But he has risen from the ashes of infamy to a kind of born-again respectability (and yes, “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” was always a great show). Now, if you want to ridicule culinary mania, the most natural targets are restaurants like The French Laundry in Napa Valley or Bros’ in Southern Italy, places where the 12-course “tasting menu” can inspire you to think, as one blogger put it, that “there was nothing even close to an actual meal served.”
That’s the foodie culture “” takes on and skewers, slicing and dicing it with a hilariously shocking thriller zest. Most of it is set inside the metallic contours of an exalted designer restaurant, a temple of haute cuisine called Hawthorne, that’s special enough to be located on its own island — Hawthorne Island, a 12-acre farm-to-table destination where the wealthy, the famous, and the pretentious pay $1,250 a head to sample the ever-changing tasting menu assembled by Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). He’s a dour guru of cuisine who’s at once a self-inflated artist, a drill sergeant to his army of cooks (who labor just beyond the diners in an open kitchen), and an aggro foodie cult leader, introducing each course with a thunderous hand clap and a monologue that explains its significance. “Do not eat,” he says to the diners. “Taste.” But the exhortation to taste without eating is a chef’s form of narcissism. He’s such a legend in his own mind that he’s forgotten what food is for.
“The Menu” is a black comedy, but one played close to the bone. And it is a thriller, because after a while what’s being served to the diners segues from pretentious to dangerous. Even the danger becomes a form of snobbery: This is how much the food matters. Yet the tasty joke of “The Menu” is that the food doesn’t matter at all. The food is an abstraction, an idea, all generated to fulfill some beyond-the-beyond notion of perfection that has little to do with sustenance or pleasure and everything to do with the vanity of those who are creating the food and those who are consuming it.
The latter, in this case, are an ensemble of diner victims as brimming with theatrical flaws as the characters in a “Knives Out” movie. That’s why the knives are out for them. They’re getting what they deserve just for coming to this restaurant, for buying into the dream that this is the meal they’ve earned, because that’s how cool and prosperous and elite they are.
Tyler (Nichols Hoult), a devoted foodie geek, already knows he’s going to love everything that’s served. He had brought along a date, Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), who is not nearly as into it — in fact, she turns into the audience’s cynically levelheaded, ordinary-person representative who sees through all the puffery on display. Lillian (Janet McTeer), a food critic, prides herself on writing the kinds of reviews that close restaurants, so we know she’s going to get her just deserts. There’s also a trio of tech bros (Arturo Castro, Rob Yang, and Paul Adelstein) who, between the three of them, incarnate every flavor of obnoxious. And there’s a well-liked but fading movie star, played by John Leguizamo, along with his assistant (Aimee Carrero), who’s using the dinner as a pretext to part ways with him.
“The Menu” is divided into courses, with each dish, and its ingredients, listed on screen, and for a while the movie is content to satirize the food. The first dish features foam (a tipoff that it’s not going to melt in your mouth so much as evaporate before you can enjoy it). And that’s the down-to-earth dish. Each succeeding one represents more and more of a deconstruction of food as we know it. Chef Slowik is a mad scientist of gastronomy who has reduced the very essence of cooking to a glorified lab experiment. The diners are his guinea pigs, which may be why he harbors a barely disguised contempt for them. As it turns out, the menu he has masterminded is meticulously arranged for all of them to get their just deserts, as if this were the Michelin Star version of “Saw.”
The director, Mark Mylod, is a British veteran of television who’s got wicked chops (he directed 13 episodes of “Succession”) and shows them off here. His staging is sharp, elegant, ice-cold in the best way. And the script, by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy (veterans of Seth Meyers, John Oliver, and the “Onion” TV series), never stops humming with observation, even as it veers into an over-the-top realm, sauced with blood, that turns the movie into a squirmfest version of theater of the absurd.
All the actors are fun, but the two lead actors (sorry, I can’t resist) are so good they’re delicious. Ralph Fiennes plays the art chef from hell as a high fascist of snobbery, as if his mission — to make food that’s to be savored but is somehow too great to eat — were exalting him and tormenting him at the same time. And Anya Taylor-Joy, as the customer who’s got his number, cuts through it all with a sparkle that grows more and more contemptuous, as she puts together the big picture of what’s going on: that the decadent aristocratic superiority of it all is the whole point. The grand finale is bitingly funny, as Chef Slowik deconstructs the ultimate junk food — the smore, a “fucking monstrosity” that will cleanse everything with its fire. “The Menu “says that the trouble with what high-end cuisine has evolved to is that it’s grown too far apart from the low end, leaving nothing in between. No matter how divine the food is, you wind up starving.