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How ‘The Menu’ explores ego and exploitation in fine dining

[This story contains spoilers from Searchlight’s .]

In The menuthe exclusive experience presented by remote destination restaurant Hawthorn is as much about who is attending as it is about the carefully crafted plates.

As Ralph Fiennes’ executive chef Julian Slowik eventually reveals, it’s because of what the curated tasting menu explores: the corrosiveness of hunger — for power, relevance, money, love, and more — within all of its diners brought together for a single, last night.

“We twist them. They’re having a pretty rough night,” director Mark Mylod said of releasing what lured the guests into Hawthorn’s death trap. “But honestly, I never set out to eat the rich. To me, the story was a real character study of flawed people. It was really a real exploration of why they behave the way they do? Why are they there? What choices did they make? How did their egos and rights lead us to this place and for them to take this bait in terms of their own ideologies?

Hand-picked for the event and each represents a different version of moral degradation and (abrasive) privilege. The diners include a wealthy couple, a food critic and her publisher, a foodie and a sex worker, three tech bros, and a washed-up actor along with his assistant.

Hawthorn’s dinner guests are in The menu

Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

“We talked about, ‘What are the archetypes of people who would actually be in a restaurant like Hawthorn? It’s the rich techies, the superstars of the food world,” said producer Betsy Koch The Hollywood Reporter at the New York premiere. “We came up with the idea because Will Tracy — the writer of this movie along with Seth Reiss – is a huge foodie. He goes to many of these restaurants. He’s like you can literally plot the different people around.

It’s a group that, as actress Hong Chau points out, doesn’t allow itself to be constrained by the literal “black and white way” Hollywood has traditionally spoken “of the haves and the have-nots.”

“It’s not just waving the finger at the old white man, because that’s a little too simplistic and limiting. There are so many people from all walks of life occupying privileged spaces,” she said. “I love that John Leguizamo is the one playing the aging movie star and tech bros, who could easily have been three jock-y white guys.”

Throughout the night, the people in this group must each face their own ‘sins’, as the director describes them – the conclusion, says Mylod, of the chief’s ‘mea culpa’ six months earlier.

“This is a character who, when we find him, is absolutely engulfed and drowning in self-loathing, trying to go out with some sort of bang, but also on a moral level, paradoxically, to actually atone for his own tarnished ego and for his abuse of his own power,” said the director. “He tries to atone for his sins as best he can. Of course he can’t, but the least he can do is own them.”

Ralph Fiennes

Ralph Fiennes in The menu

Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

According to Fiennes, his chief, indulging in feeding his own ego, is a journey about the tension between “an obsessive-compulsive narcissist” who wants perfection and moral clarity.

“He’s someone who started out with very pure ambitions about how you make food or get your food to people, and I think he hates himself because he’s obviously a genius, but he’s allowed himself to get very distant,” explained the actor. “What I liked was the complication. He doesn’t like what he does. He doesn’t like where he’s gone. There is a real contradiction in him that he wants power and control, but on a deeper level he despises himself for it.

It’s not just that desire for admiration and authority that has brought him and his guests to this moment. As viewers learn, he was involved in harassing a female subordinate, a sous chef named Katherine (Christina Brucato), who is revealed to have masterminded the twisted concept and explosive end of the night.

“With the gender dynamics in the kitchen, we wanted Katherine to talk about what it’s like to be a young woman trying to make her way in an incredibly male-dominated industry. How hard that is day in and day out to perform at that level and have so much pressure on you,” Koch explained.

This thread is one of the most direct connections to the diners and the movie’s larger exploration of gender in fine dining. A wealthy, aging man whose dark secret is the nature of his gross infidelity, Richard van Reed Birney had previously subjected another of the evening’s attendees to harm from his sexual conduct.

The two men are responsible for their misbehavior, but in strikingly different ways, the latter eventually being forced to lose his wedding ring finger. For Birney, Julian’s decision to take responsibility versus Richard take responsibility goes beyond the chief’s connection to low-paid service workers. “If the boys of my generation misbehave, they have long gotten away with it,” he said. “The first impulse is to deny, and maybe the younger generation has somehow been conditioned to be honest.”

John Leguizamo

John Leguizamo inside The menu

Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

John Leguizamo’s George is an aging action star inspired by Steven Seagal who has lost his artistic authenticity amid declining industry interest and scrutiny over his career. It’s something both a current and future Julian can relate to – and fear.

“They all have something toxic about them and one of his bad qualities is narcissism. He is vain and that is part of his downfall. One of the reasons he’s there is to show off. He’s there to suck up the oxygen,” Leguizamo said before noting that his character’s “sins” are slightly different from those of the other men in the room. “The other guys are really despicable, but you kind of feel sorry for this guy because he’s a failure. He’s a washed-up action star and there’s something very sad and tragic about someone who’s on top and then he’s gone.”

While the film has plenty of bad men, it doesn’t limit its scrutiny to the privilege and abuse of one gender. The film also features several women, all of whom have earned their place at the table. Judith Light, who plays Richard’s wife Anne, sees her character as a woman desperately clinging to her “self-respect, her place in the world, her rights, her wealth and the kind of lifestyle she thinks she wants.”

“We allowed ourselves to say nothing, say nothing,” Light said of the female diners, with the exception of one. “[Anya Taylor-Joy’s Margot] took back what many of the other women let go but what they felt they wanted.

Light notes that a bond and camaraderie develops between these women, despite class and other distinctions. For Anne, it leads to the realization that she is somehow taking back her power. But in the end, like the men, these women’s right and inability to raise their own fingers serves their downfall.

“They do behavior them think will they get what they want,” said Light. “But everyone in the movie, as Anya has said, is hungry. They have wants, needs, famines that they cannot solve in the way they have always tried to solve them.”

Judith light

Judith Light in The menu

Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

While that hunger lives both literally and figuratively in Hawthorn’s house, The menu is also interested in exploring hunger and power through the back of the house. It’s a place that, as Katherine’s storyline reveals, is also full of toxicity, fueled by powerful men like Slowik and those willing to work in a place that consumes them in more ways than one.

“We all have a huge fear associated with perfectionism and the industries that I think proclaim the greatest level of perfectionism are rife for satire and horror because people forget about themselves,” said Ethan Tobman, The menu’s production designer. “All they want is for the chief to promote them, to notice them – and they resent him when he takes their ideas and makes them their own.”

This drive and desperation to rise to power in the culinary world at great personal cost manifests itself in a number of shocking moments involving the Hawthorn kitchen staff. In one sequence, Slowik’s second, Elsa (Chau), literally fights Taylor-Joy’s Margot to the death to remain what actress Chau calls the chief’s “ride or die.”

“I wanted to make sure my character Elsa felt like she was incredibly intelligent and capable and took pride in what she did. I saw her as a campaign manager for a political candidate. She was so proud of what they had accomplished and achieved together and would not let anything get in the way of that,” she said. “There’s something very deep in that – even if it’s a fight scene and an entertaining action scene.”

In front of The menu team, exploring the hunger and corrosive properties that permeate the entire culinary ecosystem was one of the ultimate goals.

“The toxicity in the kitchen that you hear about from the industry hierarchy is also a response to the toxicity of the customers and how they react to the food,” Tobman noted.

Ralph Fiennes and Hong Chau

Ralph Fiennes and Hong Chau in The menu

Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

“One thing we want people to understand when they see this movie is the different levels of servitude and exploitation and what it’s like in an industry like this – to see people give their bodies and souls to this kind of work,” said producer Koch. added. “We almost wanted to engage the audience in a way of scrutinizing their own behavior.”

The menu is in theaters now.

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