If fact is stranger than fiction, what does that say about “The Menu,” the recently released dark, comedy horror film on HBO Max that satirizes destination dining? (There are no plot spoilers here.)
For those who are steeped in the culture, the references to specific chefs and restaurants are satisfyingly clear. The clap that paralyzes a dining room; servers in bizarre outfits, with a cultish gleam about them; and that unmistakable dessert at the end, meted out in dots and dashes; these are all familiar to those who know.
But what astonishes me is how widely legible the culinary totems in this movie are to the general audience. It is a testament to the successful mainstreaming of extreme foodieism.
Shows like “Chef’s Table” (if the plated beauty shots in this movie seem familiar, I heard that the film crew from “Chef’s Table” was recruited to take them) and countless food personalities on social media removed all barriers between the front and back of the house, and popularized the aesthetics and archetypes of contemporary, elite dining. As a blogger and photographer, I’m certainly guilty of this. Even those who have never, and most likely will never eat in these restaurants are now familiar with the milieu: stark interiors, obscure ingredients with equally obscure provenance, abstract plating, a brigade of cooks tweezering in monastic silence, and surveying all of it, the stern glare of an austere chef.
While this glimpse behind the scenes was once novel and exciting – educational, even – it has long since devolved into to something very different, something very silly, and worse, corrosive. Producers, other media supernumeraries, and, most egregiously, food journalists, succumbed to the allure of access they created for themselves in the restaurant industry. And, instead of remaining faithful to their journalistic duties – uncovering the truth about a subject and relaying it dispassionately to readers – writers and editors turned from investigating and reporting to cheerleading.
Breathlessly, they fawned, glorified, and deified their culinary subjects, about which they often seemed to know very little. It is, perhaps, this ignorance that explains the awe and mysticism that seemed to guide the incandescent coverage. All of this was exacerbated by lists and rankings, which purported authoritative objectivity over a plainly subjective matter; a preposterous claim that the public gleefully accepted. Restaurants were presented as temples, the kitchen, an altar upon which the rarest and finest are sacrificed, and the chef was transfigured into a high priest, whose culinary authority is both holy and absolute.
If this unfounded fanaticism among the media wasn’t troubling enough, chefs and restaurant industry workers bought the narrative too. And together, they created perhaps the most terrifying creature of all, the insufferable gastronaut groupie, whose blind religiosity and devotion to this new pantheon of chefs, jetting from table to table, is truly vomitous (to be clear, it’s not the travel or belt-notching I find offensive, but rather the mindlessness that motivates it). As Jaya Saxena aptly observed in her article about the coming closure of Noma, “Outside the cost and the schlep, Noma always seemed like it was built on the assumption of a diner’s reverence.” (The writers of “The Menu” nailed the caricatures on the guest list; we know every one of those diners in real life – the over-eager fanboy, the loudmouth tech/crypto bros, the self-important critic…)
But which chef, which restaurant, and what kind of cooking could possibly fulfill these far-fetched fantasies? Obviously, none.
And yet, something so obvious, few were willing to say aloud. Why?
I believe that it was the pressure to justify these impossible expectations that largely drove chefs and restaurants to create fanciful narratives about themselves and their cooking, champion ill-conceived causes (which are now coming back to haunt them), and indulge the bizarre, all of which was miraculously sold and bought as philosophical seriousness by the press and public.
Among those who desired to be considered the “best,” cooking good food and providing good service were no longer the aim of owning and running a restaurant. One had to be outrageous, because the spectacle of outrageousness was rewarded über alles. If we’ve learned one thing in the 21st century, it’s that sensationalism sells.
It is this genre of performative gastronomy, having matured, that “The Menu” lances with its sharp and dark humor. Make no mistake, the farce portrayed is reality. We, collectively, have made it so.
But whatever momentary catharsis “The Menu” might offer those, who, like me, have lamented the culinary slide into absurdity, passes quickly. The same media that once lionized their darlings, now delight in tearing down what they are complicit in having created, all while clutching pearls. There is no acknowledgment of the part they play in inflating these runaway egos, or how they incentivize the telling of tales, or that not one of them pauses to ask when they trumpet a multimillion-dollar buildout, “is this financially viable?” They are just as shocked as their readers at the fall when it inevitably arrives. Does anyone else find this deranging? This is deranging.
I was once served a 100-year-old horse mussel at a restaurant, where the celebrated chef is known to loudly proselytize sustainable sourcing. At the tableside sermon, it was explained that, by finding alternative sources of food – like this variety of mussel, which, in an area of the world where little is edible, no previous generation had found worth eating – we might offset the consumption of more carbon-costly animals. But it was also revealed that only 10% of the mussel turned out to be edible (as generational wisdom had foreshadowed). This centenarian died so that the restaurant could only use 10% of it? This (and many other things – never mind the outsized carbon footprint in the dining room from courting a global clientele) made the chef’s gospel extremely difficult for me to conciliate, making me wonder how food journalists were able to do so in their various encomia. They must have far more faith than I.
Perhaps instead of declaring every novel concept brilliant, we should all – food writers, cooks, and diners alike – first ask: is it sensible, is it actually good? Or is it only novel?
Before applauding a chef or a restaurant, maybe we should actually experience the food and service for ourselves first – and pay for it, so we can more accurately gauge its worthiness.
Instead of issuing a list of places people should eat, perhaps food editors should focus on producing content that equips diners with the ability to discern good cooking for themselves.
Maybe everyone should question the legitimacy of ratings and rankings, or disregard them altogether and let our curiosity and instincts guide us instead.
Maybe young cooks shouldn’t make career choices based off social media.
Maybe all that glitters isn’t gold.
As it goes, what seems like common sense doesn’t seem very common anymore.
I’m not saying that performative gastronomy has no place in the world. It’s not the kind of dining experience I enjoy or seek. To me, more often than not, it’s paying to be culinarily abused (I can’t remember where I saw or heard it, but someone once cleverly quipped, “the problem with dining on the cutting edge is that it often leaves you bleeding,” a sentiment the writers of “The Menu” captured quite accurately). But if chefs, cooks, and diners like a bit of dinner theater or culinary showmanship, I certainly don’t object.
What I am saying is, don’t be surprised – or worse, outraged – when the show you went to see turns out to be merely a show, especially if you didn’t ask the hard questions and do the critical thinking upfront.