A Spoiler Heavy Analysis of the Menu, the Closure of Noma, and the Purification Era of the Restaurant Industry.
I initially assumed The Menu was going to be a play on every hospitality worker’s darkest desire: bloody revenge on unfortunately entitled yet undeserving customers.
But why must everyone die – customers, staff, and chef?
Sure, there is hyperfocus on the passion-sucking aspects of fine dining—critics, rich people, sycophantic foodies—that push one chef over the edge.
But, in light of the recent news that Noma will be closing, or put more accurately, “pivoting” due to the unsustainability of fine dining, one could read much more into the satirical horror movie, The Menu.
This isn’t simply a revenge story—it’s a purification story.
Everyone needs to die because everyone, staff included, represents the capitalistic and toxic aspects of fine dining that are currently bringing about its demise.
Fine dining must be engulfed in flames and made anew, much like Chef Slowik’s description of what makes a s’more special.
First, it’s obvious the customers must go.
These privileged customers fan the flame and create space for fine dining and the status it brings them. Their patronage financially backs the industry, and their obsession glorifies it without offering genuine appreciation for the art or artists.
The customers develop the market and desire for something like fine dining to exist in the unsustainable state that it does.
Most of them have reached an upper-class status by exploiting the industry for financial gains, if not just pumping their egos.
While they are all chucking forth $1250 a head to dine at Hawthorn, it’s not enough to offer the workers any life worth living.
The staff lives in a shared bunkhouse that resembles soldier barracks, and of course, the work is too labor-intensive for them to have any work/life balance or even reside outside the restaurant.
Elsa, the restaurant captain, explains that the staff is like a family, working 80 hours weekly to uphold the world’s finest restaurant.
When asked about “burnout,” Elsa claims it’s an honor to work at Hawthorn, and it’s all done to keep up with Chef’s standards.
This brings me to the next group that must go—the staff.
The staff in The Menu upholds the status quo and works below their deserved standards in self-sacrifice for the promise of greatness and through idolization of the Chef and his vision (which has succumbed to the clientele and societal definitions of success).
The glorification of fine dining has created a sentiment that privilege or prestige from working for a specific place is more important than fair wages or work environments.
For years places like Noma have existed off of free labor through what our industry calls stages and internships. It’s the only way Noma, the world’s greatest restaurant, could exist.
Even now, Redzepi claims that paying his 100 workers a liveable wage while working arduous hours to maintain high standards and keep menu prices bearable to customers is impossible. This comes after attempting to increase wages due to recent scrutiny over unfair labor practices at Noma.
Another scene served as an ode to the “Me Too” movement in the hospitality industry.
The 5th course, “Man’s Folly,” where Kathrine, a sous-chef, shares a tale of her sexual harassment. Chef Slowik tries to fuck her twice, yet she refuses. Katherine describes that Chef didn’t fire her. He kept her working in his kitchen through abuse and isolation.
“He can do that,” she says. “Because he’s the star. He’s the man.”
In an article for the New York Times, Finnish Chef Kim Mikkola claims that fine dining, like other elite pursuits, often has abuse built into it, “Everything luxetarian is built on somebody’s back; somebody has to pay.” Even Redzepi himself has been accused and admitted to participating in the abusive treatment of staff.
By doing nothing, the staff gives up autonomy and, as a result, upholds the toxic aspects rampant in fine dining: illegal labor practices, abuse, and harassment.
Finally, there is the Chef.
Chef Slowik has gone so far down the rabbit hole of “success.” Compromising his passion, talent, and career to be consumed for fame and recognition.
He’s reached the tipping point and is now seeking to escape; death is the only answer.
In the movie, Chef Slowik is leading the show, but really, the monstrosity he has succumbed to is in complete control. The Fine Dining Scene as it stands.
As Margot, the antagonist, says, “Every dish you’ve served tonight has been some intellectual exercise rather than something you’d want to sit and enjoy.” She accuses Chef of cooking with obsession, not love.
Redzepi also displayed a sense of losing himself to the standards of his own creation.
New York Times reporter, Julia Moskin, writes that Redzepi said, “operating at the high level that has earned Noma international adulation had long felt untenable. But until the Covid pandemic kept him at home, he said, he had never stopped working long enough to question whether the whole business model might be broken.”
Everyone’s death is a part of “the menu” because everyone must go for something better and new to be born.
In his final words, Chef Slowik speaks of s’mores. He states, “What transforms this fucking monstrosity is fire. The purifying flame. It nourishes us, warms us, reinvents us, forges, and destroys us. We must embrace the flame. We must be cleansed, made clean. Like martyrs or heretics, we can be subsumed and made anew. I love you all.”
Throughout the whole movie, Margot’s character is the only one to fight back. She’s unamused and expresses distaste, pushing on the ideals of fine dining and ultimately winning her freedom.
One might say this can relate to those in the industry who have stood up to the standards of fine dining that perpetuate poor work environments and harassment.
Today, we are witnessing our industry take a stand, an era of purification.
While it might be unfortunate, the goliaths of the industry, like Noma, must fall for something new to take its place.
Over the last decade, there have been significant strides in creating better work environments for hospitality workers. Not just from fine-dining establishments but at every level of the restaurant industry.
More workers and restaurant owners are seeking alternative options to creating a more sustainable industry—and they’re making necessary changes to what it means to work in hospitality.
Expedited by the pandemic, there’s a surge in union organization among hospitality workers, from chains to independent restaurants. Unionizing is one-way workers are taking matters of improving their wages and work environments into their own hands.
Many businesses are also exploring new, more socialized ways of employment in the hospitality industry.
Restaurants like Cafe Olli and Kachka in Portland, Oregon, are building a shared profit employment model. Black Star Co-op and brewery in Austin, Texas, runs the world’s first cooperative brewery. Equitable employment models offer workers more stake and voice in the business.
Organizations like Good Work Austin are forming to support small businesses seeking to provide fair wages, benefits, open book policies, financial education, and more.
Our industry is far from perfect, but things are changing, and it feels like we’re on a positive path forward.
Yes, there are still bad employers and bad employment practices. Yet, many more are working to purify the industry in a way that encourages creativity and passion but not at the expense of workers’ quality of living.
The Menu is a fantastic satirical horror/comedy that will make you laugh while simultaneously covering your eyes with your hands—but it’s more than that.
It’s social commentary at its finest and will make you think deeply about how we need to work together to build a more sustainable industry.