A review of The Menu, Chef Slowik, Burnout, and Depression. WARNING! Heavy Spoilers Await You.
“And now you’re free too…,” Chef Slowik turns and says this to another main character named Margot, and if you’re like me, you found it to be something that simply doesn’t make sense on your first watch through The Menu.
This is simply not the case at this moment. No one is free in Mark Mylod’s feature length directorial debut, not the customers, not the staff, and certainly not the audience. This is one of the many things that struck me about the Chef in The Menu, a film that I must defend as a brilliant piece of cinema, regardless of how the movie leaves you feeling.
It is impeccably shot by a cinematography legend Peter Deming (see I Heart Huckabees, The Jacket, or any movie by David Lynch), and the musical score by Colin Stetson (Hereditary, Color out of Space) is absolutely stunning.
“And now you’re free too..” What does it mean? As Margot disobeys and ventures into the chef’s home instead of the task she is commanded to complete, she breaks an unspoken code as a newly ordained part of the staff rather than a customer. Behind one of two duplicately ornate metal doors, she finds a room full of clues to Chef’s past— images of his life where his passion for food and culinary art still drove him and rewarded his soul.
There are many theories about the metal doors on the internet. Could they be the classic McGuffin? A reference to an ancient Greek mythological character? Or a clue to surviving the unsurvivable night that Chef has “painstakingly planned” for the intended guests of The Menu. Either way, Margot unveils a truth at the root of Chef’s life that we all strained to see at this very moment of the film.
The movie does a fantastic job of creating relatable characters. I’m sure many of you saw yourself in at least someone in the film if not many, but I found myself fixated on the Chef for many reasons.
I saw a person who was fueled by a sense of fate or obsession, combined with a lifetime of dedication, hard work, sacrifice, and maybe a little luck… but found himself at the end of a life-long journey without the ability to find joy where his feet had carried him.
Take, for example, what we find behind the silver door:
- An article about Tantalus (a restaurant review by Lillian Bloom) describing a 4-hour meal featuring 20 courses that “don’t so much pummel the senses as bewilder them into a new understanding…”
- A framed family photo of a woman, a child, and a very morose Chef sitting together.
- A picture of Chef and his angel investor
- And finally, on an easel by itself, a framed photo of him as the employee of the month at Hamburger Howies
This is what they call in the film industry as “no subtext – all text.” We get it. Chef is miserable in all of these photos but one. What IS subtle is the nuanced care in every frame of the movie that falls on Chef Slowik’s face as he moves from scene to scene dealing with the repercussions of his entire life, culminating in a single night of dining.
By the time he says the line “you’re free too,” we already know quite a bit of the previous abuse he’s subjected his followers to. Sexual advances, scorn, and what appears to be, at best verbal abuse but at worst more resembles psychological torture (R.I.P. Jeremy Louden).
I know we spend much of our time discussing and writing about the toxic environment fine dining has created, but as any old man will tell you, ‘if only my shoulder didn’t hurt so bad, I’d finally be able to focus on how much my knees ache.’
Chef is but one piece of this ecosystem. Although he is a big piece, the ecosystem as a whole is being fed from every angle.
The breadcrumbs become apparent as we see Chef interact with each of his customer archetypes: The billionaire abuser who doesn’t remember a single dish he’s consumed in 11 separate ventures to the island. The food critic and her publicist who, as an early advocate, “put him on the map,” but went on to close several restaurants that didn’t live up to her level of critique. There’s the angel investor and his cronies that are proven to be in the midst of some sort of financial illegality, the unrelenting foodie who was so desperate to attend the night despite knowing full well the repercussions that the menu will entail, an actor on the brink of making yet another exploitative garbage travel food TV series and his well-to-do assistant: a perfect example of nepotism.
At a pinnacle moment, the chef laments:
“Thank you for dining with us tonight. You represent the ruin of my art… and my life.”Chef Slowik
When asked a question about why he has a knack for playing such beloved bad guys, actor Ralph Fiennes (who plays Chef Slowik) brushes off any ideas of him being the movie’s antagonist and offers his take: “It’s really about the psychic pathology of perfection… you know, perfection is a sort of madness. I think it’s talking a bit about how the drive to perfection will make you mad.”
What Chef has done in the premise of this movie is not reaching the apex of a career in food. He has found himself in a place where a lifetime of obsession and dedication has brought him not only what he thought he wanted but also the abysmal emptiness that comes with it. He sees the environment it’s created or that was necessary to perform at 200%, 100% of the time.
Todd Essig, a psychologist and Forbes contributing writer, notes, “there seems to be something about extreme success that puts one at higher risk for depression – perhaps because it’s so pressurized, so lonely, or so empty, it triggers depression.”
Add in with this very recognizable set of circumstances a sense that as a leader in the culinary arts, Chef can look around and see a culture of abuse that perhaps he has helped pave the way to create, but more likely simply lit the path for others to find.
Who of these incredibly driven individuals can match Chef Slowik’s trajectory without the path itself becoming a soul-swallowing existence? The mental health industry all seem to agree on a deceptively simple solution: don’t let your life, relationships, and health suffer because you put yourself last or even second behind your career.
“And now you’re free too” is the single most important sentence that Chef says to Margot, not when she is physically allowed to leave – but when her ‘employer’ is finally taken out of the picture so that she can put herself first. Perhaps Chef’s masterpiece of the night was to set all of its participants free from the masters that kept them captive. Free from the strive for perfection, free from the abusive course towards it, free from a life in a ‘service industry’ where the individuals serviced rarely deserve or appreciate it.
“I’ve allowed my work to reach the price point where only the class of people in this room can access it. I’ve been fooled into trying to satisfy people who can never be satisfied”Chef Slowik
The customers were forced to atone for their sins just like the staff and the chef… some of them accepted their fate, while others couldn’t hide the lack of appreciation. Heck, they even got a little gift bag as they left.
If you’re struggling with your mental health, it’s never been more easy and more acceptable to reach out and find help. There are multiple communities for those working and struggling in the hospitality industry; specifically, organizations like SouthernSmoke.org or chowco.org come to mind… but the first step is by far the hardest and most important.