I’m Still Hungry: Taste and Eating in The Menu (2022)

Chaos ensues at a high-end restaurant after it’s announced there will be no bread. While director Mark Mylod’s The Menu is a satire, that sentence certainly feels true. Bread, and lack thereof, has incited whole revolutions, but almost exclusively for the poor. The Menu inverses this disparity as part of its class commentary, taking something accessible and making it exclusive to the lower class. Bread is food for the common man, according to the film, it’s something so abundant that it’s given away for free with water at cafes. As Chef Slowik explains, grain is sourced more than vegetables and fruits globally, and yet despite that abundance, there will be no bread in his menu. It has been purposefully taken away from his wealthy guests, who are instead given a plate of condiments. Each guest spent roughly $1,250 to reach the isolated island restaurant, known for amazing bread, only to be refused it. Unsurprisingly, this leads to immediate hostility. Sure, the guests get the metaphor, it’s very funny, but just bring out the bread. As one of the businessmen turns aggressive, having been served a plate of butter, Elsa, the maître d’hôtel, leans down to whisper, “You will eat less than you desire, but more than you deserve”. These wealthy elites don’t deserve bread, but they also don’t deserve to live according to Slowik. They’ve unknowingly come to die as recompense for their mindless eating of food and people. Bread, however, returns in the film’s final moments, as one guest, the only person who shouldn’t be there, a young woman named Margot, requests a cheeseburger. It’s a basic food, all greasy and common, and it’s served with a sesame seed bun. Margot is the only character who survives the night, and her survival is tied to appreciated bread.

“You haven’t touched your food.”
“There is no food.”

Eating and tasting are separate for Slowik, as each represents a different way of life. Eating is mindless, it’s just consuming to survive. Tasting is thoughtful, not just of the ingredients, but also the work, from harvest to cooking. Slowik asks his guests to taste, not eat, but as each guest goes on to demonstrate, they are as thoughtless of food as they are of people. The Menu is ultimately about how mindless or thoughtless industry kills artists, and each person present, even Slowik, is guilty of participating in that industry. As Slowik explains, “My restaurant is part of the problem”, in that it’s a beast that destroys other businesses and the people who once loved cooking and eating. Slowik’s restaurant is quintessentially inaccessible: in wording, location, price, and so forth. Every dish is given this elaborate process which the guests recognize but can’t replicate. They might have opinions, even obsession as Tyler’s character proves, but they aren’t artists themselves. Words begin to lose meaning, as dishes and people are purposefully exclusionist. Slowik, having witnessed this thoughtless consumption for his entire career, decides to organize an evening of fine dining and death to destroy the worst of his guests and thus the industry itself. The only way to dismantle this system, he decides, is to kill everyone, staff and guest alike. The staff are prepared to die, taking the kitchen mania often reserved for intense cooking shows to a new extreme. They are willing to follow their Chef anywhere and do whatever he says, even if that means shooting themselves in the head for a fourth course. Why do this insane thing? To cleanse, essentially. A whole purifying fire, or rather, fiery s’more.

There are countless films about achieving perfection, everything from The Red Shoes (1948) and Black Swan (2010) to Whiplash (2014), and you’ll notice that each of these are about artists. The story of a successful artist, dreaming of being perfect, and willing to sacrifice everything for it, only to succumb to the darkness of that dream is age old. Faustian really, a version of selling your soul, but less biblical. The Menu argues that perfection, at least the appearance of it, has already been achieved. These dishes are made with perfect ingredients and by perfect chefs, yet, as Slowik notes, “We strive for perfection, which of course does not exist, and that is a hard truth”. No course, as Slowik puts it, can really be perfect, and neither can people. Something can be well made and worthy of respect, but it will never be perfect to everyone, as the evening proves. There will always be a critic among this troubling industry. The evening has been carefully planned so that every person is part of Chef Slowik’s menu, everything from their revelations to deaths. While the film doesn’t take a cannibal turn, it does focus on eating the rich, who are metaphorically known for consuming the masses with their thoughtless behaviour, something the film attempts to disrupt.

Each arranged guest is guilty of something within the food industry, often by mindlessly dissecting things. Before I discuss how the film collapses human with food, I should mention that my overanalyzing here plays into the film’s criticism. This blog is called ‘You Remind Me of the Frame’, emphasis on the frame, a component in film. I dissect things on this blog all the time, some of my favourite scenes. It’s not unlike some of the characters who dissect Slowik’s work to an excessive degree. Tyler is obsessed with Chef Slowik, to a disturbing level, but that admiration is not mutual. Slowik hates Tyler because he is “why the mystery has been drained from our art”, as his overanalyzing, for all its fun facts, is mindless. Tyler frequently dismisses Margot, his guest, and grows to resent her as the evening takes a bloody switch. It’s eventually revealed that Tyler paid Margot to attend because the restaurant only takes two party reservations, and he couldn’t go on his own. But, unlike the other guests, he knew that everyone was going to die that night, and he took Margot knowing that she would be killed alongside. He might be the Slowik’s biggest fan, and know everything about the food, but he doesn’t bother to know the other chef’s names, or even Margot’s thoughts, because they are beneath him. He calls Margot a child for not appreciating Slowik’s genius, yet when Slowik asks him to prepare a dish in the kitchen, he can’t cook. For all that talk and exclusion, Tyler can’t prepare, let alone think of, a basic dish. The film is against over analyzing, which again is what I am doing. One of the characters, Lillian, is a food critic, which I hope every film critic reviewing The Menu considers, along with what bad reviews actually do.

I am biased here, but I think what we do on this blog is a little different than Tyler, and for one big reason: love. It’s mindless dissection that the film has an issue with, Tyler and Lillian’s all-knowing egos. I know my writing can sometimes be too academic, but I hope it’s not inaccessible. I do these articles for free and make zero money from this blog. I also try to be conscious of my analysis and ensure that it always comes from a place of appreciation. I’m not interested in talking about movies I didn’t enjoy or wouldn’t recommend, because I don’t really want to talk about those. Sometimes I read critics and wonder if they actually enjoy movies, because sometimes they don’t bother to raise an actual criticism, their reviews are just mean to be funny and that disregards all the work that went into creating a film. I know I mention this point a lot, so I digress. Chef Slowik is guilty of this, as we learn that he invited a washed-up Movie Star, simply because Slowik wasted a free afternoon watching his stupidest film. Yet, the actor seems to look back on that film fondly, asserting that he had a lot of fun making it, and it’s brought up by multiple characters. The Menu is about lost love in multiple industries, and it being a film means it’s absolutely tied to the film industry and the way independent filmmakers become disillusioned through big studio practices and critics. It’s only at the end of the film that love returns with a big spectacle, as each person/ingredient is combined with fire, their remains meticulously melted together- with marshmallows and chocolate- versus their picking apart of classes and food.

“It’s just theatre. It’s stagecraft. This is what he does, it’s part of the menu.”

The film initially illustrates how each guest is a thoughtless person by how they treat their partner. Most tables have two people, except for Chef’s mother and the business group of three. Before dinner is served, we watch these groups casually insult their partner. Lillian is a renowned food critic, and she uses obsolete language at every opportunity, to the extent where her partner, Ted, needs her to define what she’s saying. She is using purposefully unnecessary words just to make people feel stupid. Ted tries to keep up by describing things with somewhat approachable terms, like “epicurean salon”, still academic and exclusive, but not as exclusive as Lillian’s descriptors like “thalassic”. Despite this effort, Lillian disagrees with almost every point Ted makes, interrupting him and putting her own word forward when he isn’t repeating hers. The film eventually reveals that Lillian has put countless restaurants out of business because of similar relationships, where she is this all-knowing expert and everyone else agrees and just tries to keep up. It doesn’t matter if they like a restaurant or food, her opinion is more important and ‘correct’ than their own. Meanwhile the Movie Star (his only name), with his frustrated assistant Felicity, is preparing to pitch a travel food show to streaming services, having given up on film. The Movie Star knows nothing about food, and he certainly doesn’t know how to describe it. He ignores his assistant, who is also trying to resign, and assures her that he is important enough to outweigh his lack of knowledge or passion for food. He treats his assistant as he would his audience, refusing to let go but also knowing they are in a toxic relationship, as Felicity is stealing money from him. There is no sincerity to his pitch, and Felicity isn’t sure if he can even travel with a DUI. Like the other characters here, whatever joy the Movie Star had about his career has died, and now he just does it because it’s the only thing he knows.

Richard and Anne, the wealthy patrons, have recently endured family trauma in losing their daughter. It’s unclear if their daughter is dead or has just run away, but given that Richard paid Margot to pretend to be his daughter, there is implied incest. The couple have come to Slowik’s restaurant 11 times already, quite the feat given how expensive it is. Despite that incredible gift, neither can remember a single dish from any of those evenings. It doesn’t matter to them if it was cod or halibut, even though, as Slowik notes “it matters to the halibut…and to the artist whose work turns to shit inside your gut.” The sacrifice involved in making that dish has been utterly disregarded. It resembles the disregard happening in their relationship, as Anne suspects her husband is cheating on her, but may not realize the bizarre incest tone that adultery took. They stay together for the same reason they go to the restaurant: for appearances’ sake.

I’ve already covered Tyler’s dynamic with Margot, so that leaves the businessmen. It’s clear the group is involved in some white-collar crime and are prepared to betray their complicit boss, Doug Verrick, should it be revealed. They also believe that the restaurant and staff are indebted to them, because their boss is an angel investor. This entitlement comes up during the bread scene, as it’s the first time they are refused something they feel they deserve. What they deserve is not what they expect, however. When Slowik kills Verrick in a winged spectacle, they try to stop him, but only by offering money. No one tackles the person lowering their boss into the water, one man just tries to run for it and fails. The others watch, having no language other than money. That leaves one final guest: Chef Slowik’s mother. Why is she here, and why is she alone and drunk? If each guest represents an element of this mindless industry- the critic (Lillian and Ted), the dissector (Tyler), the patron (Richard and Anne), the owner (the businessmen), the actor (along with Felicity)- then who is she?

There are several of unanswered questions in the film, especially around Slowik. We never learn what inspired him to kill everyone, although apparently one of his sous-chefs, Keller, had the idea, the one he sexually assaulted and ostracized. It’s also unclear why his mother had to die with the other guests, as she is neither wealthy nor in the food industry. Slowik talks about his father while introducing a dish; the night he choked him using a phone chord and regretted not killing him. Margot discovers a picture frame of Slowik in his room, where he is the Employee of the Month at a small hamburger joint. It’s the only picture not on the wall, instead given a prime location with a heavy frame, and it’s the only happy image in the room. He’s even scowling in a picture with his possible his wife and young daughter (or maybe it’s his Father), yet another answered question. Here, Slowik stands beside a fryer with a huge smile, busy cooking accessible and cheap food for people who enjoy it. Something has clearly changed. His mother is a witness to the abuse he faced by his father and the industry. I think she is here because of that role, as it’s not just the people who participate in this system, but those who watch and do nothing. Her presence is left ambiguous otherwise, along with storylines like Richard and Anne’s daughter, Tyler’s ex-girlfriend, and what happens to Margot at the end. Does she survive or is she stuck? The audience doesn’t find out, and so while the film often dissects people and dishes, not everything gets defined. The plot isn’t picked apart to the same extent as Slowik’s menu.

“We never burn anything by design unless to make it delicious.”

The Menu references the bible multiple times without actually naming it. I only noticed one of these, the rest I learned from IMDb, like most people. According to that database, the goats at the beginning of the film are Judas goats, which are used to calm livestock as they are transported for slaughter. Showing them with the group foreshadows that they are being brought somewhere to die, and (unfortunately) not just going for a scenic walk with goats. IMDb also notes that there are 12 guests in total, like the 12 apostles. The detail I noticed is that Verrick is addressed as Slowik’s angel investor several times and is then killed wearing angel wings. Verrick is purposeful excluded, like the bread, with no dialogue or interactions with characters, but why? Why not kill Verrick as a guest, like everyone else? There is one possible reading, something an audience of 2022 should be keenly aware of.

Slowik keeps reservation books at the back of his office, but they stop at 2019, the year before the pandemic began. When Slowik lowers Verrick into the water, one of the businessmen shouts, “he kept you open through Covid, you prick”, which leads to an interesting question. Obviously, restaurants began closing on mass during the early days of Covid, something that continues, and restrictions meant that most transferred to a delivery and pick-up format. Experience is the selling point of a high-end restaurant, so neither of those approaches work. As Slowik even states, he has calculated the exact amount of food each patron should need, so these places are not designed for take away. So, how did Verrick keep the restaurant open? Did he donate money, or did he force them to stay open, hence the “kept you open” note? If I learned one thing from the pandemic, which is still happening, it’s that most people will be respectful until it is inconvenient, and people have different tolerances of inconvenience. Rich people are kind of known for getting their way, and so maybe this is me projecting, but it seems like the restaurant stayed open regardless of lockdown to serve rich people. That’s certainly the implication given that they stopped recording reservations in 2019, possibly to conceal identities amid restrictions. Richard and Anne have come 11 times in “the last five years”, a specific dating that suggests that they came during 2020. That would have endangered staff, who were isolated on the island until a customer arrived with Covid. The rich arriving and endangering staff just to enjoy an evening they don’t bother to remember, amid the same disregard throughout Slowik’s career, might explain Slowik’s sudden murder craze. The film could have taken place at any time, even in a world where Covid never happened, but it chooses not to. We instead get these very specific details that again relate to the film’s class commentary.

“I’m a name-dropping whore”

Names get brought up repeatedly in The Menu: fake names, wrong nametags on tables, not asking for names, giving excessive names and descriptions to things. None of the staff are given names other than a few Chefs, and notably, none of the guests ask for people’s names. When Tyler chats with someone in the kitchen, and is surprised they know his name, Margot questions why he didn’t bother to ask his name in return. For one so obsessed with the food process and head Chef, he has zero interest in the person actually preparing his food. This comes back comically later when a Coast Guard officer arrives, only to be revealed as one of the kitchen staff, that someone could have recognized had they been paying attention. Many of the characters aren’t given names at all, like John Leguizamo who is just called Movie Star, and the Sommelier who is just called by his title, as though it is his only identity. There’s also excessive name-dropping in the film, Movie Star going as far as to call himself a “name-dropping whore” of food and people.

While Margot ranges from uninterested to vaguely insulted by the food, others discuss it meticulously. The presentation, the “mouth feel”. The film introduces these courses with a picture and short description explaining what is in the dish. These descriptors becomes increasingly funny as the courses grow more intense, describing things like “The Mess” and “Man’s Folly”. These moments feel like a cooking show, as they inform the audience of what ingredients and techniques the characters are talking about, seeing as they won’t tell you themselves. It’s a form of dissection, but it’s a more accessible kind, defining things only fine diners would recognize. It becomes quite literal in the film’s final moments, as the s’more ingredients are followed by “customers, staff, restaurant”. Margot is the only person left to oversee this last description, as she watches the explosion and takes a bite of her hamburger. So, while the rich don’t literally get eaten as s’mores, the poor (those in the serving industry) eat all the same.

Plenty of films literalize ‘eat the rich’. Some inverse it, like Fresh (2022), where rich men pay to eat beautiful women, others like Hannibal (2013-2015) use it to discuss fine dining. I initially thought The Menu would take a similar route as Hannibal, which features a storyline about feeding a rich prisoner fine food so they taste better, rich inside and out. I was surprised to find that there is zero literal cannibalism in The Menu, even though it’s a class criticism along a similar vein. While no one is eaten, food and people are condensed several times. The most obvious is that Slowik considers people and food as equal elements to his menu, but there other instances. For example, when Richard has his finger cut off with a kitchen knife, Tyler makes a similar cut on his turnip (I believe) and continues to eat. While he is not eating Richard’s finger, there is a juxtaposition between the two actions. Fingers reappear at the end when the guests are presented with a gift bag, featuring house made granola and one of Verrick’s fingers. The largest cannibal moment however is the s’more scene, as the guests are decked with marshmallows and chocolate caps. In case I haven’t made it clear, this movie is a comedy, it’s satire. There’s still a commentary happening, but I don’t want to understate how funny this film is. This s’more scene is ridiculous and funny, so are several sequences. It looks ridiculous until the camera zooms back to an aerial shot where the high-end s’more design is finally revealed. No one eats it though, except for Margot, by eating her burger.

“There are No substitutions at Hawthorne!”

Margot teases the restaurant throughout the film, and it’s clear early on that she doesn’t belong to this wealthy group. She calls out Tyler on his thoughtless behaviour, and regularly questions the perceived high-end establishment. The loud clapping, the speeches, the not eating but tasting, the gel. People are very busy saying something ridiculous is smart just so they sound smart. That’s not to undercut the level of work that goes into this food, more how the process has become loveless. These dishes are unloved by everyone, guest and chef alike. No one enjoys eating them, other than Tyler who develops a mania about them, and each are quick to judge. When Margot sees how happy Slowik was in the burger picture, she realizes the overarching theme of the evening: love, or the death of it. Knowing this, Margot delivers one of my new favourite monologues to Slowik:

“You’ve taken the joy out of eating. Every dish you’ve served tonight has been some intellectual exercise rather than something you want to sit and enjoy. When I eat your food, it tastes like it was made with no love…You cook with obsession, not love. Even your hot dishes are cold. You’re a chef. Your single purpose on this earth is to serve people food that they might actually like, and you have failed. You’ve failed, and you’ve bored me. And the worst part is, I’m still fucking hungry.”

The Chef is astonished. Margot is the first person to acknowledge that his work, this unloved prestigious food and pageantry, is unfulfilling. It doesn’t do what all food should, stop you from being hungry, in multiple ways. She asks for a cheeseburger, given Slowik’s history for it and recognizing that it’s something he loved doing. It’s a dish so removed from elite nonsense that he can actually enjoy making it, and she can love eating it. But what’s interesting is that the two still have a conversation about the burger and how Margot wants it prepared. She picks what kind of cheese to use- American cheese which “melts without splitting”, another class commentary vs the split condiment previously served without bread- what cooking temperature, and what type of fry to serve with. There is thought to the dish, it’s not mindless. When Slowik delivers Margot the “very good, very traditional cheeseburger”, she takes a bite and savours it, knowing what went into it. It’s the only dish Chef Slowik makes in the film, and his staff watch with undivided attention as he, an artist, works. The descriptor notes that it’s “just a well-made cheeseburger”, yet the words “well-made” are enough. Not perfect but made with some skill and love. When Margot asks if she can take her food to go, explaining, “I think my eyes were a little bigger than my stomach…can I get the rest to go?”, Slowik lets her. As a result, Margot escapes s’more death, and finishes the burger on a boat. She might not be eating the rich, but she is eating the last of Slowik’s love because she is the only one who asked for it. The industry on the island has upended, and appreciation and love has been restored with a simple, but well-made, cheeseburger. Accessible to anyone with $9.95 and an appetite.