by

If you’ve ever said that you would give an arm and a leg to eat at a Michelin-starred restaurant, the satirical thriller “The Menu” will have you think twice about that. While the dark comedy doesn’t verge into a more deviant kind of consumption (cannibalism), murder is definitely on the menu. Director Mark Mylod (“Succession”) takes the audience on a journey through the eyes of Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) to a remote island where dinner guests are fed at Hawthorne, an exclusive prix-fixe menu establishment operated by Chef Julian Slowick (Ralph Fiennes).

Those who can cough up the hefty price tag know that eating at a fine dining establishment always feels like a dance of sorts: Everything is meticulously timed and all the players know their cues. “The Menu” takes that choreography to a whole new level through Chef Slowick’s machinations as the laughs turn into gasps. 

In every food establishment, one could argue there are two dances going on: one in the front of the house and one in the kitchen. While the two don’t often meet, the open kitchen style of Hawthorne and the unexpected attendance of Margot allows for the dinner to become messier than planned. That performance begins with a greeting from Hawthorne’s maitre d’ Elsa, played by Hong Chau (“Watchmen,” “Downsizing”), at the dock and a tour of the island.

Chau, whose breakout role was as a Vietnamese dissident and activist in “Downsizing,” admits to Mochi that she has never eaten at a Michelin-starred establishment. Nevertheless, Dominique Crenn — the only female chef to earn a restaurant three Michelin stars — served as the film’s advisor and offered Chau quite the compliment. “I had to learn how to fold a napkin, and it surprisingly took much longer to fold the napkin properly than you would think,” said Chau. “[Crenn] pulled me aside and said, ‘I love what you’re doing. I think it’s so spot on. And I love how elegant and precise you are. I think you should come and work for me.’”

Unlike the other restaurant staff or even Chef Slowick himself, Elsa doesn’t have a monologue, nor does she ever articulate her reason for being a part of the scheme. Instead, her stoic demeanor toward the guests is simply felt throughout the film as is her underlying desire to please Chef Slowick.  

“One of the things that I wanted to figure out before I signed on to the movie was whether I would be allowed to lift Elsa off the page a little bit, because [otherwise] there’s no point,” said Chau. “What’s her deal? Or who is she? I was shooting in Portland, Oregon at the time, and the restaurant was supposed to be set in the Pacific Northwest. I found a lot of inspiration from the funky people I was seeing around me. And, you know, you just start dreaming up a backstory for your character. Sometimes you don’t have to, because it’s already there on the page. And then other times, like in this case, you have to because it’s not [on the] page.”

Ralph Fiennes and Hong Chau in “The Menu”
Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Initially, the team imagined Elsa as simply blending into the background with her being “very plain so as to not stand out at all.” The original costume concept was a plain pantsuit as many modern-day hosts wear, different from the kitchen staff and the servers, but nothing that would stand out. Instead, Chau conspired with Amy Westcott to conjure up a stern, almost-Victorian black and white ensemble. (Westcott is also married to director Mark Mylod, so she had his ear.) In every shot in the dining room, you can easily pinpoint Elsa, making it all the more important for Chau to maintain a presence that reverberates through her whole body. 

As the dinner begins, the cult-like feel of the Hawthorne staff might be foreign to the unseasoned viewer like it is to outsider Margot. The staff act like they would follow Chef Slowick to the end of the world — and they do in a way — but that’s not untrue to reality. In these institutions, the head chef is very much revered and the only acceptable answer is, “Yes, Chef!” As the front-of-house manager, Elsa is no different, and although that could be read as falling into the role of stereotypical Asian woman — submissive, obedient, eager to please — Chau sees Elsa as an “acolyte,” having devoted her life to a restaurant that she lives and breathes. 

For the viewers and the dinner guests, this devotion becomes unhinged as the film progresses. In addition to Margot and her food-obsessed date Tyler, there is the table of young money tech bros Bryce (Rob Yang), Soren (Arturo Castro), and Dave (Mark St. Cyr), a table with an older couple named Anne and Richard (Judith Light and Reed Birney) who have clearly outworn their marriage, another table of two with the picky food critic Lillian Bloom (Janet McTeer) and her patriarchal magazine editor Ted (Paul Adelstein), and finally, a table seating an out-of-touch movie star (John Leguizamo) with his Ivy-league graduate assistant Felicity (Aimee Carrero). 

As maitre d’, Elsa knows exactly who is supposed to be there and every detail about them in ways that are creepy — e.g., who is hiring an escort and who is evading their taxes. Throughout the night, she answers questions and directs the guests to the appropriate behavior, as she should, but there is a bit of miscommunication between her and Chef Slowick that a true connoisseur would notice: Elsa never communicates back to the chef, and this lack of information about the guest’s pleasure, satisfaction, and experience could probably be what leads to events depicted in the film. 

In a restaurant of any caliber, the host and the chef are like one’s left and right hands. They must work together, but Elsa follows his orders without question to the point that she blames herself for certain occurrences. Instead, Margot is able to touch the chef in a way that he has forgotten to the point that Elsa feels threatened and replaced. Nevertheless, she’s devoted to the night’s menu and will carry it out no matter the cost. 

“Elsa admires and looks up to Chef Slowik for his tenacity in terms of standing firm in his beliefs,” Chau remarks. “I think it’s sometimes really hard for people who work in a service industry to stand their ground because there’s the idea that the customer is always right, and you are there to serve them.”

Exactly what the guests are in for is simply too juicy to divulge. When asked about Elsa’s motivation for the chef’s menu that night, Chau notes, “The different courses are topics that [Chef Slowick] touches on throughout the night. These ideas of the haves and have-nots, people who are served and people who serve. That’s where you see her beliefs. Because I believe Elsa does believe exactly what the chef is saying.” 

For a taste, during one of the starter courses, Chef Slowick serves his famous bread plate without bread. Before service, he monologues that bread has been the food of the people, the food of the poor. Consisting of flour and water, the food is a cultural staple and the guests will not be eating his bread but only the accompaniments — some butters, oils, and dipping sauces. (My personal favorite dishes in the film are “Man’s Folly” and the grand finale, a life-sized take on Alinea’s deconstructed dessert.)

At the end of the film, the dinner guests get their just desserts and even pick up the tab, so it is safe to say that the diners all ate what was fed to them. The film is truly a feast for the eyes and a heart-racing thriller that makes one question consumption. Simultaneously, it is an ingenious concept for a dark comedy that makes you think, “Why hasn’t this been made before?”

As an interloper in the world of fine dining, I can tell you that the ambiance and atmosphere captured on film is authentically elegant, picturesque, and lavish while also being accurately stuffy, pompous, and unsatiating — I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve chased a 10-course prix-fixe with a burger from In-n-Out — with only the added flavoring taking the film over the top. If eating is an act meant to fill oneself and to be done with others, then “The Menu” asks what late-stage capitalism has done to this simple art form through the elitist monster that is fine dining. 

As for Hong, her performance as Elsa is spotless and leaves you hungering for more, but as her character says in the film to a dinner guest asking for bread, “You’ll eat less than you desire and more than you deserve.” 

“The Menu” is out in theaters on November 18, 2022.

Cover photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Author

  • Giannina Ong is the Editor in Chief and Activism Editor of Mochi Magazine. During the day, she's a researcher, activist, and content creator. She holds a master's from University of Toronto's Women and Gender Studies Institute, and completed her bachelor's triple-majoring/triple-minoring at Santa Clara University. A spot-on Taurus (sun and rising), she is also a retired athlete, pasta-loving writer, and overeager editor.

    Follow Giannina Ong

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Close Search Window
Close