In the genre-bending horror-comedy-thriller “The Menu,” a couple travels to a coastal island in the Pacific Northwest to eat at an exclusive restaurant called Hawthorne. There, the pair are part of an exclusive group of guests who were intending to enjoy a $1,250 10-course tasting menu, but are subjected to much more from the elite chef whose shocking vision for the meal includes each and every one of them.
The movie stars Ralph Fiennes as the indomitable Julian Slowik, a chef whose celebrity has led him to make some changes to meal service, and Anya Taylor-Joy as Margot, a guestwhose mysterious intrigue serves as a foil to Slowik. “The Menu” has already grossed over $58 million internationally to date and scored both Fiennes and Taylor-Joy Golden Globe nominations earlier this week.
The movie features eclectic and mix of actors playing characters that skewer negative culinary culture archetypes like the over-pretentious restaurant critic, the arrogant finance bro and the chef-worshipping foodie.
One other aspect that has been lauded almost as a character in itself has been the food that holds the plot of the movie together. And this is where celebrated chef Dominique Crenn comes in.
Although all of the food discussed from here on was prepared fresh and remained unspoiled, according to reports from the set, the rest of this article contains spoilers for the plot of “The Menu.”
For Crenn, chef and owner of the three-Michelin-starred restaurant Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, it was an easy decision to work on a movie portraying a chef at her level going in such a, well, unique direction.
“It started with my agent sending me the script,” Crenn tells TODAY.com, adding that after taking a couple of hours to read it, she had to sign on as chief technical consultant. “It took me about one second to say yes. I thought it was hilarious and something that I wanted to be a part of.”
Crenn says prior to filming, she worked with director Mark Mylod, writers Seth Reiss and Will Tracy, and set designer Ethan Tobman to create a mood board surrounding what the food served at Hawthorne would look like on screen.
Everything from the plates to the order the food was served in was discussed so that they made sense within the movie’s plot as well as authentically reflected the reality of the culinary world.
“It was literally like opening a restaurant. We wanted to make sure that it was authentic to the script,” Crenn says.
“We worked about a month and a half to develop all the dishes, and then took pictures and headed to Savannah,” she says. “My job was to help the culinary team out there to execute the vision, working with the director making sure that authenticity and detail were there to the teeth on the menu and also to work with Ralph merging him into my world.”
Crenn says she worked with Fiennes to both teach him how to maneuver like a chef with decades of culinary experience, including teaching him how to make probably one of the most delicious-looking double cheeseburgers ever captured on film. She also taught him how to carry himself as the head of a kitchen.
“You’re the director of the symphony, and you have all these musicians around you and it’s you directing, owning the space,” recalls Crenn of what she told Fiennes. “It’s not about yelling, it’s not about throwing things at people, it’s not about what people think a kitchen is like. You use your eyes.”
Crenn says she also told Fiennes about how she acts in her own restaurant. “I walk in, I say hello, but I don’t really speak a lot. I just look at people or stand next to them. You have to bring that intensity with just your presence.”
The comedic side of the film comes through in dishes like “A Special Bite” (slow-cooked yolk, whipped lemon creme fraiche and maple emulsion) served to Ted (Paul Adelstein), the last guest to be caught during a violent nighttime round of hide-and-seek.
The “Breadless Bread Plate” which takes “savoury oils and emulsions” that would typically be spread on bread and serves it without any bread is pure dining-world satire. A dish that might look like a visual gag actually wasn’t one: Crenn treated it like an actual dish being served in a restaurant of Slowik’s caliber.
I can create a feeling of a hamburger without me giving you the meat.
“I tried to get the feeling of the flavors without having the ingredients in front of you. I know that sounds crazy,” says Crenn, adding that it was more than just butter and olive oil in those dishes, they were created with the same attention to detail as every other high-class dish in the movie. “I can create a feeling of a hamburger without me giving you the meat.”
Other dishes had a more sinister flair, like “The Mess,” roasted filet with potato confit, seasonal vegetables, beef jus and bone marrow — served immediately after a sous chef commits an act of self-inflicted violence in front of the diners. This juxtaposition of gluttony and wrath is the area that Crenn and company had to work within for each item served in the film.
Crenn explains that both darkness and beauty needed to be present in every dish for the vision of Hawthorne to resonate. On screen, “The Island” is a course with a raw diver scallop accompanied with pickled seaweed and algae beautifully presented on island stones. It looks stunning but also like a puzzle: What is actually edible? The feeling the dish creates, that something is both perfect yet slightly off-kilter, reflects the action unfolding between the characters.
Crenn is known for the way her work embraces the beauty of life — a well-known example of that being Atelier Crenn’s menu which is actually a poem about her childhood memories. Crenn says, though, that “The Menu” gave her an opportunity to explore the darker side of humanity when it comes to food.
“I know it could be tricky for someone like me, but it was one of the most interesting creative moments for me, also, to get out of my comfort zone and to try to create something that is bigger than me, actually,” she says, adding that artists like Basquiat, Picasso and Salvador Dali layer many emotions within one canvas and artists in that vein served as inspiration for the food’s beautiful-yet-icy visuals.
“My request was that everything was going to be like in a real restaurant and the actors would literally be able to eat it,” Crenn says, adding that food can evoke emotions that a prop can’t. She also requested that the actors who play the kitchen staff under Slowik would also have to do the same things that Crenn’s staff does in her restaurant. “I think this is why a lot of people say, ‘Oh my god, it’s so authentic,’” she says.
Each dish serves as a plot point on an ever-intensifying path toward the grand finale — the “S’more” — the only dish that was constructed as a prop not by Crenn, but by Tobman.
While the food the actors consume on camera is composed and styled for the camera both by Crenn and the rest of the food-styling team, the movie is also separated into chapter segments using visuals shot by David Gelb, whose Netflix series “Chef’s Table” served as a major inspiration for the film.
The accuracy of Slowik’s prowess on the plate was guided deftly by Crenn’s own experiences — albeit with a murderous twist. Even with Slowik’s violent intentions for the night, Crenn wanted to make sure his talent as a chef shone through. She wanted to create the feeling that, after mastering all the molecular gastronomy techniques — from “green salsa cubes” to Pacojetted “milk snow” — his passion for cooking had gone completely cold.
“The guests he invites are the reason why he is so over it and so it’s almost genius that he just wants to go out but still leave his mark, so you didn’t want the food to be s—-y. You know?” Crenn explains. “So, we had to bring some beauty. But since it’s the end of his life, he wants to leave with a big bang — and where is the big bang going to be? Or is it in the way that he’s going to kill people? Or is it in the food?”
Or … maybe it’s both.