To the credit of everyone involved, no one pretends that junkets are anything more, or less, than exactly that. Making money for a film — in this case, the film is called Burnt, stars Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller, and is distributed by the Weinstein Company — and promoting it is not really a goal most journalists or reporters share. But we’re tempted by the promise of cozying up, if only for a fleeting moment, to some fancy Hollywood stars; a brush with the Beautiful People. Indeed, that was how my editor sold this assignment to me: "INTERVIEW CELEBS!" the subject line in my inbox screamed.
The release of Burnt may mark something of a sea change regarding the subjects we come to expect from our Hollywood studio projects. There’s never been a film about fine dining with as much potential to gross big bucks and with such a stable of high-profile stars: Cooper, Miller, Uma Thurman, Emma Thompson, Matthew Rhys, and Alicia Vikander round out the cast. Correction: that should read "a film with real live human beings." The highest grossing cooking movie of all time is, of course, the 2007 Pixar classic Ratatouille, which starred Patton Oswalt as the voice of Remy, a rat who wowed France’s top restaurant critic, Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole) with his humble take on the namesake vegetable stew. The movie took in over $200 million in the U.S. and won an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.
Our fascination with chef culture and fine cuisine has moved beyond reality competition shows.
The fact that Burnt was even made indicates that our fascination with chef culture and fine cuisine has moved beyond Top Chef, MasterChef, Chopped, and other TV reality competition shows: people now want to see that dramatized on the big screen. Jon Favreau’s 2014 film Chef did surprisingly well for an indie flick (the writers of Burnt also named their movie Chef, incidentally, and changed it when Favreau’s movie debuted). Fine dining has become ingrained in our culture to the point that it no longer exemplifies excess or Eurocentric novelty; it’s a fully integrated part of society that’s now being embraced by Hollywood. Expect more of this kind of movie — Burnt II: The Reckoning and Burnt III: The Leftovers coming summer 2017.
With a higher profile in Hollywood now than ever, food media requires bigger star wattage. That’s where Cooper and Miller enter the picture, and is the reason I’m in an Uber to the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills. Meeting a big movie star is a highlight of any reporter’s day, to be sure (all but the most jaded, anyway). But within the context of a Big Hollywood Press Junket, the stars have been talking non-stop for days, repeating the same answers and stock phrases, eating the same hotel food, having their ears talked off by publicists, being handled by their, well, handlers, and they’re exhausted. A few days before the junket, I wrestled with the the idea that it was just foolish thinking that I was going to ask something they haven’t heard before — something that was really going to turn Sienna Miller’s world upside down. At the same time, I second-guessed myself: Am I just being a stick-in-the-mud? I get to interview two big stars, after all, as well as director John Wells, who helmed 2013’s excellent August: Osage County as well as approximately 5,000 seasons of E.R. I even get to do an on-camera interview with the talent. Let’s try to stay positive!
But shortly before the scheduled press day, I got some bad news: Bradley Cooper pulled out of the interview. Not only that, but I would get no on-camera interviews with anyone, period. I should have seen this coming. But it’s like a bad break-up: even if you see it coming from a mile away, even if you prep for it, pack your schedule for the next two weeks with friend hangouts, stock your pantry with junk food and cue up a Lost marathon on Netflix, it still hurts. It hurts bad. Damn you, Bradley Cooper. Damn your handsome face.
The location of press day is a cluster of suites on the second floor of the Four Seasons on Doheny Drive in Beverly Hills. My first thought is, My, everything is very… brown. The building is brown; the trim creamy, all the decor and furniture some shade of khaki or taupe. I go upstairs and into one of the suites (I went into the one that had a giant Burnt poster outside: lucky guess) and am greeted by Elaine, a very friendly woman who’s a little overwhelmed by everything going on. There are about six people in the suite; I’m the only man. The phone is ringing a lot. "Okay, so we’re running just a little behind…" Elaine trails off, canning some papers at her desk. "Oh wait!" She looks up and goes underneath her desk to a brown cardboard box. "They just sent us some knives! I think they’re the knives they used in the movie?" She begins handing out five-inch knives to everyone in the room, beginning with the woman standing next to her.
It’s a two-room suite; in the other suite is a glass-door refrigerator with some sodas and a table with coffee and a selection of teas. Below each coffee dispenser is a small dish that holds some coffee beans, ostensibly the beans that are roasted for the coffee in question (this is always a confusing touch). Except there are no beans, there are just purple silver-metallic marbles. I ask if I could grab a cup of water or something; Elaine says, "There’s coffee in the other room… there might be food. Is there food?" Another woman looks up from her phone and says humorlessly, "No. There’s no food," and returns to her phone. I make a lame attempt at a joke and say: "Kind of ironic, eh? No food?" I make an open-palmed gesture and smile: Eh? Crickets. Utter silence.
After about 20 minutes, I catch a snippet of Elaine’s conversation on the phone with someone: "So Bradley does want to eat at the pool, if you could bring a pool menu…" Oh, is THAT what BRADLEY wants? I seethed: He’s here! For whatever reason, I imagined he bowed out of press day altogether, but no, he’s probably mere feet away — just unwilling to talk to me. I sit in my biscuit-colored chair and fume. I grab a copy of an itinerary that’s sitting on the coffee table and look it over: E! News, Entertainment Tonight, and Access Hollywood all got first dibs. I shouldn’t have been surprised that these coiffed and and preening stalwart Hollywood paracletes got access, and Eater got bumped. "Okay," Elaine says, "things have changed a little and we’re switching John and Sienna. You’ll do John now and then you’re going directly over to Sienna."
Director John Wells looks like your dad. Or your college English professor. He's kindly, avuncular, has a belly, and wears a brown sportcoat over a blue-and-white dress shirt. He's waiting on a couch in a suite across the hall; as I walk in to meet Wells, I notice a small woman crouched down on her phone, which is plugged into a socket. She will remain there, keeping an ear on our conversation.
Wells is amicable and forthcoming, and explains the process of putting the movie together. Chef Marcus Wareing, he says, worked on the script of Burnt in addition to creating all the dishes in the movie. "Marcus was there anytime Bradley was plating or doing any of the dishes," Wells says. "He and his people basically functioned as a sous chef in a Michelin restaurant; we were making as many as 100 or 120 meals a day in the kitchen." Cooper also spent considerable time in Gordon Ramsay’s eponymous restaurant on Hospital Road in London. "And I spent a lot of time with Mario [Batali] in Del Posto and he answered a lot of script questions."
In Cooper’s looming absence, Wells speaks for him, touching on the culinary experience that prepared Cooper for the role of a brilliant-but-troubled chef: as a line cook (before he became an actor) and as the character Jack Bourdain on the short-lived Fox TV series No Reservations, in which he portrayed a... brilliant-but-troubled chef. "He had to spend time figuring out how to convincingly look like he knew how to prep some things," Wells says. "The grouse, the fish — then he had to learn how to plate."
As for the culture of abuse in kitchens — both verbal and physical — that’s depicted in the film, Wells is blunt: "I’ve talked to a lot of chefs who say things aren’t like that anymore, but I’ve spent a lot of time in a lot of kitchens, and it’s still like that." Still, Wells maintains, many of the chefs who live in that culture choose to be there, and then when they are reprimanded, it’s for a reason. "I didn’t find, when I talked to people, a frustration or a fury about being berated," Wells says. "I found only, ‘I can’t believe I made that mistake.’"
I ask Wells, jokingly, if he takes a similar approach with his actors if a take doesn't go well, and he says, "No, I don’t find that to be particularly successful. Particularly when you’re dealing with a lot of movie stars."
"Can I grab a water?" Sienna Miller looks exhausted. "Sorry, I’ve just been talking for hours." Miller is curled up on the couch in brown leather pants and a collared shirt under a black sweater. Her publicist, who will sit four feet away from us the entire time, is on her phone but pauses in order to hand Miller a water. The clock is ticking, and I’m positive I’m not going to get the full 15 minutes with Miller that was allotted to me in the schedule. I need to get through a few questions quickly.
I ask her a little about kitchen culture, and if she’s ever felt like that on a movie set. "I have felt belittled at times," she says, "but never violently. But recreating that scene where Bradley grabs me was a hard day and it was really horrible to do that. It felt... very real and very nasty." Miller says she devours cooking shows: "I love MasterChef, I love Nigel Slater, I love Rick Stein, Jamie Oliver, Nigella, there's really no cooking show that I won’t watch." Miller also knows her way around a kitchen: "Being British, every Sunday I cook a roast." Every Sunday you cook a roast? I repeat back to her. "Yes!" she says, "Lamb, pork, beef... it’s really a part of British culture. I do cook a roast every Sunday, with all the trimmings, and then have friends come over."
Miller is kind and agreeable throughout the interview, a bit sleepy at times when she tosses her blonde hair over to one side, strands falling over large, golden hoop earrings. But she’s polished, and she’s played this interview game hundreds of times: friendly and casual while not giving away too much or causing her publicist’s ears to prick up. She loved the process of training to do the movie. Marcus Wareing was wonderful. She loves food and loves cooking for her daughter. Cooking shows are her guilty pleasure. Getting to work with Bradley again (they were paired together in American Sniper) was amazing. She loves the London restaurants J Sheekey and Mestizo. Perfectly fine, perfectly colorless and repeatable answers. We finish the series of questions (in which she reveals she can make chicken adobo in her sleep) and I am hustled out of the room by her handler.
Lunch has apparently been brought into the next suite over. I wasn’t invited to check it out, but I decide I’m going to anyway. There are a few items — fried shrimp, small squares of pepperoni pizza, turkey sliders — and they’re all being positively incinerated under a series of heat lamps. The pizza, which is hours old, is too hot to pick up with fingers, much less eat. Everything else is languishing just as pathetically. I grab a very desiccated turkey slider and glop a spoonful of guacamole on it. I stand there eating it, alone.
At that moment, Bradley Cooper appears in the lobby, positively floating off the elevator. Miller appears by his side soon thereafter. He’s wearing the same thing she is — collared shirt under a black sweater — but he’s got skinny jeans on, and high-top sneakers. He’s smiling and chatting with someone. I consider, for a moment, going up and asking why he canceled our interview. He’s looking generally in my direction but he doesn’t make eye contact; he looks right past me. About five seconds later, he and Miller turn and walk together out of the hotel.
Lead image: Bradley Cooper at the New York City premiere on October 20th. Getty/Gilbert Carrasquillo/FilmMagic