Welcome back to Friday afternoon. Although this newsletter is usually a place to find recommendations for shows to watch over the weekend, this week’s issue is a little bit different. As I did last summer, I decided to use a mellow week in TV land to check out a major food film that I’d never seen before. Little did I know that the movie in question would turn out to be a strong contender for worst food film of all time. And yet, as bad as this movie is, I think it’s a fascinating one to watch, and an important document of how chefs have been portrayed on screen for far too long. Here, without any further ado, are some thoughts on the colossal cinematic turkey known as Burnt.
Burnt put the nail in the coffin for movies about toxic chefs
Midway through Burnt, I started to wonder if Bradley Cooper had made a pact with the devil that allowed him to star in monster hits American Sniper and A Star Is Born in exchange for appearing in this culinary calamity (and, possibly, the laughably weird Cameron Crowe flop Aloha). When this melodrama about a chef attempting to achieve fine dining glory landed in theaters four years ago, I remembered that the reviews were generally mixed, and most food lovers I know reacted to it with a shrug. Watching it in 2019, it seems almost unbelievable that the film got made in the first place.
I will concede that the food looks good in Burnt, but that’s about the only thing in the movie that seems to have any connection to reality. Here, in no particular order, are some of the most baffling moments from the 2015 film:
Counting the oysters: When the story begins, bad boy chef Adam Jones (Cooper) is doing penance for his culinary sins by shucking oysters in New Orleans, far away from the gaze of the Michelin inspectors, his scorned lovers, and the drug dealers who are still trying to collect money from his junkie years in Paris. Once he shucks his millionth oyster — a detail that he logs in a little book, to show that he’s been counting every single mollusk for years — Adam storms out of the restaurant to begin his comeback on the European dining scene. The next shot is our hero (?) bounding across the Huey P. Long Bridge — a structure with no pedestrian walkway! — in the opposite direction of the New Orleans International Airport.
Enemies everywhere: Like in the John Wick universe, seemingly everyone is out to get Adam after he lands in London, where he is hoping to find a fresh start. A run-in with his former sous chef from his Parisian days, Michel (Omar Sy), ends with Adam’s old co-worker chasing him down the street and wrestling him to the ground. After Michel gets him in a chokehold — as payback for when Adam torpedoed his career — the chef offers his assailant another job, which he accepts. In another similarly baffling sequence, Adam agrees to get into an SUV with a pair of French drug lords who keep lurking around the restaurant, only to return to his kitchen all bloodied and bruised and find that the Michelin inspectors have arrived. He cooks them the meal of his life, with open wounds on his face.
Michelin madness: Nobody really knows the habits of the Michelin inspectors, because they are famously anonymous. But Burnt makes a few spectacularly weird assumptions — namely that the inspectors stagger their arrival times by 30 minutes, only order half bottles of wine, request one tasting menu and one a la carte dinner, and silently place a fork on the floor to see if the servers will find it. Midway through the film, when a waiter notices all of these things — including the fork on the floor! — she tells the kitchen and the news whips Adam and his team into a frenzy. “If they find one single thing wrong, they will kill us,” Adam tells his staff.
Plates upon plates: According to Box Office Mojo, Burnt’s production budget was $20 million, and my guess is that at least $7 million of that was spent on plates that get chucked against the wall. Any time a dish is not correctly seasoned, or an entree comes back to the kitchen, Adam hurtles it across the room. Sienna Miller’s sous chef character, Helene, also does her fair share of plate chucking, and Adam’s rival, Montgomery (Matthew Rhys), gets so mad reading a good review about his nemesis that he takes all the plates in his kitchen and ceremoniously throws them against the wall, one by one. The filmmakers behind Burnt clearly have a vendetta against plates.
Anti-sous vide propaganda: For reasons that are never quite explained, Adam loathes sous vide cooking. Chefs at the legendary restaurant Troisgros in Ouches, France pioneered this technique — wherein food is sealed in a plastic bag and cooked at a low temperature for an extended period of time — four decades ago, and sous vide cooking is still commonly used by chefs in the world’s best restaurants. It’s not a shortcut or a fad, and yet Adam inexplicably hates this technique so much that at one point he bursts into his rival’s kitchen, insults his sous vide machine, and then mockingly pulls a plastic bag over his head, almost suffocating himself.
Groaners galore: There are honestly too many bad lines in this movie to count, but my favorite is when Adam tries to convince Helene that his Burger King combo meal is somehow an example of cooking that’s pure-of-heart. “Burger King is peasants doing what peasants do — giving a cheap cut of meat a little style,” he tells her while picking apart his Whopper. “Goulash, bourguignon, cassoulet. Shall I go on?” Woof.
While watching Burnt, I kept hoping that it would take some even stranger turns and wind up in “best worst movie” territory, a space that’s currently inhabited by such accidental masterpieces as The Room, The Apple, Troll 2, and Plan 9 From Outer Space. But there is one thing that prevents this film from becoming a joyous disaster: Adam is, at his core, a grotesque caricature of a very real kind of toxic kitchen boss. He’s aggressive with everyone on his staff — including Helene, whom he grabs by the shirt at one point and screams in her face — he makes his employees suffer through their mistakes, and he has no desire to collaborate with anyone or compromise any part of his vision.
This is an archetype that Marco Pierre White glamorized and Gordon Ramsay (a consultant on this film) signal-boosted, but it’s a stereotype that doesn’t need any more attention on screen, unless it’s a pointed take down (which Burnt is not). A chef like Adam, who is a user and abuser of people, doesn’t deserve to run a three Michelin star kitchen, or any kitchen at all. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that two of the biggest celebrities whose predatory actions were exposed at the height of the #MeToo movement — Harvey Weinstein and Mario Batali — both had some hand in the production of Burnt (the former was a producer, while the latter was a “chef consultant”).
As it stands, the movie presents a version of an ugly character that existed in pop culture for decades, but is hopefully fading in the rearview as more filmmakers and showrunners seek to promote healthy kitchen behavior on screen.
In other entertainment news...
- Family Food Fight is the latest in a long line of uninspired remakes of foreign cooking competitions. I’m convinced that American TV networks will never produce anything to rival The Great British Bake Off.
- Are you sick of Gordon Ramsay yet? If the answer is “no” then perhaps you will want to try one of the hundred or so restaurants he’s opening over the next five years.
- Drew Carey is the kind of celebrity who leaves 250 percent tips.
- Jimmy Fallon and Nicki Minaj went on a dinner date at Red Lobster this week.
- John Legend and Chrissy Teigen cook for each other a lot, but rarely work in the kitchen together. “She’s a bit more creative in the kitchen. I like to follow recipes, and I’m very good at executing them,” Legend tells People. “I’ll look them up online or literally in her book. I’m not really creative in the kitchen, but I love to cook.”
- The hottest food event of the month was not, in fact, the World’s 50 Best list announcement in Singapore, but rather Ashley Christensen’s wedding in Raleigh last weekend.
- Fans and friends of Anthony Bourdain shared remembrances of the author/TV host on his birthday Tuesday. My colleague Jenny Zhang writes, “Bourdain Day was that rare opportunity for people to meaningfully remember and consider one’s relationship with this beloved figure, among a community of others who are doing the same.”
- Reservations for Taco Bell’s sweltering hot, adults-only chalupa playground are already sold out.
- And finally, this week we learned that Joe Biden has an insatiable appetite for angel hair pasta.
I hope you have a great weekend. And if you either live in the NYC area or are thinking about making a trip there at the end of July, I would strongly recommend buying a ticket ($60) for the Young Guns Summit, an Eater event featuring up-and-coming industry talent and food media superstars Alison Roman, Marcus Samuelsson, and Michael Solomonov.