It seems counterintuitive, but for many of us, there is perhaps no feeling more pervasive in the world of fine dining than discomfort. Maybe you’re shuddering at the cost of your Michelin-starred meal, or worried that your dress doesn’t look quite fancy enough. It’s that out-of-place feeling that The Menu, a new film from Succession director Mark Mylod, mines to terrifying effect. Starring Nicholas Hoult, Anya Taylor-Joy, and Ralph Fiennes as chef Julian Slowik, The Menu is a terrifying exploration of the excesses of upscale dining.
The entire film takes place at a restaurant called Hawthorne, commanded precisely and brutally by chef Julian. Situated on a private island only accessible by boat, the restaurant welcomes 12 hand-picked diners for this particular meal, in which Julian absolutely loses his mind. Taylor-Joy stars as Margot, the last-minute, deeply skeptical date of intense foodie Tyler (Hoult). As the evening wears on, one thing becomes immediately clear: This isn’t like any other dinner Hawthorne’s wealthy and privileged guests have eaten before, and they’re probably not going to make it out alive.
Ahead of the film’s release on November 18, Eater sat down to talk with Mylod, Taylor-Joy, and lauded chef Dominique Crenn, who served as the film’s culinary consultant, about the way their experiences in restaurants influenced the film, what it’s like to build a fictional restaurant from scratch, and whether or not skewering wealthy restaurantgoers will actually make people think twice about how they behave in restaurants.
Eater: What actual restaurants inspired the fictional Hawthorne?
Mark Mylod: Rustic modernism was the aesthetic that felt most at home to us. That led us, of course, to René Redzepi’s Noma as a first port of call. From there, we Frankensteined pieces from various influences together. There are parts of El Bulli in there, Magnus Nilsson’s Fäviken, and of course, Grant Achatz’s Alinea. They were our main influences in terms of style, and maybe a little bit from Thomas Keller’s the French Laundry in terms of the way the kitchen works.
We sent the script to Dominique Crenn, who was the first and is still the only woman in the United States to earn three Michelin stars, and she loved it. She came on board to work with us on pretty much every aspect. I was obsessed with making sure that our kitchen was as authentic as possible. If you’re going to satirize the excesses of any art form, you need to do it from a place of authenticity.
Dominique, what was it about the script that made this film so appealing to you?
Dominique Crenn: I read the script very fast, like in two hours. I said yes right away because I felt that I really was a lot like [chef Julian], without the violence. It was an incredible script, and it’s not just about the food. It’s about the ecosystem of the restaurant industry, the psychology, and it was just a very organic fit. I wanted to create something that was influenced by my experience.
What was it like to build this restaurant, Hawthorne, from scratch?
MM: It’s very intimidating, until you bring in the best people in the industry to help you. Working with an artist like Dominique, who lives and breathes that high-end world of dining, was incredible. I tended to think about the design in terms of the dramatic needs of the space, and how I would stage the action in the most dramatic fashion, and Dominique and the rest of the team would interpret that into an authentic, high-end kitchen layout. There was a constant translation between my dramatic storytelling needs, the photographic needs of the film, and what worked for making a truly realistic high-end restaurant.
One of the things that makes Hawthorne such a draw for the people who eat there is its exclusivity — you have to be invited, you have to have the resources to travel to this island in the middle of nowhere. Have you ever been in a situation at a restaurant where you felt excluded?
Anya Taylor-Joy: I’ve had plenty of people take me on experiences where I think they wanted me to be shocked or made to feel small. I’m a total Margot in those situations. I just can’t stand cruelty, and I think exclusivity can be a form of cruelty. Instead of making me feel unworthy, it makes me shut down, because I don’t think people should be mean or demeaning to others. It completely takes all the enjoyment out of an experience for me.
What is the film trying to say about people who have this fixation on going to the best restaurants in the world?
MM: It’s a tricky thing. I see restaurants and the relationship between the dining room and the kitchen as a microcosm of society and a reflection of inequality within society. But I’m very uncomfortable with getting too preachy about that, and I think the very linear thinking of “eat the rich” is pretty low-hanging fruit. What’s interesting to me is approaching that on a more anthropological level: What is in a person’s ego that feeds this increasing need for exclusivity?
There’s a connection there with the work I’ve done on Succession, which deals with characters of incredible privilege. It’s easy to just straight skewer them, but that’s not terribly dramatically interesting. I want to add context to their behavior, I think that’s ultimately more entertaining. The diners at Hawthorne, I want to understand their behavior.
What was your experience with fine dining before working on this film? Are you the kind of person who would go to a restaurant like Hawthorne in real life?
AT: Only very recently. I have to say, I love the fact that sitting in my joggers and watching Chef’s Table was research for this job. Watching those episodes, specifically Dominique Crenn’s, opened that world to me completely. I’m somebody that gets hanxious, not hangry. I don’t care what it is, I just need to be satiated. And now I’ve got a real appreciation for the artistry that goes into that cuisine. I feel better now going to very fancy restaurants, and being able to understand what’s going on a bit more.
MM: I am definitely not. I am Margot, and when I first read the script, Margot was my way into the story. I’ve never really been a foodie, I don’t have a particular palate. My closest association with that world was back when I worked on Game of Thrones. The writers were very much foodies, and so I’d always hit them up for a trip to some fancy restaurants. But I always felt a bit excluded from the sophistication of the experience, and I never really got it. When we finished this project, I walked out of it not with a more sophisticated palate, but with a more sophisticated understanding of what exactly goes into a restaurant in terms of the human effort, and the art that goes into it. I have a tremendous respect for anyone involved in that endeavor, on every level, whether it be a busboy or a Michelin-starred chef. They just work so damn hard.
Anya, your character is very cool and aloof, and not impressed at all by being at this fancy restaurant. How did you go about cultivating her vibe?
AT: I loved Margot from the start. One of the things that I was most interested in was the fact that she’s an enigma — not only to the other diners, but also to the audience. It’s a performance within a performance that’s occurring on screen. I’ve never had the opportunity to play somebody that was so comfortable in their skin. I completely relished it, I saw exactly who she was the second I read the script. I think the thing I love most is that she’s entering an environment where everything is almost specifically designed to make someone of her economic background feel like she’s not worthy, and she just calls bullshit on all of it. It was really liberating to play someone who was totally unwilling to have her self-worth taken away.
Dominique, what was it like to teach Ralph Fiennes how to be a chef?
DC: Everything in this movie needed to be authentic. From the movement to the plating to the behavior of the front-of-house staff, it needed to be real. I spent a lot of time working with Ralph, and I reminded him that he was the one in charge, the director of this symphony. Your confidence and your intensity is essential. I showed him how to walk into the kitchen, how your eyes have to be everywhere so that you can see what’s cooking, what’s going on in the pantry, what’s going on in the dining room. It’s just so intense. He was a very good listener and very easy to work with. I was blown away by his work.
The film is paced much like a menu, with each increasingly terrifying course arriving at the perfect time. How did you make that work?
MM: I really tried hard to achieve that correlation, so that the experience of the viewer is mirrored by the experience of those in the dining room. As soon as I read the script, I could feel the ride that I wanted to take the audience on. A lot of that came from the fact that we accept that the space we’re in is created and completely controlled by a demigod, in this case chef Julian. I kept asking myself, what would he do here? What would be his pacing in the service of the next course? If you look at it, it’s like a roller coaster — once everything ramps up and gets to the tipping point, we’re off on the ride down this steep drop. There, it becomes a symbiotic relationship between the authentic pacing of each course and the audience’s ride through to the end of the meal.
The ending of the film — the dessert course — is definitely something that will get people talking. How did you create those scenes?
MM: I don’t want to put a spoiler on it, because so much of the fun is how amazingly unexpected it is. When I joined the project, one of the big things I wanted to change about the script was to have this more operatic ending. We wanted to end this meal with a bang, and so we did a lot of research on how to make the specifics of the dessert elements work. There were certain visual influences, and I structured that last course around trying to achieve a restaurant-wide version of the classic shot of Grant Achatz’s beautifully deconstructed tabletop dessert in the opening titles of Chef’s Table. What if, instead of just the table, the whole restaurant was made into the dessert?
Do you think watching The Menu will make people think differently about how they behave in restaurants?
AT: I hope so. Something that instantly puts an “X” on a person for me is if they treat people that they think are below them badly. I have no stomach for that. I hope that what the film allows you to do is laugh at the absurdity of what luxury can be at times, but also makes you conscious of what it is that you’re enjoying. I think a lot of us are sleepwalking around life a bit, and we should be taking in experiences and be grateful for them. Entitlement drives me crazy. If this film is a slightly uncomfortable mirror for someone in the audience, I hope maybe they will take that feeling into the rest of their life.
DC: We touch on the intensity and the mental health impact of the industry, and really only a small part of it. The film also points at the angel investor, and the balance of power between artists and those who fund their work. We have to rebalance things. The money is not better than the talent, and the money and the talent should be more equal. Our industry is one of the number one industries in terms of mental health issues, suicide, alcoholism, drugs. These are workers that put their whole selves into making something that is beautiful, and the pressure from the outside is immense. We need to be kinder, to understand the backstory before we criticize. I love my industry, and I want to make sure that everyone knows that the people in my industry are incredible. Let’s give a little more love to those people, because we need to put that humanity back at the forefront.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.