Why I’m Optimistic About Hollywood’s Latest Trail in the Professional Kitchen
The Great American Novel has nothing on the Great Accurate Chef Movie. There have been at least a handful of the former but, really, not one of the latter. For generations, those of us fascinated by the professional kitchen have yearned for a movie or television series that presents a classic, live action chef hero or heroine, along with a true-to-life supporting cast of cooks, front-of-house staff, customers, and critics, all in service of a narrative to which the industry serves as background.
Oh, sure, there have been glimpses into the culinary soul: Not surprisingly, in this golden age of television, the small screen has provided a slew of incisive looks at the inner working of Toqueland, with two of the best coming from the good people at Zero Point Zero (Mind of a Chef, parts of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown) and one — Chef’s Table — originating on Netflix. And there have been others: Once upon a time, Marco Pierre White’s BBC series showed chefs on the line, and in dialogue with each other at the table. Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a feature-length documentary, captured the soul of a chef as well as one imagines it’s possible. And Ratatouille evoked some essential truths, but – to be honest – my longing for a chef protagonist wasn’t fully satisfied by an animated rodent.
Inevitably, when filmmakers go for scripted, live-action entertainment set in the pro kitchen, something always gets lost in translation. In far too many television shows and movies, the prep-time banter seems canned; critics come off as Monty Burns-grade caricatures; and diners either swoon absurdly, or complain with all the verisimilitude of community theater scenery-chewers. (I know many readers of this blog loved Chef, but while I think it got certain things right, many of these shortcomings apply.)
Is chaos the problem? A live restaurant has as many moving pieces as a Swiss army knife, all of them interrelated and impacting one another in real time: Cooks might be flowing in perfect synch until, suddenly, an unexpected rush of orders comes pouring out of the POS system, or a cook falls victim to a cut or a burn, throwing things into triage mode for a good forty minutes; the front of the house might be humming along, until a critic darkens the door, sending a ripple of anxiety through the service squad, throwing the kitchen for a loop, and redirecting the attentions of the chef. And those are just two of the endless possible curveballs looming at all times.
Dramatic domino effects like those are difficult to choreograph onscreen. And yet, some directors have managed to capture the unpredictability of live sports or the fog of war. So why, oh why, can’t we chef-admirers have our Miracle? Our Saving Private Ryan? Our West Wing? If only Robert Altman, cinema’s great conductor of improvisation and overlapping dialogue, had given it a go.
There have been some scripted entertainments that capture elements of kitchen life, if you don’t mind using your imagination to transpose them to a kitchen. For example, Michael Mann’s Heat centered on a quartet of workaholic career criminals whose loyalty, obsessiveness, and tribalism reminded me of a well-honed kitchen team. The way the band of bandits played by Robert DeNiro, Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, and Danny Trejo, depend on each other, communicate volumes with a nod or a gesture, and freely cop to their adrenaline addiction (“For me, the action is the juice,” says Sizemore’s character as he makes a crucial decision.) made me wish that Mann had taken on a kitchen drama when he was operating at the peak of his powers. (As if to make my point, there’s a moment in the movie when a parolee played by a young Dennis Haysbert spontaneously quits his stint as a short-order man to join DeNiro’s crew–the worlds of convict and cook seamlessly united.)
On television, the moment-to-moment drama of a live, working kitchen was brilliantly captured, albeit not in a kitchen, by one series, and that series was … ER. The operating room sequences on that show were the closest thing I’ve seen to the energy and organized chaos of a busy kitchen cranking at full tilt. There are moments of calm professionalism interrupted by sudden crises, either by the whiplash-fast change in the status of the patient on the table or by a new, unrelated urgency announced by a nurse or administrator that jerks some of the staff from the emergency at hand. Substitute chefs for doctors, line cooks for nurses, waitstaff for administrators, and food for patients (seriously), and you’ve got a pretty good depiction of what a busy kitchen feels like.
All of which brings me to Burnt. Have you seen the trailer? (featured below) It’s something of a mixed bag, but here’s what caught my eye: Burnt is directed by John Wells, the man who executive produced all fifteen seasons of (wait for it) … ER. (It also stars Bradley Cooper, who played the lead in the Fox network’s tragically neutered adaptation of Kitchen Confidential in 2005, begging the question: Could a cosmic redemption be at hand?)
Wells specializes in projects that keenly observe the quirks, lingo, and rhythm of different pressure-cooker professions. In addition to ER, he had a hand in the war drama China Beach and the cop saga Third Watch. Often he worked with an expert consultant to guarantee accuracy and, sure enough, he and his actors spent time prepping for Burnt with Michelin darling Marcus Wareing. Though his role in those television shows was primarily that of producer, his creative work is replete not just with lived-in environments and professionals, but also with well-calibrated relationships that seem specific to their settings. This scene from the first episode of ER has an air of authenticity that was present for most of the series:
As a film director, Wells has made two prior movies: The Company Men and August: Osange County. I confess that I haven’t seen either of them, but both were received well enough to offer a level of confidence in his growing abilities as a helmer of big-screen entertainment. And, of course, Bradley Cooper’s chops as an actor are world class.
So, could Burnt be the movie that finally matches the right director and actor with the task of creating a realistic chef drama? Let’s go to the videotape and break down the trailer:
:01 to :16: The rhythms of these bits just feel right: The first cook in turning on the lights; the fetishizing of knives and burners, the time-lapse shot of the kitchen coming to life. And the two snippets of dialogue presented in voiceover: “When I was 16 I quit school” and “I saved just enough for a one-way ticket to Paris.” Those are pretty common biographical beats in real life, but have been all-too-rare in previous chef movies and shows.
:36 to 40: More excellent kitchen cinematography; we know the cooking in this movie will be first rate.
:35 to 40: “I don’t want my restaurant to be a place where become come to sit and eat; I want people to sit at that table and be sick with longing.” A bit over the top, perhaps, but not entirely unrealistic. A three-star New York Times chef once told me that he fantasized about being able to purchase a magic dust that he could sprinkle on his food and have it produce a euphoric effect on his diners.
:44 to :48: “Sniffing, snorting, injecting.” Plenty of chefs have fallen victim to substance abuse, and many bounce back. Rarely do they bounce back to look like Bradley Cooper, but this is the movies and life’s a trade off.
:50 to :52: What’s this? Some mob shenanigans? (Related: Co-screenwriter Steven Knight was also the scribe on Eastern Promises.) A little bit of misdirection by the trailer’s editor? Who knows. Moving on.
:56 to 1:02: “The kitchen’s the only place I ever felt I belonged. I loved every minute of it: the heat, the pressure, the violence.” Yes, yes, yes. How many professional cooks identify with that statement? Most of them. So why haven’t we heard it in a movie before?
1:15 to 1:20 The plates being shoved off the pass? Happens. The tables being overturned, the chef writhing around in a fetal position? Not so much. But I’ll take this operatic treatment of the stress of opening a new restaurant over the drabness of most cinematic cook shops any day of the week.
1:20: Possible danger ahead: “Adam Jones. One hoped you were dead.” Please, for the love of God, don’t let this character be a restaurant critic.
1:32 to end: “You are looking at that the whole time, yah?” “Yes, chef.” This whole exchange has the air of authenticity about it. The way Cooper gets right in that cook’s physical space, the panicked, repeated “yes, chef” by the underling, the militant “Yes, Chef!” by the brigade. Right on the money.
Add it all up, and I’m keen to see Burnt. If it doesn’t meet my high hopes, it’ll be like dining… just as there’s always another meal right around the corner, there will be another chef movie giving it a go before we know it.