“” is one of those rare films that revolves almost entirely around a singular meal, along with classics like “Big Night” and “Babette’s Feast.” But unlike these pleasure ghazals, “Menu” starts out as a luxurious culinary experience for the 1%, but then turns into something much darker and much less appetizing. Ralph Fiennes plays the famous Chief Slowik, whose relentless pursuit of the perfect experience threatens to plunge him into insanity. Anya Taylor-Joy is an unexpected dinner guest at the $1,250-per-person Hawthorn restaurant on a desert island, while Nicholas Hoult is a chef-worshipping gourmet date and Hong Chau is the meticulous maître d’.
While the entire movie revolved around one major meal, consultant chef Dominque Crenn, production designer Ethan Tobman and the kitchen crew played as important a role as the actors in bringing the film to life. Director Mark Mylod, who has helmed multiple “Friendship” episodes, has a fair amount of experience deflecting the rich, but the script needed some restaurant professionals to realize his vision of a luxury evening gone awry.
Mylod brought in Crenn as chief technical adviser to help conceptualize the menu, based on Seth Reiss and Will Tracy’s hard-hitting script.
Points of satirical touches include laser-engraved bread, a technique used in restaurants that has become much more sinister in Hawthorn, where tortillas reveal dark secrets from the lives of diners. Then there’s the “Breadless Bread Plate” for the discerning diner, which is just delicious emulsions with no real bread.
Featured on “Chef’s Table,” Crenn is the creator of Atelier Crenn, the menu restaurant in San Francisco. Here it is described in lines of poetry such as “with the sparkle of white pearls, with white pearls rolling”, in which the dishes are sometimes evoked rather than described. ash cloud.”
His style isn’t quite as intense as Fiennes’ character, but it’s definitely about that kind of singular focus. “I mean, I’m not as crazy as he is, but I understand the pressure,” she says.
It was easy for him to imagine how hardships, including snobby critics and thoughtless photographers, could lead a chef over the abyss. “It’s kind of a form of bullying because the pressure in the kitchen is so high – you can get really hit mentally and then lose yourself,” says Crenn, noting the high alcohol and drug use in restaurant kitchens.
As the production designer for “Pam & Tommy” and “Black Is King,” Tobman worked in kitchens when he started his film business. “I always said that if I didn’t work in film, I would work in the kitchen industry,” she says. “The world gave me back because I finally had to do something in film.
Hawthorn’s understated style is clearly influenced by restaurants like Copenhagen’s Noma, where Tobman once had an unforgettable Christmas Eve and hung out with the staff for 12 hours the night before closing for a long break. “The staff were pretty rowdy that night,” he recalls. “I learned a lot about their technique and I thought if I could make a movie that captured that environment, it would be the greatest gift.”
Tobman says that when the crew made a list of chefs they thought would be the right choice for the movie, Crenn was on everyone’s list. “We all said ‘he’ll never say yes’. We were a little shocked when he attended the meeting.
Tobman says Crenn is “pretty fearless.” “He’s thoughtless and above all really an artist and that’s what we were looking for.”
To help define the look of the food preparation scenes, Tobman began by showing Mylod paintings by the Dutch Old Masters, which included the agonizing paintings of Francis Bacon and living still lifes of corrupted dead pheasants and foxes.
Tobman wanted to make it feel like an almost priest-like figure presiding over the flamboyant open kitchen where Fiennes formed a cross behind the window beams. “I wanted the kitchen to feel religious,” she says. “I wanted it to feel like he was preaching from a pulpit.”
Meanwhile, real estate magnate Luci Leary was working with Tobman to create containers to hold food that appeared to be made from materials harvested on the island. It was the job of food stylist Kendall Gensler to ensure that all plates still looked fresh after a day of shooting under warm lights. At first, Tobman says, there was a tension between Gensler’s need to make the food look perfect and Crenn’s desire to make sure the food was realistic and, in most cases, completely edible. “Then they started dancing together and soon it started working really smoothly, one camp would refresh the dish and the movie camp would figure out how to turn that into a viable material that would survive filmmaking,” Tobman said.
“Mark knew he wanted the restaurant to be taken from the island’s ecosystem,” says Tobman. “He liked the idea that the chef was inspired by the perfection of nature.”
Dishes like “Island” with raw submersible scallops and seaweed look the same as what you’d find on the menu at Atelier Crenn, but as the meal progresses, the food becomes less appetizing and more extreme; roasted fillet and bone marrow.
Tobman says the final stage of s’mores is the hardest to implement.
But it’s not on a dessert plate—it covers a 30-by-60-foot room with random brushstrokes meant to look like chocolate and marshmallow. “At one stage we tried powdered pigments and resins that would solidify the paint, and at the other stage we discarded the chocolate, orange blossom and vanilla. We followed them with black light pens and then we went on stage and used markers to put the plastic versions of the food and I don’t think you could tell the difference,” says Tobman.
The Hawthorn restaurant may not be real, but that won’t be the end of Crenn and Tobman’s collaboration. Crenn invited the film production designer to create a new look for Atelier Crenn in San Francisco.
“It’s nice to partner with someone who can see things out of the ordinary to bring something new into this world,” Crenn says.