A kitchen is a tense place full of burning fires, bubbling oil, and crew rushing around to complete dishes as the head chef barks orders, and the tensions inside the kitchen usually serve as the plot of culinary movies like “Burnt” or “Chef.” However, Sitisiri Mongkolsiri’s movie “Hunger” is about Chef Paul (Nopachai Chaiyanam), who cares a little too much about perfection and his standing as a renowned chef and takes pride in his work. Pride is a necessary virtue in any workplace to ensure people can enjoy what they do, but it’s this pride that leads to the destruction of Chef Paul in “Hunger” when it goes over the top. Here’s how Paul goes from one of the most respected chefs in Thailand to a criminal in Mongkolsiri’s movie.
Going by Mark Mylod’s 2023 movie “The Menu,” head chefs can be a little eccentric when it comes to their interpersonal relations with the crew and the food ideas they want to present to the customers. Each chef has a vision and a dream that they’re in the culinary business for, and Nopachai’s Chef Paul in “Hunger” exhibits his dream to be desired and worshipped, or, as he puts it, to have people be “hungry” for him. Paul is a stickler when it comes to punctuality and uniformity in his kitchen, and he has no qualms about letting his crew know when he’s disappointed in them. Sure, a nationally renowned chef must strive for perfection and do their best to ensure the customers have nothing but praise to shower them with, but Paul’s obsession went beyond just brilliance. He wanted the top 1% of Thailand to worship him, to stand in line to hire him for his mastery in the kitchen, and to be treated as the object of desire by the wealthy. Paul experienced true pleasure when business tycoons, army big shots, and important ministers gorged and chomped on the food he prepared, and he enjoyed watching the elites turn into gluttonous beasts thanks to his creations.
Chef Paul isn’t the most polite man in the kitchen, so much so that he could give Gordon Ramsay tough competition. Paul made it very difficult for the newest hire, a young girl named Aoy (Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying), forcing her to repeat frying Wagyu beef until she achieved perfection, but this isn’t some evil scheme to haze the new kid. Paul truly wanted to pass on the skills he’d gathered in his years as a top chef, and he admits later that Aoy is actually a better cook than some of the oldest members of Paul’s crew. However, when it comes to breaking the rules in the kitchen, Paul is the strictest boss around. The chef fires an employee when he admits that he’d stolen a pound of beef from the kitchen because he was frustrated with serving the best foods to the wealthiest and being denied a chance to taste some of the masterpieces they helped create. Stringent about his rules in the kitchen, Paul forbade anyone from stealing or thievery and alerted every disgraced cook in his crew that their culinary careers were made with when they were thrown out of Hunger. Paul held immense power in the Thai culinary scene, and he made sure to let others know of it because of how much pride he had in his status. It’s this very pride that leads to Paul’s crash and burn by the end of the movie, but we’ll get to that later.
After barely saving a dinner for a family that’d suffer a tragic end later on by serving Ramen spice soup, Paul lambasts his sous-chef Dang for trying to sabotage the job and leading to the death of the little girl of the man who’d hired Paul and his crew. Dang had intentionally put shrimp in the stock, knowing of the girl’s severe allergy, just to destroy Paul’s career and life, but the chef’s impeccable sense of smell had saved the day. While Paul grabs his sous-chef by the hair and uniform for this inarguably diabolical act, the cowardly Dang stabs Paul in the gut and flees, and at this moment, a chef this mighty and powerful collapses to the floor gasping in pain.
Paul’s irritable nature and rude demeanor had not let him have any friends in life, and the way he throws away hospital food because it looks bad explains why he didn’t have anyone who cared for him. When the new girl Aoy shows up with her homemade recipe for crybaby noodles and says it was passed down from her grandmother, who’d prepare it with love, Paul immediately destroys everything romantic about the notion, saying love has nothing to do with good food. He adds that ‘love’ is something the impoverished use as an excuse when they’re stuck in poverty, but interestingly, this isn’t an observation he makes after looking down on the poor all his life. When Chef Paul opens up about the motivation that got him to become a chef, it’s clear why he became as eccentric and egocentric as he is.
As the son of a maid to a wealthy family, little Paul’s curiosity was piqued by a jar of caviar, and he wanted to taste it when no one was around, but the snotty brat of his mother’s employer caught Paul and barked at him, making the kid drop the jar, smashing it. As he witnessed his mother being screamed at and hit by the wealthy woman, Paul made up his mind that he’d make people like his mother’s employer worship him someday. It’d be difficult not to feel pity for little Paul, who looked at his mother helplessly, and it was this moment that made him into an egomaniac. This desire to be seen amongst the rich and powerful blinded Paul to a terrible act, like a hunter killing a rare hornbill for food, and the chef didn’t see anything wrong with it. His pride at being chosen as the chef who cooks endangered hornbills overshadows the illegality of the matter, and the consequences of his actions will follow soon.
When Paul shows up at Aoy’s restaurant after she quits Hunger over Paul being okay with the poaching of a hornbill, he gives her a reality check. This shows Paul isn’t some delusional guy who made it big in the kitchen and can’t let go of the feeling, but instead, he understands very deeply how the world works. He warns Aoy that her life from then on will be spent worrying when she falls off the edge she’s at, reflecting how Paul must feel on a daily basis. The showdown between Paul and Aoy at Madam Milky’s party is a duel between the master and the disciple, and Paul is able to make the guests eat out of the palms of his hands. He explains the reason to Aoy by saying he’s already a star no matter what he does, and his pride emanates from him when he lords his power over her. Immediately, three policemen arrive and inform the crowd that Paul will be taken away for questioning as the video of the chef cooking the hornbill has begun circulating. Even at that moment, he keeps throwing his weight around, saying he’ll be out in no time because he’s too powerful to be arrested.
Chef Paul was a genius when it came to cooking and creating masterpieces, but he let his magnanimity get to his head. As more of the elites of Thailand gathered around him, begging him to cook for their parties, Paul’s ego kept inflating as he kept flying higher and higher. Like Icarus in Greek mythology, Paul soared too close to the sun and he came crashing down, but he couldn’t shake off his pride even while being dragged away. Reminiscent of the moment when Colonel Jessep (Jack Nicholson) howled and hurled warnings at everyone while being taken away towards the end of “A Few Good Men” (1992) to answer for his crimes, Chef Paul kept taunting Aoy for this ‘win’ over him. Had Paul been rid of his sin of pride, he’d have gone on to be a legendary chef, but he couldn’t be rid of his vice, and this is what caused his downfall in the end.