You walk into a premier restaurant that’s famed for its cuisine and meet a chef who is an artist, and food is his art. Where each plate costs $1,250, and your palate experiences numerous different courses over a period of 3 hours on an island in the middle of nowhere. Only the multiple courses are peppered with the occasional spilling of blood by restaurant staff and customers alike and a few deaths here and there. Mark Mylod’s 2022 horror comedy, “The Menu,” invades your sense of safety and turns the experience of eating in a fine dining establishment upside down, with Ralph Fiennes as the eccentric head chef, Julian Slowik, and his staff, who are loyal enough to follow him to their deaths, in the literal sense.
In a group of elite members of society, including movie stars, food critics, and businessmen, Margot (Anya Taylor Joy) reflects the audience of the movie. An unassuming young woman who arrives on the island with her over-enthusiastic food-lover date, Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), Margot is a first-hand witness to the spiraling madness that descends inside the Hawthorne restaurant. Although it begins as an exquisite dinner for excited guests, the night turns into a deeply disturbing situation as the head chef is revealed to be a diabolical character who has something rather sinister planned for the guests.
Through the several monologues that each dish is accompanied by, the audience gets a deeper look, through Margot, into the disturbing inner psyche of the Chef. Slowik is no longer a cook with the sole goal of preparing food but an obsessed maestro, so engrossed in his art that he’s prepared to go to any length to achieve perfection. Even if this perfection means allowing the suicide of his sous-chef Jeremy, drowning the main financial backer of the restaurant, or having his staff cut off a guest’s finger. In an industry where chefs strive for Michelin stars and to have their restaurants stay on top of the business, Slowik’s eccentricity holds a mirror to the underbelly of the food industry. Skewered by the need to please overtly critical food reviewers, fraudulent businessmen, and unappreciative customers, Slowik lets go of his humanity as he organizes the night’s menu to be his swan song—with the final course of S’mores as his pièce de résistance that ends with the deaths of all the customers, his staff, and himself. He plays an instrumental role in all the chaos and death that “The Menu” deals with, and he has only the service industry to blame. He does not find joy in cooking anymore, and he is impervious to pain, both physical and emotional. Thus removed from his senses, he is unable to find pity at the sight of tears, bloodshed, and death; it’s all part of the industry in his mind.
However, through the eyes of Margot, Slowik is a soulless monster who does not hesitate to take lives, although she too, is a member of the service industry. Margot is an escort, real name Erin, who has been forced to bear witness to foul acts as part of her profession. She also learns that her date Tyler had brought her to the island, fully aware that nobody would be getting off the island alive. Despite being subjected to depravity in her service, Margot has retained her humanity, or rather, the sanity that Slowik clearly lost ages ago. Amidst the service industry professionals like Slowik and his staff, who term themselves as the providers and the customers as the takers, Margot is but a woman trying to survive. She is on neither side of the spectrum and wants no part of the world that finds the live suicide of a person amusing. She does not understand the ways the elites’ function and finds some of the experimental dishes not to her liking. In a way, she’s not part of the lot that makes up the customer base of a restaurant like Hawthorne. Instead, Margot finds joy in a well-made cheeseburger that fills her stomach and satiates her hunger much more than the fancy dishes that make up the six-course meal that Slowik and his staff prepare. In essence, Margot reflects the ordinary person trying to get by every day, who finds pleasure in the simple things in life, and it’s her simplicity that makes her so humane amidst a group of people who have sacrificed their humanity a long time ago. The Chef might have orchestrated the deaths of all the members present, but none of the diners are innocent in life, having committed crimes one way or another.
While Slowik’s obsession with perfection strips him of humanity, almost transforming him into a machine that can only produce and serve, Margot is the antithesis of this mechanical soullessness. She enjoys a cigarette and sees the head chef not as a deity as her date does but as a service provider. She’s flawed, has outbursts, and feels panicked, but these are the idiosyncrasies that keep her human, as opposed to Slowik, who has achieved perfection to such an extent that he’s too far removed from his humanity. It is also a part of her idiosyncrasies that Margot appeals to a deep-set psyche of Slowik, one even he might have forgotten, to trick the Chef into letting her escape. Margot’s request for a cheeseburger from the Chef after seeing an old picture of a young and uncharacteristically happy Slowik with a burger patty made him return to happier times in his life. For once, the Chef lets go of the pretentious world that stripped him of the joys of cooking and made him into a soulless machine as he prepares a delicious cheeseburger – an actually satisfying meal.
Julian Slowik and Margot represent two sides of the service industry. One who breaks under the extreme pressure of having to be perfect to hold on to the top spot, and another who treats it like a profession and survives. In the end, one dies in a fiery explosion, and other watches it from afar, chewing on the delicious cheeseburger.