A couple of weeks ago I attended a screening of Burnt in a room full of L.A. chefs. The screening was put on by the film's distributor, the Weinstein Company, and it was a calculated move to get the food industry talking about the movie. The chefs and food media in attendance were considered important enough that the movie's stars and director showed up for a Q&A after the screening. It was an odd sight to have Bradley Cooper being taken to task by Marcel Vigneron about the questionable omelette-making techniques shown on-screen.
This push to market to chefs makes sense, given the film's obvious aim of being the movie that finally captures the true inner workings of restaurants and the lives of chefs. As was told to us over and over again during the Q&A, Cooper and co-star Sienna Miller spent months training with Michelin-starred chefs in real kitchens in order to get their characters just right. They aim to capture the intensity and passion that's inherent in kitchen culture and make a movie that chefs everywhere can call their own.
Do they manage to do that? Not really. Despite the fact that Cooper and Miller did indeed learn to move like real cooks in a real kitchen, and that the plated food looks awfully pretty, there is a lot about this movie that misses the point of chef life completely.
The story focuses on Adam Jones, a supposedly brilliant chef who blew his chance of making it to the top of his profession by screwing over everyone he knew in a drug-fueled meltdown. After retreating from Paris — the scene of his crimes — to New Orleans and getting sober, he shows up in London with one goal: to get his third Michelin star. We don't know why he wants the third star, any more than we know how or in what way he's brilliant. He just is, because we're told he is, and apparently the third star is what brilliant chefs want.
I have many problems with the plot devices of this movie: the ridiculous notion that a sous-vide machine is a golden bullet to modernizing one's cooking; a female food critic (played by Uma Thurman) who at some point slept with the chef (attention movie makers — can we PLEASE, just once, have a female journalist on-screen who doesn't fuck her subject/source?); the story line that is as predictable as a Happy Meal. But my real issue is with the notion of what it means to be a chef, of what matters and what denotes brilliance in this field.
If you talk to a great chef, a really great chef, about why they do what they do, the conversation will be all about the food. There is a lot of pretty food in this movie, but very little talk about that food other than some tired lines about whether there is enough tarragon in a dish that most chefs stopped cooking 15 years ago. The really great chefs — the Changs and Redzepis of the world — will obsess over ingredients, over invention, over newness or, conversely, over tradition — far more than they'll obsess over Michelin stars.
Who can tell what this character thinks about food? Who can tell what his point of view is? This is a movie about ego, the thing that gets in the way of more chefs than it helps. The filmmakers would have done well to spend some time watching The Mind of a Chef, the PBS series that profiles real-life chefs who have risen to greatness. To see someone like Sean Brock nerd out while describing his fermentation projects, or to watch April Bloomfield cook veal shank with Marcella Hazan, might have given them some sense of the joy and passion chefs feel for actual food — not for stars.
This is a fun movie to watch in some ways, in the same sense that any movie with charming actors and pretty cinematography is fun to watch. There are some endearing moments and one shocker of a plot point, though it's used mainly to take the story somewhere predictable. But this isn't the movie that finally speaks the truth about the hard, fascinating, exhilarating life of the kitchen. For now, that honor is still held by a cartoon rat.
Burnt opens Oct. 30.
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