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"The Menu" and the Narcissism of High-End Dining

A new film cuts close to the reality of gastro tourism.

Key points

  • Gastro-tourists schedule first-class vacations around one meal.
  • The style of fine dining Noma helped create and promote worldwide may be undergoing a sustainability crisis.
  • Many great chefs have their sense of self intertwined with their cuisine.
Roberta Satow
Source: Roberta Satow

The Menu, a new Netflix film starring Ralph Fiennes, is a brutal satire of class division. It is also a study of the narcissism that characterizes the gastro-tourism business and its celebrity chefs. For example, Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant that has repeatedly topped lists of the world’s best restaurants, is currently serving grilled reindeer heart on a bed of fresh pine and saffron ice cream in a beeswax bowl.

A new class of gastro tourists schedules first-class flights and entire vacations around the privilege of paying a minimum of $500 per person for a multicourse tasting menu of things that most of us would not even characterize as “food.” René Redzepi, Noma’s chef and creator, has been hailed as his era’s most brilliant chef.

Chef Redzepi has decided to close the restaurant because it, like many other elite restaurants, is facing scrutiny of the treatment of their workers, many of them paid poorly or not at all, who produce and serve these exquisite dishes.

Chef Kim Mikkola, who worked at Noma for four years, said that fine dining, like diamonds, ballet, and other elite pursuits, often has abuse built into it. The style of fine dining that Noma helped create and promote around the world–wildly innovative, labor-intensive, and inordinately expensive–may be undergoing a sustainability crisis.

What is it that cannot be sustained? It is a level of perfectionism and obsessiveness that becomes destructive to the staff and self-destructive to the chef. As brutally demonstrated in The Menu, cooking becomes dissociated from the pleasure of eating. Compulsive innovation trumps exploring culinary adventure.

The restaurant that is the centerpiece of The Menu is set on Hawthorn, an island of the same name, in the Pacific Northwest. Patrons must take a boat and cannot leave until the hours-long tasting menu is served.

Every dish comes with a side of self-satisfaction and a lecture on its provenance by Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), a rock-star chef with an authoritarian demeanor. In his dining room, mere feet from an army of assistants, drooling gastro tourists have each dropped $1,250 to wrap their gums around Slowik’s fabled tasting menu.

Among them are a star-struck foodie and his last-minute date, Margot; an arrogant restaurant critic; three odious tech workers; and a fading movie star hoping to pitch a culinary travel show. All except Margot have been carefully chosen and are about to become players in Slowik’s elaborate opera of humiliation, sadism, revenge, and self-destruction. This is no joke. There are several suicides in the film. While the restaurant industry, in general, does not have a high suicide rate, the top rungs of it do.

In 2003, a short time after becoming a member of the Relais & Châteaux association, Bernard Loiseau was downgraded from 19/20 to 17/20 in the Gault et Millau guide and received a strong negative media review from the gastronomic critic François Simon in the newspaper Le Figaro. But he still had three stars in the Michelin Guide. As the criticism continued to pour in and the media speculated about a possible future loss of a Michelin star, he died by suicide by self-inflicted gunshot without giving any explanation.

Joseph Cerniglia, the 39-year-old owner of Campania in Fair Lawn, was the second chef to commit suicide after appearing on one of three-star chef Gordon Ramsay's high-heat, reality-cooking series. The first was 41-year-old Rachel Brown, who shot herself after appearing on the show. Cerniglia was deeply in debt when his Italian eatery was featured in the first season of Kitchen Nightmares in 2007.

During the series, foul-mouthed celebrity foodie Ramsay verbally abused restaurateurs in hopes of getting them back on track. "Your business is about to f--king swim down the Hudson," the brash Brit berated Joseph Cerniglia, a married dad of three.

In 2010, the New Jersey restaurateur jumped off the George Washington Bridge.

In 2016, three-star Michelin chef Benoît Violier committed suicide the day before the prestigious Michelin guide was to announce its ratings for 2016. Restaurant de l’Hôtel de Ville at Crissier, Chef Violier's restaurant, was named in December 2015 as "the best in the world.” A $380 tasting menu included purple sea urchin served in a champagne sauce.

The fictional Chef Slowik is work-addicted and surrounded by a similarly afflicted staff. One sous-chef kills himself when told he will never be “great.” Many actual great chefs have their sense of self so intertwined with their cuisine that they cannot bear the narcissistic wound of being anything less than the greatest.

Mr. Redzepi, 45, has been on a spiritual journey to get beyond the famously rageful, mercurial, and workaholic young chef he was when he opened Noma in 2003. He said that process brought him to this breaking point. He has realized that financially and emotionally, as an employer and human being, the model he created doesn’t work.

Perhaps Chef Redzepi has the wisdom to quit before he becomes Chef Slowik.

If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7, dial 988 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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