One of the great things about the growing popularity of culinary programs and celebrity chefs on TV in recent years is the fact that food-related content has now made the jump onto the big screen. For those of us who enjoy cooking (and baking) and for all the self-described ‘foodies‘ (although I secretly loathe the term) out there, few guilty pleasures are more satisfactory than watching a movie where the protagonist is a chef or aspiring cook and all the food porn is almost a main character.
From 2009’s Julie and Julia and 2012’s Comme Un Chef to 2014’s ‘Chef‘ (one of the sweetest movies I’ve seen lately), along with several rom-coms primarily featuring a restaurant kitchen setting, chef culture has invaded our screens and I’m definitely glad for it.
‘Burnt’ had been on my watchlist for a while now, and I finally got around to it over the weekend. As far as food porn goes, it doesn’t feature as heavily as you’d expect, although the glimpses of intricately plated dishes at the pass are definitely mouthwatering. Instead, the movie focuses on the main character, Adam Jones, and his struggle to make it back in the big leagues after years of self-destructive behavior.
A former rock-star chef of a 2-Michelin star restaurant, Adam has disappeared from the spotlight and spends his days shucking oysters in a New Orleans dive, as a form of penance. Years of alcohol and drug abuse have taken their toll, but he is now clean and determined to make a strong comeback and shoot for that elusive 3rd Michelin star that will propel him into the pantheon of elite chefs where he belongs – where he could have been, had he not screwed up his life and his former restaurant in the process.
Although we only get to piece together Adam’s back story through exposition and conflict with his fellow colleagues in the present, the film touches on the drug and alcohol scene that apparently features heavily in professional kitchens. I’m no chef, nor have I spent a day slaving away in a hot restaurant kitchen, but from all accounts – it seems like the long hours and pressure of such an environment are conducive to substance abuse for a lot of professional cooks, and the movie confirms that reality without going to extremes.
If Adam’s tantrums and outbursts in the kitchen seem familiar, that’s because the movie takes inspiration from master chefs Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White, but does so without turning the main character into an angry caricature. His abrasive behavior throughout the movie succeeds in highlighting the pressure he’s mainly put upon himself to reach the perfection he’s seeking in order to obtain the highest accolade a chef can boast, that 3rd Michelin star. He pushes his brigade to perform to the best of their abilities, but also pushes himself to create the best menu he can come up with in order to achieve that goal.
Adam yells, breaks dishes and throws things around in his kitchen, but his bad temper is balanced out by the vulnerable moments he shares with his maître d’ Tony, as well as his new saucier, brilliant up-and-comer Helene, with whom he eventually forms an attachment. Much like Ramsay and White, he is hard on his cooks but not stingy with praise when they perform to his standards; he’s insecure and a loudmouth but ultimately a teddy bear at heart, and all his aggression is an expression of his strife to find his way.
I won’t spoil the ending here, but I thought that both the pivotal scene that underlines Adam’s character development, as well as the resolution at the end, were beautifully made. The movie documents his journey and reaches a conclusion that is plausible and satisfying without verging on mushy rom-com territory. It also appears to portray the realities of a professional kitchen without glossing too many things over, although, again, I’m no chef so I wouldn’t really know.
Bradley Cooper does an excellent job portraying the tortured genius cook. This wasn’t his first time playing a chef, after all – the short-lived Kitchen Confidential series that aired a decade ago is a must-see for any foodie who’s read Anthony Bourdain’s book(s). Although I was never really into the Cooper hype when he was all over magazine covers, painted as the ‘sexiest man in the world’, he’s grown on me considerably since the Hangover movies, and I’ve come to appreciate him (along with his excellent knowledge of french, which is also prominent in this movie). Sienna Miller was also a great casting choice, and it was good to see the gorgeous actress crumple her image and play a role that doesn’t require her to be barbie-like.
All in all, this was a thoroughly enjoyable film, a definite must-see for culinarians and a perfectly good movie for anyone who’s not well-versed in foodie lingo, as the food is not the focal point but rather the vehicle that pushes the story along.