How should leaders be viewed? If we look at the previous two decades of movies, we find charming and demanding sensualists – the stars of hearty comedies. See Catherine Zeta-Jones and Aaron Eckhart in “No Reservations” or Jon Favreau in “Chef”. The leader may be screaming or acting out, but don’t worry: it’s just a thrill of passion.
Yet if we look to a recent wave of depictions, a new pattern emerges. In last year’s ‘Pig’, ‘Boiling Point’ and ‘A Taste of Hunger’, and in this year’s ‘The Bear’ and ‘The Menu’, we find haunted and rampaging men – the stars of dark dramas and darker comedies. They spit imperfectly fermented lemons on the collar, collapse in a drug-induced seizure, and berate the staff. They shirk responsibilities and hand them over to sub-chiefs, who are often women of color. And they really, really need people to say “Yes, boss!” They are broken, but they are also, of course, shiny.
I watched this new herd of on-screen chefs with particular curiosity. For the past year, I’ve worked at Homer’s in Beacon Hill, currently as a sous chef, and spent years in Seattle restaurant kitchens. At first, these new cinematic visions felt like necessary fixes. Everyday life in the kitchen has little to do with the hagiographic gaze of the “chef’s table” or the smash of romantic comedy. Yet, as this new model transitioned from trend to trope, I began to feel that a lot was missing too. These earlier visions hyperbolize the romanticism of cooking. The new ones underline its wickedness. Looking at them, you might think that all kitchens are histrionic and patriarchal pressure cookers.
The problem is that while these stories don’t extol bad behavior, they still rely on the myth of the white male genius – the idea that, in the warm light of talent, abuse is a fascinating character flaw. . Whether it’s cooking up the movies to flatter a toxic white man – like 2015’s atrocious Bradley Cooper “Burnt” vehicle – or analyzing his rage, as these new portraits do, we’re still focused on the same chief, to the exclusion of so many others who are not him. It’s not that such leaders don’t exist; they absolutely do. But I’m growing weary of that toxic-shiny juxtaposition at the heart of cooking storytelling. At some point, even though it’s critical, it doesn’t look like much progress.
The catalyst for cinema’s shift from a major to a minor key is not hard to find. You can call these stories a calculation or an attempted calculation. They follow #MeToo and the litany of kitchen abuse that has since spilled out. Locally, in an April 2021 New York Times article, employees of the Willows Inn on Lummi Island accused Chef Blaine Wetzel of insulting and intimidating and other staff members of sexual harassment. Then this June, in a Seattle Times report, 15 women accused Seattle leader Edouardo Jordan of sexual misconduct or unwanted touching. Go national and the accused leaders are only proliferating: Mario Batali, David Chang, Dan Barber.
While I searched for kitchens focused on collaboration and respect – and there are many – I also heard many stories. Any cook has. This guy is awful. This guy is a monster. A colleague recently told me that a former boss was throwing hot spoons at him. Another said a boss would kick him in the shins. Even before the allegations became specific and formal, many leaders raged publicly. Gordon Ramsay is known more for his temperament than his cooking. Supposedly, it was good TV.
These new representations still think so. The tone may have changed, but we’re still watching the same kind of guys dominate the kitchens. To their credit, “Boiling Point”, “The Bear” and “The Menu” are in conversation with this broken culture – the first two sincerely, the second sardonically.
In “Boiling Point,” we follow a London chef (Stephen Graham) through an increasingly harassed dinner service. Her marriage is falling apart; the restaurant is in trouble. He handles this by shouting, yes, at his staff. Centimeter by centimeter, it self-destructs. “The Menu,” meanwhile, turns this archetypal chef into a device for horrific black comedy. On a remote island in the Northwest, its chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) runs a restaurant with a tasting menu (with echoes of the Willows Inn). Among other things, the film satirizes the idea of artists who will go to any lengths to assert their vision – even if that includes outright violence. Slowik is, he admits, “a monster”.
Hulu’s summer TV hit “The Bear” finds its characters trying to escape the shadow of such monsters. Its protagonist, Carmy (Jeremy Allen White), in a flashback, is quietly eviscerated by his former boss: “You are talentless. Now running her recently deceased brother’s Chicago sandwich shop, Carmy and her sous-chef Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) attempt to rethink a restaurant’s culture. They try and fail and shout a lot. It’s a portrait of people trying to leave broken systems behind while succumbing to them.
Bon Appétit recently called these takes “very dark and maybe a bit honest”. Obviously, research went into each. They can sometimes feel like worse versions of being at work. I also saw so many orders coming out of a printer that the aftermath of the stress woke me up later that night. I’ve split my fingers open and burned myself and worked myself to exhaustion more times than I can count.
But watching them between shifts at the restaurant, I’ve often felt as removed from what’s on screen as I’ve seen the brighter performances that came before. At work, my colleagues and I shout only to be heard by the music and the cacophony of meals in the small restaurant. Most of us don’t care to call ourselves “boss”. It’s silly and oddly impersonal. Our jobs are, in many ways, not that different from the desk jobs I’ve had. We wonder what we were doing on our weekends. We joke or complain about something or other. We try to cook well, to take care of the people who come to dinner. We become stressed during a busy time, recover, clean up and go home. It’s not heaven, but it doesn’t feel like hell either.
Critical visions are vital, especially when kitchen problems remain abundant, but restaurants contain multitudes of them. They’re landing pads for immigrants, financial lifelines for artists, and they’re run by all kinds of people, leaders or not, whose lives are also full of mess and drama that make a good story. But if they are seen on screen in these stories, they are always on the sidelines. What if “The Bear” didn’t focus on Carmy, but on Sydney, a black woman rising through the ranks in restaurants? I worked alongside such a sous chef. His story is as “honest” as Carmy’s. But, of course, that’s one of the many problems with toxic guys: they take up a lot of space.