How They Made the Surreal Dishes in ‘The Menu’
Chef Dominique Crenn and production designer Ethan Tobman delve into the movie’s haunted dishes.
One of the first courses served at Hawthorn, the eerily pristine restaurant that provides the backdrop for Mark Mylod’s The Menu, is a mound of rock topped with barely frozen sea water and foraged aquatic greens. But this dish—like many others in the film that require tweezers for assembly and can only be described as “thalassic”—is not merely a prop food.
Production designer Ethan Tobman (Free Guy, The Report, Room) collaborated with Michelin-starred chef Dominique Crenn to design a tasting menu that would not only further the plot’s descent into darkness, but would also feed the actors involved (Anya Taylor Joy, Nicholas Hoult, to name a couple of the Ralph Fiennes–led cast). The idea was that, after scarfing down breadless bread plates, scissor-punctured chicken, and a few incriminating tacos, they would experience the range of emotions elicited by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy’s provocative script.
From the onset of filming, the production team knew they needed to work alongside a culinary expert, and Crenn, the only female chef in the U.S. to attain three Michelin stars for her San Francisco restaurant Atelier Crenn, was the top choice.
While the script outlined certain proteins or moods, chef Crenn took her own creative liberties in imagining each course. “We knew that things would have to start out feeling very, very normal, but as the night goes on, they become a little more grotesque,” Tobman tells Thrillist. “And that was a delicate balance to play with chef Crenn and her team—to start with water, then move on to land protein, then slowly get a little more surreal.”
How they designed courses in ‘The Menu’
Hawthorn is situated on a coastal island in the Pacific Northwest and its leader, Chef Slowik, played by Fiennes, harvests the organic forms of the surrounding ecosystem. “One of the things chef Crenn taught me early on was how important the vessels are when preparing a dish,” Tobman says. “When you go to the Louvre and see Van Goghs, the art is of tremendous significance, but the frame also has to tell the story of the artwork.”
The sea-inspired rock dish is one of the many courses in this movie that plays with the raw materials of life and death. Crenn, like Slowik, believes that dishes must tell stories and describes her creation with a chilling duality. “When you go on top of a rock, you can see beauty, but it’s also on top of the rock that you can fall,” she says. Tobman adds, “For me, chef Slowik is not inspired by nature. He’s haunted by nature, because nature is perfect, and he’ll never be able to approximate that perfection. He’s destroying nature in the process of creating a perfect restaurant experience.”
In the movie, Slowik reminds his guests that each individual course won’t make sense until they’ve experienced the final one. This is an idea that Crenn is familiar with at her own restaurant, where guests are invited to take part in her own life’s journey. “It’s like a piece of music,” she explains. “When you look at a piece of music, you can see the beginning and the end, and you might think, ‘Those notes don’t make sense.’ Then, suddenly, everything comes together.” But while Crenn injects a sense of joy into her meals at Atelier Crenn, the goal at Hawthorn is to create food that contains an emotional coldness—beautiful, yet dead.
“Chef Slowik is not inspired by nature. He’s haunted by nature.”
To create the lush close-ups of Slowik’s dishes, the team sought help from David Gelb, creator of Netflix’s Chef’s Table. “He’s really created a visual dictionary for how modern people think food should be shot,” Tobman says. But in the fictional world of Hawthorn, where there’s a strict no photography policy, the beauty of each dish lies in its ephemerality, and this is a belief Crenn subscribes to at her own restaurant. “We live in an era where photography is 24/7. For me, it’s a problem at times because it disconnects you from the experience that we are working so hard to give you,” she says. “But at the same time, we also live in a world where we need to be a little more flexible.”
The inspiration behind the kitchen
The production team took inspiration from a number of famous restaurants, former and current: Magnus Nilsson’s Fäviken in Sweden; Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli in Catalonia; Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in Sonoma; and René Redzepi’s Noma in Copenhagen. Like most trendy restaurants, Hawthorn showcases an open kitchen with a flaming fire.
“I really wanted to nail the idea that the chef could look at you, but you couldn’t look at the chef,” Tobman says. He constructed the kitchen to look like a church, with a cross on the back wall. The floor that Slowick walks on is raised, as if he’s preaching from a pulpit, while the rest of the cooks work on a lower level. “It’s like they’re genuflecting,” Tobman explains. “They’re his church goers and he’s the high priest.”
Within the interior, Tobman wanted to honor the natural elements that are integral to any chef—fire and water. “So water has to be part of the experience of the front of the house and fire has to be the experience of the back of the house,” he explains. “There’s a fireplace on the wall right by the window and the reflection makes it look like the fire goes off into the water.” The production designer even went as far as treating the furnishings in the same way a chef would treat his food. “The wood in the restaurant is charred, it’s blanched, it’s bleached, some of it’s steamed,” he explains. “I wanted it to feel like Slowik was cooking the restaurant.”
To prepare for his role as Chef Slowik, Fiennes spent a considerable amount of time on set with Crenn, absorbing how she operates in the kitchen. “It was not about him understanding how to cook,” she explains. “It was about him understanding the character—what it means to be a chef.” Crenn essentially showed Fiennes how to be the conductor of a symphony. “It’s all movement, and detail, and music, and layering,” she says. “And you are in charge. You have to command confidence by the way you walk into the kitchen, by the way you look at things.”
To keep things accurate, Crenn ran a bootcamp for the kitchen staff cast—which was composed of both real-life chefs and actors—as well as the wait staff and sommelier. “It was authenticity to the teeth,” Crenn says. “It was almost like I was opening a new restaurant.” The chef felt like the cast embodied the restaurant industry’s ethos of “Today might be great, but tomorrow will be even better,” she says.
“It was authenticity to the teeth…. It was almost like I was opening a new restaurant.”
But perhaps Crenn’s greatest contribution was uncovering the psychology of a character like Slowik, who’s been tarnished by the incredible pressure placed on him by the food industry. Though she had a hand in conceiving the “Man’s Folly” course, a comment on the industry’s inherent sexism, Crenn believes Slowik is not just damaged by toxicity from within the kitchen, but also toxicity from the outside world.
“We work 20 hours a day and after everything that we do, it will take one person, who hasn’t even spent a second with us, to judge it and say, ‘Ah, it’s too salty.’ It brings us down mentally.” For Crenn, it was important to find a soft spot in Slowik’s character. “Food is at the core of every human, so of course there’s going to be some humanity there,” she says.
The final dessert scene
The final course of Chef Slowik’s meal is a dessert that encompasses the entire restaurant, featuring a tableau of syrupy swirls and drops, not unlike the work of culinary luminaries Grant Achatz or Massimo Bottura.
“How do you make a dessert that’s 60 by 30 feet big?” Tobman says, noting a remarkable challenge for the crew. “It was like a bunch of geeks running around at Burning Man.”
For Tobman, the experience highlighted just how similar the preparation of food is to filmmaking. “They are ephemeral experiences that have a finite number of time. They’re very structured. You have an instant family. You’re creating an artificial environment. And many of us who work in film, we start by working as waiters and chefs,” he explains.
Crenn enjoyed working with Tobman so much that she hired him to work with her on the new redesign of Atelier Crenn. She hopes that viewers will walk away from this movie with a little more respect for the magic that goes on at the back of the house. “I want people to pay attention when they go to restaurants and understand that, behind the door, there are amazing people who are working so hard to make sure that they're feeding us—in a number of ways."