Review: Burnt (2015)
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Daniel Bruhl, Omar Sy, Uma Thurman, Emma Thompson
Dir: John Wells
Spoiler Alert: This review contains plot information.
Burnt isn’t the culmination of our culture’s ongoing preoccupation with and veneration of the bully chef, but it’s an adequate example of the phenomenon. As a movie, it’s dull and uninteresting.
The image of the chef as the enfant terrible, the troubled genius who throws tantrums and demands perfection in the kitchen has its modern roots in Gordon Ramsey and his television empire, along with other ill-tempered bad boy chefs like Mario Batali and Anthony Bourdain. The 2011 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi did a fine job of demonstrating the titular chef’s single-mindedness in pursuit of the perfect piece of sushi, but it also, and perhaps inadvertently, depicted a troubling trend within the restaurant world.
The idea that you have to be an asshole in order to be successful isn’t limited to the food industry (look no further than the cult of Steve Jobs for proof of that, both in the recent biopics of the man and the eulogies and flowers left for him at Apple Stores across the world in the wake of his death), but the idea is typically taken to its most logical extreme in the restaurant kitchen. There is a telling scene in Jiro where Jiro Ono shares an anecdote about the time he slept in and his son asked his mother “Mommy, who is that strange man in our bed?” Given the slant of the film, this anecdote is probably supposed to demonstrate how Jiro’s commitment to his craft is so consuming that he’s never home to spend time with his kids, but I’m not sure such a thing should be considered admirable. Later in the same film, Jiro takes the train to see some old friends who cheerfully recount stories of his schoolyard bullying as he chuckles merrily. So not only is the man an absentee father, he’s a bully to boot. And I had the nagging sense that the film wanted us to admire him for it. Why?
In Burnt, Bradley Cooper’s Adam Jones is a two-star Michelin chef who destroyed his once-promising career with drugs and alcohol, though the film is maddeningly vague regarding just how he went about doing so. After his spectacular flame-out he takes a flight home to Louisiana with his tail between his legs for some self-imposed exile. He spends two years shucking a million oysters, diligently recording the totals in a notebook, then heads to London to chase his third star and restore his reputation. He fans out around town, trolling chefs and recruiting cooks for his new kitchen in a hotel owned and operated by Daniel Bruhl’s Tony. Once his team is assembled he proceeds to belittle and bully them brutally, including forcing his sous chef Helene (Sienna Miller) to apologize to a piece of fish she ostensibly ruined before yanking her by the collar and calling her “an infection.”
Are we to applaud this? Is this kind of behavior supposed to demonstrate Jones’ passion for cuisine? Or does it just make him an enormous asshole?
I lean toward the latter. Having both worked in the restaurant industry and had debilitating substance problems myself, I can’t even count the number of hard-drinking, coke snorting, oft-swearing cooks I’ve met who are eager to follow in the footsteps of Anthony Bourdain, screaming their way to the top of the culinary world while drinking and doing drugs at every possible opportunity. There is a sick species of pride that comes with showing up to work violently hungover and on ninety minutes of sleep, and there is an inexplicable veneration for chefs and cooks who treat each other like shit over something as bland and innocuous as an overdone potato.
For example, Jones’ grillman Max, played by Riccardio Scamarcio, is recruited straight out of prison, having been sentenced to time for brutally assaulting a cook who made the same mistake three times. In the world of Burnt, Max’s behavior is justified. “C’mon man,” Max grumbles to Jones, who is picking him up at prison on a cool-looking motorcycle he borrowed without asking because he’s a badass. “Three times?” Jones laughs and claps him on the back. One gets the sense that he condones what his friend did.
These are the people the film wants us to admire, though Jones is by far the worst of the bunch despite the film’s attempts to make him an interesting as possible. At one point we meet a food critic played by Uma Thurman who is apparently a lesbian but once slept with Jones because he’s charming or something. Cooper’s Troubled Genius has other fervent supporters too, such as Emma Thompson’s doctor who checks his blood once a week for drugs and alcohol and who inadvertently takes on the role of Jones’ psychotherapist. Elsewhere, Jones’ ex-girlfriend, played somnolently by Alicia Vikander, turns up at a crucial moment to pay off Jones’ drug debts to a pair of menacing Parisians. Bruhl’s Tony plays a parental role too, picking up Jones’ filthy clothes and dirty plates in his squalid hotel room before making it known that he loves him – romantically that is – and assuring him that he’s an incredible cook. Despite these glowing advertisements of Jones’ prowess in the kitchen, we never actually see the guy cooking, and it’s a pretty big cheat when the supporting cast spends the majority of its screen time talking about how wonderful the lead character is, yet we see so few examples of his alleged talent.
Indeed, the audience gets no sense whatsoever of Jones’ identity as a chef, aside from him being Paris-trained. A few scenes in the film show his reluctance to use plastic bags for cooking, a trendy new method that has apparently replaced the frying pan, but the cooking montages are so briskly edited that we never see something actually being cooked. The audience must be content with brief flashes of pink meat, the chopping of parsley, the stirring of sauce, and then Adam’s plating finished meals at the pass. The film doesn’t show us anything new about cooking. Rather, it’s a character study of a terrible guy who everybody helps to succeed. It’s nothing more than another tired redemption story of a destructive genius who flew too close to the sun.
Eventually Jones gets his kitchen running smoothly and the cast prepare themselves for a visit by the revered Michelin agents. When they arrive, a cook played by Omar Sy who is still simmering from a cruel trick Jones played on him back in Paris, sabotages the meal by putting in a shitload of cayenne pepper. Jones promptly throws a tantrum and goes out to break his sobriety, eventually winding up at the kitchen of his arch-enemy, another bratty chef played by Matthew Rhys, where he puts a plastic bag over his head in a pitiful suicide attempt. Reece foils Jones suicide attempt by yanking a bag off his head, lets him sleep on the kitchen floor, then makes him eggs and coffee in the morning, telling him how fantastic a chef he is before telling him to leave.
At no point are we, the audience, given any reason to root for Jones, but the film presumes we’ll do so, having been trained by a decade-and-a-half of reality shows on the Food Network to accept abusive behavior from chefs. I, for one, am weary of these undeserving heroes and the culture that enables and applauds their boorish behavior.
Established film critics have described the difficulty they experienced trying to restrain themselves from using culinary parlance in reviewing Burnt, with many succumbing and dubbing it a “sizzling success” or “underseasoned” or “half-baked.” In my case I was pretty tempted to call Cooper’s character a “bad egg,” before deciding against it, then reconsidering and using it anyway in a self-conscious, meta-sentence.
The film can’t stand on its own because it depends on the viewer’s familiarity with the archetype of the star chef and his awful behavior. The degree to which the audience can forgive Jones’ his assholery is directly proportionate to the film’s success, though I define success here in terms of staying power, since Burnt had a reasonable showing at the box office, pulling in $35 million on a budget of $20 million. But it’s not a movie that will be remembered. Nor does it deserve to be. Culinary trends are fickle, yet the bully chef has been a mainstay of food television for almost two decades now.
Here’s hoping that changes sooner rather than later. You don’t have to be an asshole in order to be successful, but for a redemption story to work, the protagonist should have some redeeming qualities. As Mind of a Chef’s Magnus Nilsson has gently demonstrated, you can be a Paris-trained chef without being a terrible human being, and patience and passion don’t have to be mutually exclusive in a high-end, high-stress restaurant kitchen.