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The magic of fine dining on screen, Caitlin Moran's inglorious week
Some of my favourite TV shows pull back the curtain on an industry, or a culture, I know nothing about. Harper’s frantic trading in Industry, the running of ATN on election night in Succession, crisis PR in I Hate Suzie, and fine dining in Disney’s brilliant show The Bear.
Last year, the first season of The Bear saw renowned chef Carmie come home from years spent in Michelin-starred restaurants to run – and upgrade – his grubby family sandwich shop in Chicago. It was funny and tender, with heart-warming friendships forming between the mish-mash of chefs, each overcoming private struggles as they sweat 12-hour shifts in the kitchen that becomes their entire tiny, crazy world.
And the food was glorious: from bubbling Cola-braised short rib to a perfect jam doughnut the pastry chef spends weeks tinkering with, determined to recreate the Proustian pleasure of one he ate as a child. The menus were curated by Canadian celebrity chef Matty Matheson (who also play’s the show’s chaotic engineer, Fak), who advised on the way the cast moved (always in a state of urgent panic, always with a rag over their shoulder), and how they sliced a beef sirloin. Chefs who watched it unanimously thought it was spot-on to the point of “triggering”, the only gripe being that their T-Shirts were too white.
Season two, out in a couple of weeks, is a two-month countdown to Carmie reopening the shop as a fine dining destination at the tail-end of Covid-19, while every other restaurant seems to be shutting. I’ve already seen it all via preview episodes, and, no spoilers I promise, but we see Carmie send several of his chefs out of their little kitchen into some of the world’s most terrifyingly slick fine dining establishments.
Two episodes in particular, when pastry chef Marcus is sent to what could be Noma in Copenhagen, and business partner Richie is sent to a three-star Chicago restaurant to shine forks, are an utterly transfixing look at the behind-the-scenes magic and precision required to pull off the kind of all-consuming perfection most people could only sustain for a single day.
I think I forgot to breathe while watching Marcus delicately place an almond sliver into the cream of a dessert with a pair of tweezers, repeating the movement again and again until he got the angle just right. At Richie’s restaurant, filmed at Chicago’s real three-starred Ever, the waiters’ movements are timed to the second with a stopwatch, and each guest is thoroughly researched, any potentially useful personal details added to a colour-coded spreadsheet.
If you think that sounds too insane to be true, when I went to review the famous Georges V hotel in Paris for GQ, the general manager told me how housekeeping take photographs of top guests’ possessions so that the next time they tidy the room, they know where you like to put your slippers, arrange your jewellery, or stacks your books. Would they have photographs of, er, more private things? Your pants left on the floor? When walking about the hotel, I was also amazed that every single member of staff, none of whom I’d met, recognised me in the corridors, and used my name. “Ah yes,” said the GM later. “We send photographs of key guests to all the staff before you arrive so that they can memorise you.”
Like the best TV shows, the drama is inspired by real life (I Hate Suzie draws on Piper’s own dysfunctional experience of fame, Succession drafted in wealth consultants and Logan Roy takes after Rupert Murdoch, Industry was written by two former traders). Tellingly, the scene in which we see a guest surprised with a delicacy the staff had overheard her regretting she hadn’t tried before leaving Chicago, is taken from true restaurant lore. Will Guidara from three-starred restaurant Eleven Madison Park heard a table longing for a hot dog before they left New York, so he dashed off to pick one up from a $2 hot dog stand, before plating it “four ways” as part of his tasting menu. I would guess, too, that when Richie meets the restaurant’s head chef and owner, played by Olivia Colman, peeling mushrooms “just so guests can see how much time we spend on their meal”, choosing to do a task usually assigned to the kitchen’s lowest rank, the moment is too specific, too random, not to be based on a real chef’s quirks.
This hyper-realism is what made another fine-dining screen success so successful – 2022’s The Menu, starring Ralph Fiennes as a disturbed chef who has become so reviled by the naked capitalism of his guests, who spend thousands of dollars to come to his famous restaurant without caring about what they’re eating, he decides to integrate them into his menu. Sure, most chefs aren’t psychopaths, but the way the film so aptly skewered the most pompous aspects of fine dining culture, from serving a “breadless bread plate” to insisting a guest doesn’t go to the toilet because they’re about to serve the next course (which genuinely happened to Farrah Storr’s husband when they went to Noma, which she writes about in this very funny but terrifying piece), made his character feel horribly true to life.
In fact, the consultant behind the film, chef Dominique Crenn, who owns French three-starred restaurant Atelier Crenn in San Francisco and made sure all the food on set was real, said that she could relate to Fiennes’s dysfunctional character Julian Slowik, “where he could blow up mentally…because of the craziness, the perfection…” After filming wrapped, Crenn even recruited the film’s set designer Ethan Tobman to do the refurb of her Atelier. Although, considering Tobman said he designed The Menu restaurant “like a church”, with Slowik’s area raised so that the other chefs look “like they’re genuflecting to him… like they’re in a cult”, this may be a little alarming.
A foodie film that was criticised for its lack of realism was Stephen Graham’s Boiling Point from 2021, in which he starred as an unravelling chef manning his London restaurant across one single day and night, shot in one single take. I personally loved it, but chefs criticised everything from its “dated” scene in which Graham’s character gets one of his pot-washers to pick up drugs for him while on shift, to how unrealistic it felt to pack so much drama – a visit from a food critic and an environmental health officer, then an on-site tragedy – into a single take. Gizzi Erskine wrote on Instagram that it used “every cliche in the book”. But it did well regardless, and a TV adaptation created by Graham is in the works, to be released later this year
Considering perfectionism is so ripe for drama, and nobody nails perfectionism quite like the hospitality industry, I would love to see a film about the running of a five-star hotel. The White Lotus was fun, but the scenes with the hotel staff are more Fawlty Towers than real life – the satire seemingly reserved for the guests.
And yet the intricacies of running a hotel – a 24-hour operation, in which, unlike a restaurant, a guest may hover by the front desk in the dead of night – are surely screaming for a thriller. When I went to The Royal Mansour for GQ several years ago, I was amazed to hear that the reason we couldn’t see any staff on the premises was that they were operating within a secret network of underground tunnels – 1.5km of them, connecting the hotel’s 53 private riads. I can’t think of a better crime scene.
This week in links
I’ve been interviewing the wonderfully clever, wise and funny writer Caroline O’Donoghue for my podcast Straight Up, for the release of her very good new novel The Rachel Incident, a messy love story involving two friends and a professor in Cork. She wrote it in just 11 weeks after scrapping a 70,000 manuscript she realised she no longer believed in just two months before her book deadline, an insanely risky decision which she told us all about. Listen here.
I’ve been writing about ”Benin’s premier diva”, five-time Grammy winner Angelique Kidjo, who has the most incredible life story: she fled Benin for Paris in the middle of the night during the dictatorship, and didn’t see or speak to her parents again for six years. Despite having almost no money and dealing with daily racism, she got a deal with Island Records. We talk about all sorts of things, here.
I’ve been reading all the reviews of Caitlin Moran’s new book, What About Men?, which, um, have not been good. Whenever I see a writer’s work being dragged from every angle I feel almost sick with empathy – I can’t think of anything more depressing than having your work universally hated. However, Moran is successful enough already that it probably doesn’t matter, in fact her grip on the media is probably why critics consider her fair game. In his very good piece Will Lloyd calls it “an outright catastrophe”, which, as I’ve written here before in my essay on the perverse good press of bad reviews, actually makes me want to read it.
Also, Mic Wright’s excellent takedown of the media coverage around the NHS, Sophie Elmhirst’s Guardian long-read on condoms, and Haley Nahman’s rather lovely newsletter on romanticising the “slow chore”.
I’ve been watching the final episode of The Idol, which – having found a micro-redemption with episode four – genuinely floored me with its inexorable shitness. Then I was floored a second time when reading an Instagram post from Lily-Rose Depp that referred to wrapping “season one of The Idol”, suggesting there could be a season two. I’m just hoping that somehow former showrunner Amy Seimetz will find a way to leak her way around the NDA that is likely keeping her conspicuous silence, and there will be a movement to #releasetheSeimetzcut.
I can’t stop thinking about when I went to Madrid a few years ago to interview renowned maverick chef David Munoz at his famous, no-reservations restaurant Street XO, hidden on the top floor of a department store. There are no waiters, the chefs serve you themselves at a rectangular counter that borders the kitchen-cum-stage, and they are (rather problematically) wearing a white uniform designed to look like a straightjacket, with straps across the chest and back.
After being served a pig’s ear and then crispy chicken feet, I was given a cheddar cheese Martini with a caramelised prawn head attached to the glass with a wooden clip. I was instructed to dip the decapitated head into the thick orange cocktail, before chasing it with a spoon of liquified prawn brain. Considering I hate prawns, and the chef gazed at me the entire time while a videographer lurked behind him, his camera on me as I quite literally gagged, this ranks very highly among the worst moments of my entire life.
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Ps sorry for the last month’s posting irregularity – I was juggling a few things, and still am, so will need to take a month-long break, but will be back soon! Please do have a nosy around my archive instead…