I keep making the mistake of assuming that my partner, a fine dining chef, might enjoy watching films set in his workplace. We discovered the opposite may be true on the morning the trailer was released for Boiling Point, a British film starring Stephen Graham as the tempestuous head chef of an East London restaurant. About 20 seconds in – more precisely, at the moment Graham started screaming at the young commis chef – he asked to turn it off and muttered something along the lines of “why would I want to spend my spare time watching something I have to experience for 16 hours a day”. Fair point.
For everyone else, there seems to be a growing appetite for stories that take us into the kitchen. This year there has been the breakout success of The Bear, a series which follows high-end chef Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White) as he returns to his family’s failing sandwich shop in Chicago. The Menu, a dark comedy-thriller that brings new meaning to the phrase “eat the rich”, gave the production company Searchlight its most successful opening weekend at the box office since 2008. If you’re still hungry, the BBC is to serve up another helping of Boiling Point when it returns as a television series next year.
Audiences have always gobbled up food shows. From highly produced documentaries like Netflix’s Chef’s Table to cooking competition shows like The Great British Bake Off or MasterChef we are used to watching beautiful plates of food on our screens – but only more rarely have we seen the inner lives of the chefs assembling the plates. And when we have, the fantasy has been a lot sweeter than the reality. Films like Ratatouille (2007), Julie and Julia (2009) and Chef (2014) are the comfort food of kitchen dramas. They imagine cooking as little more than a twee hobby and the kitchen as a place of self-discovery and creativity. Recent releases are challenging this notion.
In The Menu Julian Slowik, a celebrity chef played by Ralph Fiennes, is driven to despair when he realises his ultra-wealthy diners seem to care only about prestige and not the taste of the food. He reaches the pinnacle of success and finds it hollow and empty, which is reflected in his dishes, such as a breadless bread plate. As Slowik’s cult of chefs turn their knives away from their cutting boards and towards their guests, the stakes are raised.
The Menu, The Bear and Boiling Point have discovered the drama that lies in the very real stress and chaos of a professional kitchen, twisting real workplace anxieties to create claustrophobic and intense viewing. They show the relentlessness of the profession: gruelling and unsafe working hours, low pay, wage theft and abuse of all kinds (physical, emotional, verbal, sexual, racial). Carmy in The Bear and Andy in Boiling Point battle substance addiction – which 27 per cent of chefs have experienced.
When Carmy leaves the esteemed world of fine dining to run his late brother’s sandwich shop, he promises this will “be different”. He has been in the line of fire from his previous New York bosses and still carries the demons. Yet by episode seven he has broken his promise, hurt his colleagues, sworn more times than Gordon Ramsay himself and sent our blood pressure through the roof. Even if you have the best intentions, this profession has the potential to bring out the worst in you.
It’s clear the profession needs to change: the hospitality union Unite reports that 81 per cent of chefs have faced poor mental health due to working conditions. As these films and series bring the punishing conditions to the screen, perhaps they will galvanise progress – and one day these kitchen nightmares will remain only in the movies.