I “dined” at Hawthorne the other day – a beautiful, austere restaurant on a small island reached only by a private ferry from the mainland. Fabulous fresh produce, foraged from the island and the adjacent waters. Minimally cooked to bring out the flavours of the ocean. Albeit fictional, this is an experience I can recommend and reflects the offer rife in restaurants today. The menu, like many modern menus, is not printed but explained to you as the dishes are served. The food is sublime – if not a little esoteric and the chef takes you on an adventure, like no other.
Indeed, at the commencement, Chef Julian Slowick begs “Do not eat. Taste, savour, relish – consider every morsel that you place inside your mouth. Be mindful – but do not Eat – our menu is too precious for that.”
Head Chef Julian Slowick is reminiscent of many Michelin-pedigreed chefs found on a list of the world’s 50 best restaurants. Played in this piece of theatre, by Ralph Fiennes, Slowick is successful, committed, strong, powerful, obsessive and yet vulnerable and lost. Conducting the dining experience at a carefully controlled distance, from the altar in his open kitchen orchestra pit, that so many places have today.
His staff, in true Escoffier fashion are passionate and disciplined, obeying his every wish. Sacrificing their daily lives for their craft. Part of a family. The military presence of the kitchen rhythm beats, like a relentless metronome. Yes Chef.
Margot – one the guests – played sympathetically by Anya Taylor-Joy – is a fish out of water. She’s the escort, in many ways, of Tyler, a passionate, keen and devout foody. But she is not so into food – so Tyler has to explain the courses to her – which is an excellent Segway into the operations of this extraordinary restaurant based loosely on many in the current top 50 destination diners, that only a few of us can reach and afford – and even desire.
This is a multicourse chef’s menu – starting with a fussy amuse bouche of oysters in foam with golden alginate globes and dried mignonette lettuce, followed later by a bread course – with no bread. The food is brilliantly prepared and presented. It includes custom decorated tortillas, chicken speared with scissors and a bone marrow & seared steak with freshly plucked scallops arranged with gels and foraged rocks. Simply magnificent.
The final course, dessert – s’mores – are perhaps the antithesis of fine dining but in Chef Slowick’s hands are a truly spectacular piece of theatre eclipsing Alinea’s Jackson-Pollack dessert and Bottura’s “oops, I dropped the lemon tart” with an awe-inspiring finale.
The service is – well, professional but a bit brusque. Chef Slowick is a true artist but suffering from his years of pain in an industry rife with abuse, critique and perfectionism at any cost. Like all passion, it shows in his dishes.
The guests who idolise Slowick include wealthy business people, a retired couple, movie stars and of course, a food critic. People who seek status from dining in rare places. Yet as with many elaborate overpriced menus, it leaves one a little puzzled and hungry for a good simple cheese burger.
“The Menu” is most definitely worth a detour. Sadly, the team at Hawthorne have gone their separate ways and it has, I think, closed, so you will only have to imagine the painstakingly prepared and brilliantly executed menu developed by Julian Slowick, in collaboration with the real Dominique Crenn of Atelier Crenn in San Francisco.
This is a delicious, satirical commentary on the excesses of class and consumerism, demonstrated by the cult-like devotion to our high priest chefs, in their temples of gastronomy, catering to a clueless, pretentious wealthy few, where eating has changed into an intellectual exercise. It provides, as Anton Ego (Ratatouille. Disney pictures) craved, a little perspective. Some fresh, clear, well-seasoned perspective. It is sadly accurate as well as entertaining. A must for every chef, restaurateur, foodie, hospitality student and sceptic. Yes Chef.
Rating: 4 Stars
The Menu – in cinemas from Thursday 24 November.
By Jeremy Ryland