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What ‘The Bear’ And ‘The Menu’ Say About Restaurant Culture «

What ‘The Bear’ And ‘The Menu’ Say About Restaurant Culture «

Dan Pashman: This episode contains explicit language.

MUSIC

Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies it’s for eaters, I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people. And Happy New Year! I hope you had great holiday season and New Year celebration. I hope you’re getting back into the swing of things, which is exactly what we’re gonna do.

Dan Pashman: Right now, we’re going to start off this year with a look back at the major role food played in TV and movies last year. Now of course food on TV isn’t new, but I think last year was different. In addition to the usual cooking competition shows …

CLIP (MIKEY DAY): All right let’s find out, is it cake?

Dan Pashman: And food travel shows ….  

CLIP (STANLEY TUCCI): There’s nowhere quite on earth like Italy.

Dan Pashman: Food was used to offer biting commentary on class and race, as well as on the toxic culture in many restaurant kitchens and dining rooms.

[CLIP FROM THE BEAR]

CLIP (CARMY): It was a play on a panettone. It would have been beautiful if you’d let me finish it.

CLIP (RICHIE): Fuck you.

CLIP (CARMY): Fuck, cousin.

CLIP (RICHIE): Ritchie Jeremonvich, pleasure to meet you sweetheart.

CLIP (CARMY): Don’t say sweetheart, you fucking weirdo.

CLIP (RICHIE): Oh, sorry. Carm, you’re so woke. I meant nothing by it Sydney. Saying sweetheart is just part of our Italian heritage.

CLIP (SYDNEY): That’s beautiful. Thank you …

Dan Pashman: Food in film and television last year has given us a lot to unpack, so that’s what we’re doing in this episode. Later on, we’ll be joined by a very special guest — a chef who consulted on the film The Menu and taught Ralph Fiennes how to cook on camera. 

Dan Pashman: But first, I want to bring in an expert. Joining me today is Ashley Ray, the host of TV, I Say w/ Ashley Ray. She knows TV inside and out. She’s a comedian and writer who’s written for a number of TV shows, including Adult Swim’s Alabama Jackson. She also writes about TV and culture for The AV Club and New York Magazine. And each week on TV, I Say, she runs down what she and her guests are watching.

Dan Pashman: Hey, Ashley.

Ashley Ray: Hi. I’m so glad to be here. 

Dan Pashman: Thanks for being here. Now, quick warning, off the top, we’re gonna be talking about a lot of shows and movies in this episode. There’s gonna be spoilers, people just deal with it. 

Ashley Ray: Yeah. 

Dan Pashman: And now before we get into specific shows, I would love to just ask you, like as someone who is a perceptive TV and movie watcher, and also someone who has worked on the creative side, behind the scenes like. When you see food being used in the plot of a story, what are the hallmarks of it being done well? What are some of the pitfalls? 

Ashley Ray: I think when it is really tied to generational or cultural historical analysis, it can be really, really good. That’s what you got with Atlanta, Reservation Dogs, which was great this year. They have a lot of plots about these younger generations learning recipes and different methods of cooking from their parents and ancestors. And then, you know, I think a show like The Bear kind of didn’t embrace that aspect of it. They didn’t embrace the cultural aspect of Chicago food. 

Dan Pashman: All right, before we get farther into The Bear, for folks who haven’t seen it, I just wanna set a little bit up here. The Bear follows Carmy, he’s a pretty famous chef who’s returned home to Chicago after many years working in super fancy restaurants in New York. He’s got to take over his family’s rundown Italian beef restaurant after the death of his brother, who used to run the place. Carmy, who’s played by Jeremy Allen White, is determined to retool “The Beef,” as they call the restaurant, so it functions like the high-end kitchens he was trained in. 

CLIP (CARMY): Ebraheim, make sandwiches! Don’t stop making fucking sandwiches!

CLIP (EBRAHEIM): Yes, Chef.

CLIP (CARMY): I’m gonna make three sections. Okay? They’re gonna be wet, hot, and sweet. All right? I’m gonna take green tape, make those sections. Louie, I want you to get the sandwiches, put ’em in the corresponding sections  … 

Dan Pashman: The Bear did come up a lot on your podcast, but not always in a positive way. You had some frustrations with it. Tell me about that.

Ashley Ray: I did. You know, I think every guest I had this year listed The Bear as one of their favorites of the year. 

MUSIC

CLIP (JACOB): I’ve been watching The Bear. That is my SHOW. Like that’s gonna be my favorite show of the year, I know it is.

CLIP (DAVID): At this point I’m only watching it because everybody loves it it, and that’s the FX series The Bear.

CLIP (ASHLEY RAY): I knew you were going to say The Bear …

CLIP (DAN): I don’t believe in chef culture. You know, it’s not — I’m not straight, I guess, is what I’m saying and yet I can’t stop watching The Bear.

[TV, I SAY w/ ASHLEY RAY THEME SONG]

Ashley Ray: I love the performances, love the story it tells about, you know, addiction and family and grief, but what it does get wrong and what it bothers me on is the Chicago food depictions.

Dan Pashman: We should say you grew up in Rockford, Illinois. 

Ashley Ray: Yes. 

Dan Pashman: You’ve lived in Chicago for a number of years, so you know Chicago well.

Ashley Ray: I know Chicago food, I know Chicago. I grew up on, you know, Italian beef and ribs and barbecue and chicken from Chicago. I actually worked at an office that was like a block away from the Mr. Beef, that the show is based on — Mr. Beef on Orleans, and I’ve been there. When you’re talking about food in River North Chicago, River North is one of the richest, most gentrified neighborhoods, which you would not get that feeling from the show. [LAUGHS]

Dan Pashman: Right.

Ashley Ray: The show tries to make it seem like this is a down and out dirty neighborhood, but really it’s like, where all the advertising companies are and like five star Michelin restaurants. Mostly, if you are not a rich person and you want to eat in that area, all you have are like the Italian beef shops. So like it’s interesting to me that in the show, the whole point is that they wanna gentrify this place that is the only affordable eating establishment and turn it into a fancy, high-end eatery when most Chicagoans would be like, that is not what River North needs.

Dan Pashman: Right. [LAUGHS]

Ashley Ray: As someone from Illinois, I felt like I had to call these things out. I mean, first of all, the menu at the restaurant in The Bear makes little to no sense. Like as a Chicagoan, you’re like, okay, so they sell Italian beef, but then they also sell like, pasta and it’s a sit down restaurant.

Dan Pashman: Right.

Ashley Ray: But it seems to be a place where apparently they make their own bread and chocolate cake, which is not a thing in Chicago. Like, it’s just small stuff. Like in Chicago, we don’t have health grades for restaurants. Like there’s no A, B, C, that’s like a New York thing. So it just was these little disconnects where you’re like, this is a New Yorker. A New Yorker did this.

Dan Pashman: Everything you’re saying about the incongruity and these sort of unrealistic depiction of Chicago is fair. But putting that aside, one of the things that I thought was interesting about this show was that I felt like it was a more nuanced portrayal of the sometimes abusive conditions that can take place in restaurants. 

Ashley Ray: Yes. 

Dan Pashman: I think that the easy, heavy handed approach would’ve just been like there’s a big bad male chef, who’s horrible all the time to his subordinates.

Ashley Ray: Yeah.

Dan Pashman: And instead the lead white male chef is a somewhat sympathetic character, I think, who seems like he’s trying to create a kitchen that’s different from the one that he came up in. And there’s a flashback where he, the chef who trained him is one of the, is one of — is like a super villain. 

Ashley Ray: Yeah. 

CLIP (NYC CHEF): Why are you so slow? Why are you so fucking slow? Why do you think you’re so tough? Yeah. Why don’t you say this? Say Yes, chef. I’m so tough. 

CLIP (CARMY): Yes, chef. I’m so tough. 

CLIP (NYC CHEF): Say fucking yes, chef. I’m so tough. 

CLIP (CARMY): Yes, chef. I’m so tough. 

CLIP (NYC CHEF): You are not tough. You are bullshit. You are talentless. Say fucking hands. 

CLIP (CARMY): Hands!

CLIP (NYC CHEF): You should be dead. 

Dan Pashman: And so he seems like he’s trying. On the other hand, he’s not always succeeding.

Ashley Ray: Right. It seems to him that the only way you can teach is with that same sort of just hard handed attitude of disrespect. There’s a whole thing with a cake.

Dan Pashman: I’m jumping in here real quick for all you superfans of The Bear. Ashley and I both remembered this as chocolate cake when we were discussing, but it’s actually a doughnut in this scene. The chocolate cake is a different part. So when we say cake, think doughnut.

Ashley Ray: One of the most devastating moments is when Jeremy Allen White basically like slaps this cake on the ground. You want to cry for the guy whose whole story for most of the season is just trying to get this cake right, and he finally thinks he gets it and instead of being celebrated, he’s torn down in that way that chefs do to make you just feel like nothing is ever good, like you can be better and better.

CLIP (CARMY): Shut the fuck up!

CLIP (TINA): Three minutes to open!

CLIP (MARCUS): Yo, Carmy. I did it, I figured out what I was doing wrong. You know I was trying to make a cake donut when it should have been yeast all along …

CLIP (CARMY): Marcus, why are you fucking with me? Why are you fucking with me? Why are you fucking with me?! Why are you fucking with me?! Huh? Get the fuck back to work! Move! Everybody, fucking idiots!

CLIP (RICHIE): Yo, cousin, just fucking …

CLIP (CARMY): Shut the fuck up.

Ashley Ray: And I worked in a few restaurants, mostly like at fast food places. I worked at a smoothie shop. And I feel like that is what the show nails is the just intensity and stress of working in a kitchen, not wanting to let your chef down. I would be like, I can’t let my manager down on these like pre-packaged salads we get from corporate.

[LAUGHING]

Ashley Ray: But it’s just the — it’s like that intensity and environment that it has to feel like the end of the world. And for the character Carmy, this is his family shop, he has a name to keep alive and a reputation to maintain, but at the same time, he knows he’s capable of more. 

Dan Pashman: Right. That whole moment with the cake, I mean, to me, honestly, I had kind of mixed feelings. I agree that like his reaction was extreme and hurtful to the chef, who’d been working so hard on the cake. On the other hand, like this was like the chef’s hobby. 

Ashley Ray: Yeah. 

Dan Pashman: He gets inspired by Carmy and starts trying to up his game and he’s working on these donuts and all this, but it’s kind of supposed to be in his spare time. And Carmy says, look, you can do this in your spare time, but you still needs to do your job.

Ashley Ray: Yeah.

Dan Pashman: And he says, yes. Yes, of course. Then he fucks up.

Ashley Ray: Yeah.

Dan Pashman: And the restaurant gets screwed up because he was focused on his …

Ashley Ray: On the cake. He doesn’t have the bread. Yeah.

Dan Pashman: Right.

Ashley Ray: And it’s also like a day when they’re slammed with all these delivery orders and everyone is trying to like keep up with all these Italian beef orders and he’s like, “Hey, anybody wanna try my chocolate cake?”. And it’s like, no, shut up. Like we are busy with something else here. 

Dan Pashman: Right. Yeah. [LAUGHS]. Yeah. My frustrations with The Bear were, first of all like too many scenes of Carmy, like staring plaintively out at Lake Michigan while plinky music played. 

Ashley Ray: Oh yeah. 

Dan Pashman: My wife, Janie, was like, this show thinks it’s artsier than it is.

Ashley Ray: Thank you. Thank you. Because that is how I feel about it, is that the show truly does — it is an amazing show. It tells an amazing story about working with people you might not like and accepting new people and working through grief and you know, coming back to your family. But at the same time, I’m like when the show’s at it’s best, it’s when it’s like kids are getting drugged from Xanax juice on accident.

Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS] Right. The show itself should have understood that it was an Italian beef restaurant of shows. 

Ashley Ray: Yeah.

Dan Pashman: And be great at that. 

Ashley Ray: And be funny. 

Dan Pashman: Don’t try to be a James Beard Award-winning five star equivalent of a TV show.

Ashley Ray: [LAUGHS] Equivalent of a show, yeah. This was probably the closest any show’s come to really giving Chicago food and culture the respect it deserves, which is why at the end of the day, I still love the show. I think it’s great. That part of the story is done very well. 

Dan Pashman: Right. Right. 

MUSIC

Dan Pashman: All right, next thing I wanna cover, Ashley, is Julia.

Ashley Ray: Oh, yes.

Dan Pashman: Now we had the hit film, Julie and Julia from years ago. 2021, there was a documentary called Julia, and yet still 2022 brought us more Julia Child. Food Network had a cooking competition show called The Julia Child Challenge, where home cooks take on Julia inspired tests, and HBO had their mini-series Julia

Ashley Ray: Yes. 

[CLIP FROM JULIA]

CLIP (JULIA CHILD): That was perhaps the most exquisite meal I’ve had on this side of the Atlantic. As grand as any meal I’ve had in Paris. Bravo chef. I’m Julia Child.

CLIP (ACTOR): But of course I know who you are! 

CLIP (JULIA CHILD): Oh you do?

CLIP (ACTOR): You are The French Chef!

Dan Pashman: So first off, what do you think is the television and film fascination with Julia Child?

Ashley Ray: I mean, she’s just an incredibly interesting figure, and I feel like almost every year there’s a new generation of people who realize just how cool she was. That she was like in the original CIA, that she was so much more than a cook. And a lot of what the HBO show goes into is not just like her cooking, but how she revolutionized how cooking was filmed for television. That she is the one, who is like why we have the Food Network. You know, when she’s stirring something in a bowl, the camera can get into the bowl. I thought that was the most fascinating part, is how this woman who just had like a Boston public TV show ends up revolutionizing like cameras, recording, directing …

Dan Pashman: There’s one aspect of that show that I wanted to raise. I was curious what your take is. I had read a piece in response to it, written by a food writer named John Birdsall, who we’ve had on this show. He’s written a lot about queer voices and representation in food. And he was very frustrated with the depiction in particular in one episode where Julia goes to a gay bar in San Francisco and goes up on stage and sings with a drag queen …

CLIP (QUEEN): Who am I kidding, I can’t do this alone. Julia, get up here!

Dan Pashman: And has this moment where the drag queen, gives Julia fashion and makeup tips that kind of becomes a sort of somewhat pivotal moment in how she presents herself in her career.

Ashley Ray: Yeah.

CLIP (QUEEN): It had to be you …

CLIP (JULIA CHILD): In a size 12 ½ shoe …

Dan Pashman: John Birdsall called this pink washing, a “cruel revision of the truth.” He says Julia Child was openly homophobic and cites letters she wrote that used various derogatory terms for queer people, including one where she called a cooking school a “nest of homo vipers.” 

Ashley Ray: [LAUGHS] Dang, Julia. [LAUGHS] Uh, I mean, I knew that she was not as, you know, pro LGBTQ as the show wants you to believe. I knew all of that was made up. Like, I was like, there’s no way she was like partying with drag queens and this wasn’t in a history book somewhere. 

Dan Pashman: Right. 

Ashley Ray: But it would’ve been better if they were honest about that aspect of it. But I think the show wanted to position her as this sort of underdog outsider. Like there’s a later episode, she goes to like an award reception and Betty Friedan, the feminist author, like attacks her and is like, you’re setting women back. And it’s kind of true, like you could criticize Julia Child for, you know, inspiring women to like stay in the kitchen. But in the show, it’s like anyone who comes against Julia is bad. I think they wanted to address how even as a woman, who had excelled in the skill that is supposed to be for women, she was still seen as not as good as male chefs. 

CLIP (ACTOR): But may I ask you a small favor, mon ami?

CLIP (JULIA CHILD): Why yes, of course, anything.

CLIP (ACTOR): Let’s leave the real cooking to the men. Or else I’ll be out of a job, eh? La cuisine française is no place for a woman.

Ashley Ray: So I think that was their shorthand way of bringing up her sort of gender and identity issues, but it was sloppy.

MUSIC

Dan Pashman: One more show I want to cover was the Atlanta series finale.

Ashley Ray: Oh yeah.

Dan Pashman: Which I thought was an absolute masterpiece. And food plays a pretty central role in a key scene in this final episode, and I wanna play a clip from it, but I gotta set it up a little bit. Okay? So three of the main characters — you have Earn, played by Donald Glover, who’s also the show’s creator and wrote this episode, there’s Alfred, played by Brian Tyree Henry, and Van, played by Zazie Beetz.

Dan Pashman: So Earn, Al and Van go to eat at what is billed as Atlanta’s first Black owned sushi restaurant and they wanna support it. The food’s pretty high end. It’s pretty out there sushi to them. They go in kind of skeptical of raw fish at all. And Alfred is unhappy that he has to be there. He doesn’t like that the sushi chef is touching the fish with his bare hands, and he spends the whole time staring out the window at the Popeye’s across the street, wishing he could eat there instead. Then the waiter brings out the chef’s special blowfish, a poisonous fish, which has to be cut in just the right way to not kill you.

Ashley Ray: [LAUGHS]

Dan Pashman: And at this point, the chef owner of the restaurant, who we haven’t seen yet, appears. And he studied under a sushi master in Japan, and he’s dressed in a suit with a white shirt and bow tie, which to me at least was evocative of like Nation of Islam.

Ashley Ray: Yes. Yes. [LAUGHS]

Dan Pashman: And he begins talking to Alfred. 

CLIP (CHEF): There’s a movie theater two blocks away from here. The night Queen and Slim premiered, we were filled, line out the door. Black people hopped up on nationalism coming to support their own. 15 minutes later we were empty. Not one person ate the blowfish. Just a bunch of Yelp reviews that all said the same thing. This [BLEEP] serving poison fish. 

CLIP (ALFRED): Hey, listen man…

CLIP (CHEF): Do you know the traditional way to make sushi is with your bare hands? Every Japanese sushi restaurant worth its soy sauce, does it that way. But I guess my master was never a [BLEEP] from Florida. 

CLIP (ALFRED): Listen, brother, man – 

CLIP (CHEF): Don’t give me the brother shit. This entire dinner you have been staring across the street at a modern day coon chicken served to you by and Aunt Jemima, who lies to you repeatedly, telling you it is her recipe and that she is benefiting from it. It is not her recipe. You know who owns that recipe? An Italian man and his family. None of which have married Black. I heard some of them even moved from New Orleans to New Jersey. 

CLIP (ALFRED): All right, man. All right. I get it. 

CLIP (CHEF): Oh, you get it? 

CLIP (ALFRED): Yeah. Yeah. I, I get it. 

CLIP (CHEF): You get it now? 

CLIP (ALFRED): I get it now, man. 

CLIP (CHEF): Then eat it. 

CLIP (ALFRED): What? 

CLIP (CHEF): Eat it. Eat my poison fish, brother. 

Dan Pashman: What’d you make of that scene? 

Ashley Ray: Ugh, one of the best scenes in television! First of all, it is so difficult for shows like Atlanta to end on a great note. We all knew this was the final season. We knew this was the final episode. This moment is sort of to me like the thesis of everything Atlanta stands for, of just this self-doubt in ourselves as the Black community, our inability to trust and support ourselves, but our — just like this still desire, we have to have what we want that is fun and enjoyable like Popeye’s, [LAUGHS] which not spoiling the episode, but the Popeye’s plays a big part in the end.

Dan Pashman: Right.

Ashley Ray: Like someone comes in, saves them from the poison fish, and brings in all these bags of Popeye’s chicken sandwiches. And you know, it’s not seen as sort of this failure on their part as Black people that they went with the Popeye’s. It’s a celebration of them as Black people doing what they want. At the end of the day, that’s kind of the greatest freedom that these people can have, these characters, you know, when they’re not stuck in sort of the entertainment complex of this is how you should be acting, you know, as a rapper or a Black man in Atlanta.

Ashley Ray: This is just them, truly at last, doing what they want, even if it is something that is such a huge stereotype and not caring. And I think at some points in the episode, Al like really points out how performative it is. You know, that they’re supporting this Black restaurant that’s the first sushi place, but it’s not like they’re supporting Black cultural food. It is this person who’s combining Black stereotypes with sushi. I don’t know, I feel like there was something like a fried fish sushi or something made in like grape soda and they’re just like, come on, you cannot …

Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]

Ashley Ray: And Earn and Paperboi correctly point out like this is ridiculous. You know, not all your skin folk are your kin folk. You know? Like, just because this is the first Black-owned restaurant in Atlanta doesn’t mean it’s not trying to hurt you. Like they are serving you warm Hennessey.

Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]

Ashley Ray: This doesn’t need to be for us. You know, especially when you, they look at one point across the street and there’s like all these kids outside of the Popeye’s dancing and shooting TikToks, and their biggest fear is that like school’s gonna let out and the Popeye’s will be too busy. And it’s like, yeah, because that’s the actual place of community. And yes, it sucks that it’s corporate, but at the end of the day, that’s what the people want. And it’s just such a perfect test of what the show wants to dig into and also what the show has been criticized for. You know, there are those who feel that it is a depiction of Black people that isn’t supportive of Black people or as a whole, is it really good for our community? A lot of people behind the scenes, even though the writers, the actors are all Black people, you know, it is still tied to the FX machine of like, you know, white Hollywood and white producers.

Ashley Ray: You know, the same network that created The Bear is behind Atlanta and The Bear is probably the whitest depiction of Chicago I’ve ever seen. And the only reason it’s able to as a show, like do its own thing is because Donald Glover works so hard and won so many awards that he reached a level where he could be like, I don’t need to listen to these white studio people. I can do what I want. I, you know, have the freedom to celebrate what I want on my show. I don’t know, at the end of the day to me, that’s what going to Popeye’s is all about.  

MUSIC

Dan Pashman: Coming up, we’re gonna turn our attention to the film, The Menu, which is a dark comedy, starring Ralph Fiennes and Anya Taylor Joy. I love this movie. I’m gonna ask you, Ashley, what you thought, and we’re gonna talk with a chef who consulted on the film. Sound good? 

Ashley Ray: Yes. 

Dan Pashman: All right. Stick around.

MUSIC

 

+++ BREAK +++

 

MUSIC 

Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. And welcome back, TV writer, comedian, and host of the podcast TV, I Say w/ Ashley Ray. Hey, Ashley. 

Ashley Ray: Hey. 

Dan Pashman: So we’re gonna turn our attention now to a movie called The Menu, which came out last fall. If you haven’t seen The Menu, here’s what she needs to know. So Ralph Fiennes plays Julian Slowik. Julian is the imperious chef behind Hawthorne, which hosts only a dozen guests a night for a prix fixe menu that tops a thousand dollars a person. And the guests who are assembling on the night, the movie takes place stand in for every annoying archetype in the foodie ecosystem. There’s a self-important restaurant critic, some finance bros, a celebrity actor past his prime, an older couple who keep coming to the restaurant even though they barely notice what they’re eating. 

Ashley Ray: [LAUGHS] 

Dan Pashman: And then there’s Margot, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, who’s an outsider in this world. She’s a last minute addition of the guest list, who’s completely unaware that Julian has planned for this meal to be everyone’s last.

CLIP (JULIAN SLOWIK): Over the next few hours you will ingest fat, salt, sugar, protein, bacteria, fungi, various plants and animals, and at times entire ecosystems. But I have to beg of you one thing, it’s just one. Do not eat. Taste. Savor. Relish. Consider every morsel that you place inside your mouth. Be mindful, but do not eat. Our menu is too precious for that.

Ashley Ray: I love the movie as someone who hates rich people and is happy to see them suffer. Love anything where rich people are getting their comeuppance. And I love anything that makes fun of this foodie culture. And there’s like a part with the breadless bread basket thing, where it’s just like sauces on a plate. 

[LAUGHING] 

Ashley Ray: And I just love when movies and shows make fun of those kind of concepts. So I was in right away. And then I love how it just gets creepier and creepier as it goes on. And you’re like, you guys should run. [LAUGHS] Why aren’t they running? 

Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS] 

Ashley Ray: And it’s because they’re just like, well, this is the proper thing you do.

Dan Pashman: They can’t believe that something bad would happen to them.

Ashley Ray: Yeah. [LAUGHS] Like I paid 1200-something dollars to be here. How could anything bad happen to me?

Dan Pashman: Right. The movie starts with Anya Taylor Joy and Nicholas Hoult. He’s bringing her to the restaurant and he’s obsessed with the chef and the backstory and the menu. And he’s like, oh my God, this chef, he uses this specific machine and this technique and blah, blah, blah, and she couldn’t care less…

CLIP (TYLER): Babe, please don’t smoke. It’ll kill your palate.

CLIP (MARGOT): Then my palate will die happy.

CLIP (TYLER): Margot, tonight is huge, okay? The flavor profiles, it’s all super delicate. When you smoke you ruin your ability to appreciate them …

CLIP (MARGOT): Oh, come on.

Dan Pashman: That depiction of that foodie archetype pulled me into this movie immediately. 

Ashley Ray: Yeah. 

Dan Pashman: I have to admit it hit home a little bit for me. I don’t care about gonna fancy restaurants, like I’ve never been to a restaurant that cost anywhere close to a thousand dollars a person. 

Ashley Ray: [LAUGHS] 

Dan Pashman: But I know that there are some times that I’m with certain people and I’m really excited about some food thing — this chef came from there and they’re using this ingredient and they did this special research and that’s why the tacos are so amazing and I’m really excited to tell someone. And yet the people I’m talking to just don’t really care about all those details. 

Ashley Ray: I like that it kind of played, at least with Anya Taylor Joy’s character, like someone who just isn’t impressed by it. But at the same time, I think with these rich people who are supposed to be impressed by it, they’re not. It’s more about the status and the fact that they can do it versus actually appreciating the food, which I think is what food culture is about now, right? It’s like, oh, what is expensive? What can you take a picture of? What looks good on Instagram? You know, what’s the weird TikTok thing that everyone’s like, oh, I stood in line for an hour to get this. And so I love that it makes fun of that.

Dan Pashman: Right. 

Ashley Ray: Most of us cannot relate to being billionaires who are gonna go eat a like, $1,200 meal. And as someone who’s like worked at a restaurant where you’re just like, we’re all in this together. We can’t mess this up, like we have to create this perfect vision and give the people eating what they need and make it perfect. You’re like, oh yeah, I totally have worked with a person who’s like, yes, boss. If that’s what you want me to do, I’m jumping in the blender. Let’s go. 

[LAUGHING] 

Ashley Ray: It’s just a clever, funny movie. You know? I didn’t really think it was that scary. You know, even sort of the final, big ending, the fact that, yeah, sure it’s a scary fire, but he turns all these rich people into s’mores. That’s just funny. [LAUGHS] 

MUSIC

Dan Pashman: So. I wanna bring in John Benhase. He’s a chef in Savannah, Georgia, near Tybee Island, which is the setting for the fictional restaurant Hawthorne in The Menu, this is where it was filmed. And John, you consulted on the film helping to make the kitchen scenes as realistic as possible. Welcome, John. 

John Benhase: Thank you. Thank you for having me. 

Dan Pashman: I’m Dan, this is Ashley.

Ashley Ray: Hey!

Dan Pashman: First of all, we should tell people that like most of the action takes place in this restaurant, which has an open kitchen. So even in the scenes where you’re watching the diners or where the chef is standing at the front addressing the diners, there’s an open, active working kitchen in the background of a lot of the shots. And there was obviously a lot of concern among the filmmakers to make that kitchen and everything happening there look as realistic as possible to the kind of restaurant that might be serving $1,200 a person dinners. So, what were some of the things that you were teaching those actors so that they could look as realistic as possible?

John Benhase: Even when the camera’s facing away from the kitchen, there’s still a reflection in the glass of what’s happening in the kitchen. So, I think from a filming standpoint, that’s kind of unheard of to just have this moving scenery at all times be such an important part of what’s going on. You know, obviously Chef Dominique and her team doing what the food is … 

Dan Pashman: Dominique Crenn, who’s a famous chef, supervised a lot of the creation of the dishes and the plating and all that. That was in in the film as well.

John Benhase: Yeah. Her team kind of came up with these dishes. It was up to us to make sure that the people making ’em look like they knew what the hell they were doing.  So having them move in in the background, you know, every scene. They’re cooking the next dish and we’ve got real food on the fire, real food in the pans, making sure that kind of the menu and all of those courses actually make sense consecutively, which is pretty cool.

Dan Pashman: This is not normal in movies that take place in restaurants. They’re not usually cooking real food that might actually be edible.

Ashley Ray: I mean, in my experience, it’s usually like, do not touch the fake food. It’s covered in poison [DAN PASHMAN LAUGHING] so that we don’t have to, you know, remake a sandwich when it starts to get moldy cause we’re shooting the same shot all day.

Dan Pashman: I mean, not only were you cooking real food. You were cooking it with the goal of it being delicious, so that the actors were actually eating these actual dishes 

John Benhase: Yeah, a hundred percent. I think that was one of the main stipulations that Chef Dominique had. She was like, I’ll do this, but the food has to taste good, or it’s not my food.

Ashley Ray: Wow.

Dan Pashman: So you’re cooking real food and then serving it to these actors. So from your perspective as a chef, what was the biggest challenge of that?

John Benhase: Even the most real food is still not real food when it’s on a movie. I mean, the cosmetic choices you have to make in order for it to be really beautiful. But I think in some regards, that translates to a restaurant like this where they’re sacrificing taste and how wonderful the food is for what it looks like anyway. 

Ashley Ray: For some of the dishes in the movie, they’re so ridiculous. 

[LAUGHING] 

Ashley Ray: Like, were there real life examples or menus or restaurants you looked at that you were kind of like, this is a ridiculous thing that we should make fun of? [LAUGHS] 

John Benhase: I think they drew very much from kind of the personality of who Slowik was gonna be, so it was very focused on kind of creating this like cold kind of soulless food that was still really impressive and still made you think that, oh, somebody might actually pay that much money for this. 

Dan Pashman: Now the film’s pivotal cheeseburger, I understand it was based on an actual burger that you once made at a restaurant in Atlanta. 

Ashley Ray: Oh, wait! I was gonna ask about the burger! [LAUGHING] 

John Benhase: I worked at this restaurant called The General Muir in Atlanta, and learned how to make this just kind of perfect smashburger and it was such a collaborative, cool set to be on that all this focus was on all these dishes that are such a big part of the story. I was sitting in kind of video village talking to the writers. They were like, oh, I guess we don’t have, like, what we want the burger to look like yet. And I was like, we’re filming right now. [LAUGHS] So I was like, I can do a really cool burger. This is .. 

[LAUGHING] 

John Benhase: This is exactly what you want. Like after reading the script, I was like, you want this kind of super traditional like bordering on slutty burger, right? That is just gonna check all the nostalgic boxes that you want and it was a nice way for me to insert myself into the food and the film as well. And I got to spend a whole day just making that burger over and over again with Ralph. He was like, “We don’t have burgers like this in London.”

Dan Pashman: Tell me about that process, teaching Ralph how to make the burger. 

John Benhase: Yeah, there’s a lot of pressure making a cheeseburger on an electric flat top in the middle of a warehouse with Ray Fines and Dominique Crenn watching you. You know, I made it multiple times, kind of step by step. This is my movements, and then did it with him a few times and then he got it, very quickly. But it’s a nuanced process. The big part is when you’re really pressing the burger, you have to get it really hot and greased up before you press or else all that meat’s gonna stick to it. And then you’re not getting that beautiful like fried egg kind of crispy around the outside, cooking the onions underneath the burger on the non crispy side. So they cooking all that beef fat. Those little things, putting it all together and then seeing it in its moment, I was like that … That’s a a sexy burger.

Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS] 

Ashley Ray: I just learned a lot about burger making from that. I was like … What?

Dan Pashman: Ashley’s jaw was like on the floor for that entire description. [LAUGHS] I was like…

Ashley Ray: I was like… Oh my, that’s such an obvious way to not have the meat stick to the thing. Duh. Do you think it had to be a burger? Like do you think there was a reason they really wanted it to be a burger for that moment and not like, you know, he used to work at a hot dog place?

John Benhase: I think maybe the kind of craft behind making that burger still allows that nostalgia for the chef. That process and it being kind of this labor of love and you’re sitting there over the hot flat top just, you know, steaming yourself with all the juices and everything.

Dan Pashman: It also gives you an excuse to use American cheese, which to me like is the superior cheese for burgers. 

John Benhase: Absolutely. 

Dan Pashman: And it’s the thing that like fancy people look down upon American cheese. 

Ashley Ray: Yes. 

John Benhase: American cheese is this absurd commodity product that won’t split. It won’t break, and it gives you those crispy edges. Like, you know, you really scrape it off that flat top and you get that like spider web of crispy cheese that you really can’t get with other cheeses. And then putting a sauce on there that’s just mayo mustard and ketchup mixed together, [LAUGHS] and sesame bun. It’s just … It’s pretty perfect. 

Dan Pashman: Okay, so John, in The Menu and also in the TV show, The Bear, there’s a lot of depiction, sort of kitchen dynamics. And there’s the idea that that there must be this sort of undying obedience to the chef, and there’s a lot of desire among the underlings to please and impress the chef. How realistic is that in your experience? 

John Benhase: Unfortunately, too realistic. I think the way this is being shown, right, in, in TV and film is kind of part of that death rattle, hopefully. In a high stress environment like a kitchen, there is efficiency behind not questioning every single thing that’s happening in order to just like get things done and trust a process. And so I think it was kind of glorified throughout time where these kind of tortured artists became a sexy thing instead of a toxic thing. And you can see that in relation to like how people have responded to The bear and …

Ashley Ray: Yeah. 

John Benhase: The thirst around him. 

Ashley Ray: Yes, chef. 

[LAUGHING] 

John Benhase: There’s kind of that draw to somebody that’s so committed and so passionately obsessive about something that is hard to deny. Whether use it for good or for evil is a whole other thing. 

Ashley Ray: Yeah. 

Dan Pashman: Well, it’s interesting, John, you talk about that sort of drive. The chef character in The Menu, the Ralph Fiennes character, has driven himself to the point of madness with his pursuit of culinary perfection, and he has come to feel that the people he’s working so hard to please don’t appreciate his efforts. 

John Benhase: Right. They’re unpleasable.

Dan Pashman: They’re coming to his restaurant for the wrong reasons, mostly because it’s a market of status. John, your restaurants are into the Savannah area. I haven’t been to any of them, but I check them out online and they look fantastic. None of them are a thousand dollars plate restaurants, but they look like really nice restaurants. That area is known as a place with a lot of great food, so I’m sure you get sort of like foody tourism. Like there are people who come into town from other parts of the country and partly they’re there because they wanna put it on Instagram. I wonder if that’s something you see and how you feel about that.

John Benhase: I think, you know, in a restaurant like the menu, You can’t make food like that and not expect people to Instagram it. [LAUGHS] I’d be pretty bummed if I spent $1,200 on a meal and I couldn’t take a picture of it.

Ashley Ray: [LAUGHS] 

John Benhase: The number one goal I have for any place is to try and immerse people into an experience and make them forget about those aspects of it. But it’s kind of a chicken or the egg thing. The kind of love is leaving the food and it’s because the people don’t really care about the love within the food.

MUSIC 

Dan Pashman: John Benhase consulted on The Menu. He’s the chef owner of Starland Yard in Savannah. Thank you so much, John. 

John Benhase: Thank you so much for having me. Great to meet y’all.

Dan Pashman: And you can find Ashley Ray’s podcast TV, I Say w/ Ashley Ray, wherever you listen, and you can catch her standup comedy regularly in L.A. and beyond. Dates are available at theashleyray.com. Thanks, Ashley. 

Ashley Ray: Thank you. This was so fun.

MUSIC

Dan Pashman: Next week on the show I talk with Raina, a young woman who is struggling with disordered eating. We heard from her a year ago, we’re going to check with her, this year, to see how she’s doing. That’s next week.

Dan Pashman: While you’re waiting for that one, scroll back through our feed in the fall. You’ve probably missed a episode somewhere along the line, so check them out. 

 

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