This past year has turned out to be the Chicago culinary scene’s time to shine onscreen. First came The Bear, with its frenetic take on the intersection of haute cuisine and Italian beef, and now comes the dark horror-comedy The Menu, which—while it doesn’t take place in Chicago—makes several notable hat tips toward the city’s formidable dining scene.
Those nods come courtesy of the film’s producer/writers, Succession scribe Will Tracy and former Late Night With Seth Meyers writer Seth Reiss. The pair came up together at The Onion, living and working in Chicago as the site’s editor in chief and head writer, respectively. Though Tracy and Reiss would later depart for New York, their time in Chicago helped inspire their view of fine dining, and several experiences they had in and around Chicago are actually reflected in The Menu.
In the film, directed by Mark Mylod, a group of high-end diners venture out to an exclusive island restaurant, where they think they’ll be enjoying a much-lauded tasting menu from a world-renowned chef. As it turns out, though, the diners have been handpicked to attend that evening—and all is not as it seems in the kitchen.
The Menu’s actual menu is craveworthy, to be sure. Everything the group eats is grown or raised on the island. Many of the specifics come from Chicago; other dishes—like a scallop appetizer that’s served on a stone painstakingly sprinkled with local greens and a dish of laser-printed tortillas—were pulled from other great restaurants and creators around the world, such as René Redzepi at Noma in Denmark and Nathan Myhrvold, author of Modernist Cuisine. The film also had three-Michelin-star chef Dominique Crenn on call, and she seemed to relish the chance to branch out from her traditionally more warm and unpretentious cuisine.
Crenn actually trained Ralph Fiennes for his role as the film’s antagonist, the precise and calculating Chef Slowik, a revered figure who runs and operates the restaurant as a sort of farm-to-table boot camp for his adoring staff. Before each course, he comes out to wax rhapsodic about what diners are about to enjoy, a move that Reiss says they first saw while dining at Phillip Foss’s EL Ideas in Chicago.
“Will and I went to EL Ideas, and afterwards, Phillip Foss wanted to come and hang out at The Onion to see how we put it all together,” Reiss explains. “Will is more of a foodie than I am, but that made me start thinking about the chef as an artist who just wanted to see how another group of people put together this artistic thing.”
Tracy took other inspiration from Foss, explaining that he always admired how the chef shared the spotlight. “I went to EL Ideas a few times, and it wasn’t always Phillip introducing every course,” Tracy says. “The cook who created the dish was given the platform to introduce it to the room, and we do that in the movie as well. A lot of chefs are more dictatorial about how they run their kitchen, like they’re the word of God, but I think [Foss] wanted to create something that felt a little bit more humane.”
In The Menu, the servers move almost in unison, presenting each new course to the entire restaurant as it’s ready. Reiss says that move was inspired by West Loop’s Grace, which closed in late 2017, while the restaurant-wide, sauce-swooped dessert that marks the movie’s finale (no spoilers) was inspired in part by Alinea’s famous tabletop finale.
Dessert isn’t the only thing the movie pulled from Alinea, either: Tracy says The Menu’s cold, somewhat unapproachable exterior was inspired in part by Grant Achatz’s Lincoln Park eatery. “There are always restaurants that want to make you feel a little bit nervous,” Tracy explains. “I don’t know if they still do this, but for a while, Alinea would do this thing where, when you entered, you went through a long hallway with nothing in it. When you got to the proper door of the restaurant, it was a sliding door, but it didn’t open immediately, like they wanted you to think, ‘Am I doing something wrong? How do you open this thing?’ Right when you start thinking that, it opened. It made for a little bit of nervousness and disorientation before you stepped inside, which I thought was almost a casually cruel thing to do, but so very effective.”
Reiss had other thoughts about Achatz’s three-star eatery, saying that when he went this past summer, he went with people who were initially resistant to the idea of tasting menus. “There was a moment when the waiter took something that was hanging over our table, though, and he said, ‘This is part of your next course,’ and there was just this laughter,” Reiss says. “Once you settled in and once you saw how it was all interweaving, it was joyful. That’s when you really understand, “Wow, there’s so much thought put into this meal and into pleasing us. It’s genius.”
Tracy agrees, noting that there’s a scene in the movie when Chef Slowik tells the diners that he’s a storyteller. “Chefs love saying that, and so much of the time I have to resist rolling my eyes because it sounds so highfalutin,” Tracy jokes. “But when everything works at Alinea, [Achatz] does make that phrase work, because it’s one of those rare occasions where you feel as though you’ve been surprised and informed in the way that a story would. It’s magical.”
The MenuR, 106 min. Wide release in theaterssearchlightpictures.com/the-menu/
Reiss and Tracy agree that some of Chicago’s culinary magic comes from the fact that the scene is so accessible to the masses. While New York’s Per Se might be filled with Wall Street traders and Upper East Side billionaires, in Chicago, even the finest Windy City establishments are still doable with a little scrimping, saving, and quick clicking.
“Chicago really does love when something special begins to happen there,” says Reiss. “People in Chicago are so appreciative of, ‘This cool thing is happening in our cool city.’ They all just unabashedly love it. There’s no corniness there. There’s no irony there. It’s like, ‘This is cool. It’s in Chicago. It’s great. We love it,’ and that’s awesome.”
In that sense, watching The Menu is a bit like getting a table at a buzzy new Chicago dining experience. It’s a singular experience, and you’ll walk away telling your friends they have to check it out. Like the chefs they pay tribute to, Reiss and Tracy truly are artists and storytellers, and the movie is full of tense twists and queasy turns that not even the savviest Alinea diner could see coming. The Menu will make you reframe your vision of high-end dining, no matter if you’re typically perched on a cozy bench in the dining room or working long hours in the kitchen.