How The Menu Speaks To Chefs

The film's writers explain how they created the perfect menu as the base for the horror comedy.

As Josh Wussow wrote in his review of The Menu, the film offers viewers a lot to digest. It's madness from start to finish (in a good way), skewering fine dining from both ends by showing the ways in which those who make the food and those who eat it have shaped the complicated world of fine dining.

The writers of the film, Seth Reiss and Will Tracy (former colleagues at our sister site The Onion), drew inspiration for the film from their own fine dining experiences at two Chicago staples: EL Ideas and Alinea, the latter of which is renowned as one of the best restaurants in the world. The writers spoke with The Takeout via Zoom about how those meals shaped the movie's script, why certain meals were important to include, and what they hope high end chefs get out of the film.

The Takeout: What were your experiences with fine dining before writing the movie, and how did those inspire the film?

Seth Reiss: I think, in the movie, Will and I have a massive amount of respect for a type of person like Chef Slowik and the night he's trying to create. And we also want to take the piss out of it. Both of us have been to Alinea; Will and I would both say that [Alinea chef] Grant Achatz does it quite well. My experience there was just one of complete and total joy—it was totally worth the evening.

There's another restaurant in Chicago that Will and I went to when we were working at The Onion: [Phillip Foss's] EL Ideas in Chicago. Similarly, the person who created the course would come out and introduce the course.

Will Tracy: That period where we were in Chicago, it was really the period in which I became the most interested in food or, I guess, high-end dining, because I think first of all, it was probably the first time in my life where I had enough disposable income that every now and again I could actually go for a special occasion or whatever, a nice meal at a really nice restaurant on the level of Alinea.

I also think in Chicago, that type of experience to me felt much more accessible than it does in a city like New York, where you can have both the luxury and the world-class technique in the food that you would have anywhere in the world, but there was an adventurousness to not just the restaurants but the people who live in Chicago.

When I would go to one of these restaurants in New York, sometimes you feel like it's a lot of people on expense account dinners and, like, weird, very rich Wall Street people and their weird dates. And then in Chicago, I would notice a lot of people that seemed a little bit more like me, sort of curious people who seemed very interested in the food and seemed very interested in the experience.

TO: It's interesting that you say Alinea was a fun and actually enjoyable experience, because while watching The Menu it feels like the whole time I'm wondering, "Do these people even like the food?"

WT: It's the pushed kind of isolation of being on an island and doing it and committing yourself to these rules of, it's foraged, but it's modernist, which is a very hard thing to reconcile. We're going to practically be eating moss from the rocks on the shore, but we're going to be using immersion circulators and Pacojets and all kinds of chemicalized treatments to get certain textures and manipulate the form.

And there's something there that feels like already something's gone maybe a little bit off-course—are you [as a chef] doing this more for yourself than for the diners? I think the more you're doing it for yourself, it's becoming a little bit less for someone else, little by little, without you being aware of it, the joy starts to go away. The fun starts to go away, because you're just amusing yourself, which feels ultimately a little bit empty.

TO: When it came to writing the actual food into the movie, was the menu building part of the narrative building? How did that process work?

SR: We knew that we wanted all the courses to say something about the character of Slowik and also the character of the people in the room. The "taco night," this is our way of giving a little bit more expository information about who our diners are. But it's also a way to show who Chef Slowik is, and how he's planned out this night. And I think each one of the dishes is Chef saying that "none of us in this room are important." And we cut to the people in the room thinking, "We're important." So there's already this battle happening between the two of them.

Structurally, when Will first presented the idea—the movie where the structure is the menu—immediately as a writer you think, "Oh, cool, we already know what this hangs its hat on, we know what the roadmap is." And as Will has said, we know we end with dessert. We know we start with the amuse bouche, and we know that if it's going to be worth watching it all, in between those courses, tensions have got to ratchet up, we have to learn more about the characters. 

WT: We also wanted to be faithful to the progression of how these menus tend to be structured. You know, we wanted an amuse that was visually striking and maybe bracing in its flavor, something that would kind of wake you up at the beginning of the meal. We wanted the first larger course to be, as it often is, something vegetal, something that has maybe a taste of the ocean.

We wanted the big, heavy protein course be, in a way, also the big, heavy protein course narratively, and then follow that with a palate cleanser. But in the context of the movie, that sort of easy, light palate cleanser has a nice sort of juxtaposition, because we've just seen something so horrifying.

We wanted to be faithful to the progression of these menus so that people who work in the industry wouldn't feel as though, "Okay, why are they starting with duck?" We didn't want to look like idiots. So a lot of our story choices were based around not wanting to look like idiots to people who work in the industry.

TO: Why was it important for a cheeseburger to be the dish involved with the events at the end of the film?

WT: There's something that struck us as a combination of [a cheeseburger] being the most universally appealing thing to see on screen, but also there was a kind of honesty there—it would be the kind of course that one person in the service industry could serve to someone else in the service industry, without either pretense or agenda. A kind of, "This is what you wanted, and this is what I'm serving you." And there might be something lovely about that transaction, rather than something that feels gross or dishonest or self-serving.

SR: A cheeseburger is simple, but to do it amazing is actually not simple to do at all. He's doing a normal cheeseburger, but fucking amazing. With Slowik, if you want normal, okay, but it's gonna be the best type of normal you've ever had.

And I think there's something also lovely about [the fact] that he doesn't sell himself out as an artist by making a great cheeseburger. He would never make [Margot] something beneath his standards.

TO: How has The Menu changed the way you interact with food? Is it harder to go out to a nice restaurant?

SR: I hate it, I punch it, I kick it! Get it out of here!

WT: Neither of us have been to this kind of restaurant since the movie came out. Look, we'll be completely honest here: Some part of Seth and I both are secretly hoping that we'll make a reservation somewhere, we'll go there, and they'll have seen the movie and loved it and we'll get the special course at the chef's table. It's never gonna happen like that. But another part of me—I am less interested in this kind of experience, even though I do find it magical when done well. And sometimes I do just kind of want my starter and my main and I'm good.

SR: I think if Will and I were in Chicago right now and we wanted to celebrate The Menu, we would probably go to Bavette's. I would be happy to go to The Girl and the Goat at 5:30 and sit at the bar with Will to get in and eat their food. That sounds so fun to me.

WT: That being said, if Grant comes calling...

SR: If I get an email from Will that says, "Hey, Grant Achatz got in touch, and he would love for us to come to Alinea at 8 p.m. tonight," I'd get on a fucking plane right now.

TO: Do you think Grant is aware of the movie and its inspiration?

SR: I partly hope he never sees it. And I partly hope that if he does see it he's tickled by it and doesn't think that he's become a parody or something. He's a genius.

Will and I got dinner the other night with Philip Foss, who was the chef at EL Ideas, and that was so fun and wonderful. It actually filled Will and I with quite a lot of joy, because he hadn't seen the movie yet but he was saying a lot of things about what the movie was about. And it made Will and I feel that we did him justice.