Chefs don’t have time to pop out and see a movie in the middle of the day, Don Draper-style, but Elise Kornack's restaurant, Take Root, happened to be closed for renovations recently. So she agreed to join me at a screening of Burnt, a new film directed by John Wells (August: Osage County).
Burnt stars Bradley Cooper as Adam Jones, an American chef who ran a successful restaurant in Paris until, struggling with addiction, he hurt everyone who cared about him and left the fine dining scene altogether. Now he’s clean, talented, but aesthetically a little out of date, what with his wee dots of sauce and giant portions of meat and fish. But Jones’s only ambition is to acquire three Michelin stars—the highest possible rating from the French restaurant guide.
The show started at 10 a.m., by which time Kornack, who is 28 and the proprietor of her own Michelin-starred kitchen, had already trimmed and browned a leg of lamb. The lamb was now cooking low and slow in the oven so it would be ready for the dinner party Kornack was hosting with her business partner and wife, Anna Hieronimus. Kornack called Hieronimus before the film started and made sure the lamb was OK. It was.
The movie opened with Jones shucking oysters at a no-name restaurant in Louisiana. (In a jab at American regional cooking, he considers this a “sentence of hard labor” and later calls it his "penance".) As he reaches his millionth bivalve, he puts down his oyster knife and walks out, headed for London. Kornack says she walked out during service just once in her life as a young cook, during a particularly rough patch of her life, and that she regretted it for years. In other words, this is not done lightly, but Jones walks without a word to anyone and doesn’t think anything of it.
Ten years ago, Cooper played a chef in the short-lived TV series Kitchen Confidential. The character was inspired by Anthony Bourdain's memoir, which explored the glamorously dark side of New York City restaurant culture in the ’90s. The book was highly influential, but the show itself was the opposite—soft, silly, cliché.
In Burnt, Cooper takes the chef role much further, playing a particularly arrogant cook who came up under the military-like brigade system of European fine dining. You can see it in everything, from the way he talks and moves with efficiency and confidence, even through physical exhaustion, to the way he decorates a cake with good old-fashioned gold dust, blown off the edge of a blade. (The actors trained with British celebrity chef Marcus Wareing, and director Wells consulted with Mario Batali.)
The downside to this style of old-school culinary culture? Old-school often functions as shorthand for sexist and abusive. Jones throws plates across the room and shouts almost constantly during service, as if channelling the energy of a Kitchen Nightmares episode. After service, bleary-eyed, he grabs the only woman working in his kitchen by her shirt, as if to hit her. He doesn’t, but it’s terrifying. (My biggest gripe with Burnt is that the fictional brigade in London includes only one woman and only one person of color, and as the movie unfolds, one is cast as a villain and the other as a love interest, as if they weren’t capable of being anything else.)
Kornack has worked in aggressive kitchens—most cooks have. “The yelling, screaming, drugs, drinking, yes, that can be part of it, but it doesn't have to be all of it,” she says. Now that she runs her own kitchen, she’s created a different kind of space. Take Root is a brigade of one: Kornack is the kitchen. This also means she's hip to the true cost of the film’s inevitable creativity montage, the one in which Jones and his sous chef Helene, played by Sienna Miller, let tons of dirty dishes pile up as they furiously perfect a new menu item. Kornack can’t believe the amount of food the cooks are wasting and tossing into the garbage. “And who’s going to do all those dishes?” Kornack asks. “Where is the dishwasher?” The dishwasher, a vital part of every kitchen crew, is invisible.
Once Jones has persuaded, manipulated, and forced his band of cooks to join him, there’s the question of money. Basically, Jones has none (he is rooming with a young cook who idolized him enough to let him move in for a bit). But in what seems like a pretty short timeline, he opens his gleaming fine dining restaurant, which is, as if an extension of his own ego, named after himself.
Take Root wasn’t aspiring to Michelin stars when Kornack and Hieronimus opened with the bare minimum of space and amenities, and their current renovation includes comparably modest upgrades, such as proper wine racks in the back room to accommodate the growing wine list. “No one ever talks about the money,” Kornack says, “but that money has to come from somewhere.” In Burnt, Jones manages the feat because he’s funded by an invisible patron, the hotelier father of a maitre d’ played by Daniel Brühl, who conveniently allows Jones to move into the hotel under the condition of weekly drug tests.
I think the greatest food scene of all time might be the long, almost wordless omelet breakfast at the end of Big Night, the 1996 Italian-American restaurant movie starring Stanley Tucci, which shows the specific kind of tenderness that exists in the industry among people who have worked hard together. There is an omelet scene in Burnt that seems to reference it. Jones’s rival, a three-Michelin-starred chef (played by Matthew Rhys) who runs a modern, lab-like kitchen, prepares him a perfect French-style omelet after a rough night.
“You don’t cook; you warm food up in condoms,” Jones spat at his rival earlier, referring to sous vide, the practice of cooking food in vacuum-sealed bags, poached in simmering water. It’s a recurring joke. Eventually, with prodding from Helene, Jones relents on the equipment—but he is never really pro-sous vide (and it seems meaningful that the omelet in the lab kitchen is cooked in a real pan).
Sous vide is widely practiced in contemporary restaurants that value consistency, even in ones where you might not expect it. Still, there are chefs who don’t use it. At Take Root, Kornack doesn’t use an immersion circulator to poach meat in bags. “Foodies are always asking me, hey, what are you circulating at?” Kornack says, “But I'm not circulating. The meat is in the oven.”
Kornack’s plating at Take Root is unmistakably her own, elegant and clean, but it’s also part of a modern school of presentation that values simplicity and organic shapes over making an impression. The filmic plates served at Adam Jones have a dated sameness to their construction, and despite the star-chasing going on in the kitchen, they are not perfect. “When Helene put a giant fennel frond on the fish, I thought, whoa. That looks really wilty,” Kornack says. But the plate went out.
"The scenes that really stood out for me were the ones that showed us how intensely he was going to take the news if it didn’t go his way," says Kornack. "It's just so heartbreaking, and these reviews can really change your life." No spoilers, but in the end, Jones does relax a bit about the reviews and the stars. Burnt can be cheesy (Kornack calls it a "cheap thrill" at one point), but I liked that it celebrates the happiness that’s possible when you don’t actually measure success by the number of awards you receive.
Kornack remembers a mentor of hers who managed the mythical restaurant work-life balance and calls him a hero. He was able to raise a family, and run a restaurant, and be satisfied with both. “That was always the dream life for me,” she says, “not necessarily to be a three-Michelin star chef in a huge brigade, but just to be that happy.”
And Kornack, who is getting ready to reopen Take Root the first week of November, headed home to finish up the lamb for her dinner party.
Burnt (the Weinstein Company) will be released in theaters everywhere on Friday, Oct. 30.
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