Movie Review: In Burnt, A Struggle With Arrogance

I just finished watching the film Burnt and at first I didn’t know what to expect. At first I didn’t think I would want to watch it because it got a 29 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and a lot of people didn’t like it. But I decided that I needed to watch bad movies as much as I watch Oscar winners. Also, I liked Bradley Cooper in A Star is Born, Silver Linings Playbook and Guardians of the Galaxy, so I thought I would have no problem seeing it. Honestly, even though people said it was slow and I honestly was thinking, “This movie is so stressful. I feel too much for all these restaurant employees, I should just stop”, I am still glad I watched it anyway. Sometimes you learn lessons from watching films that don’t get high Rotten Tomatoes ratings.

The film takes place in London. Adam Jones is an arrogant chef who moved to Paris when he was younger after working a minimum wage job and saving up money, and met his mentor Jean Luc, when he traveled to Paris to become a chef. He then lost his dream after his struggles with drug abuse and anger issues and moved to New Orleans to try and get his life together, shucking hundreds of oysters a day and keeping a notebook of how many oysters he shucked. He then quits the job when he finally shucked 1 million oysters and heads to London for better opportunities. When he gets there he runs into his old colleagues and persuades them to work for him, but after he recruits them, the real issue comes when they actually work for him. He turns out to be the same arrogant micromanager he is in daily life, and one night he throws all the dishes his employees make around the kitchen and yells at everyone, even threatening to hurt one of the few female employees at his restaurant (Helene, a single mother who is just trying to make ends meet as a sous-chef until she meets Adam). Eventually, Adam comes to terms with his ego and Helene tells him the importance of teamwork and that he shouldn’t feel he has to run the restaurant on his own.

My thoughts on the film

I didn’t think it was bad because it taught a lot of valuable life lessons and proposed some really deep questions. Does perfectionism add to or kill artistry? Are there alternatives to a micromanaging style of leadership? How can people practice better self-care when working in a stressful environment such as the restaurant industry? What does it mean to be a mentor? In the film Adam sees Helene’s potential and has her get up early every morning so he can coach her; however, it is not easy, especially because she has a young daughter and can’t get off work to just stay home and celebrate her daughter’s birthday (I would be interested to find out how the daughter is going to grow up remembering how her mom went through such rough training). Adam calls her over to his restaurant every morning to coach her, and throws away several of the things she makes in the beginning because they do not live up to his standards. But eventually, she practices enough so that the one dish she makes perfectly he doesn’t throw away. However, this led me to wonder: is the pursuit of excellence worth making someone work long hours with no breaks in between? Honestly, for this very reason, it has made me respect employees who work with difficult bosses in the restaurant industry. While I did work in food service, the drinks and food wasn’t expensive and I was more expected to get things done than to do everything perfectly, even though at the beginning my bosses were perfectionists. Helene also becomes just like Adam, throwing dishes when they don’t taste perfect and screaming cuss words at her coworkers when she becomes the lead chef who tastes the dishes before serving them. Michel tells Adam he liked Helene better before Adam trained her to be a micromanager like him, and I agree that Helene could have led the crew in her own way, not just to impress Adam or try to emulate him.

However, in the culinary industry, it sounds as if you have to be perfect to keep your job. However, I would argue that there really isn’t a perfect because everyone has different tastes, and who’s to say whether Adam can judge how something tastes simply based on how he thinks the Michelin critic is going to judge the dish? While of course you need to make sure that the food is cooked at safe temperatures and that it looks nice, to say it has to be perfect is relative. Taste is subjective, and what may taste like garbage to someone may taste like heaven to someone else. Or what may taste good to you may taste bad to someone else. In one scene, Tony tells a very stressed out Adam to make Helene’s daughter, Lily, a birthday cake because Adam forced Helene to work instead of take the day off to celebrate Lily’s birthday, and Tony has to keep Lily company while Helene is in the kitchen. In a scene that at first fooled me into getting choked up, because when Adam brought out the cake, it was super sweet looking and said “Happy Birthday Lily” on it (the music score also made it seem like a touching moment), Adam asks Lily how the cake tastes and she says that she has tasted better. Adam tries to challenge her by eating the cake himself, but then realizes that it probably could have been better. However, Lily knows that Adam treats Helen like garbage, so she already feels a sense of distrust with him, and this affects how she judges his cooking (of course, I don’t forgive how Adam treated Helene, though. Women already have it hard enough in the food service industry).

Also, the film brings up a good point about consistency. In the film Adam has Helene meet him at a Burger King. He is sitting eating a burger and she tells him that Burger King is the last place she wants to meet him. She refuses to eat fast food and opts instead to wait until she prepares something better prepared for herself. Adam questions her rejection of fast food and says that, contrary to Helene’s argument that fast food is fattening compared to culinary arts food, the exquisite French food that her and other culinary chefs strive to perfect are made of the same ingredients that fast food is: dairy, meat and a lot of fat. She then tells him that she wants to stick to anything but fast food so she can stay “consistent”, but then Adam tells her that chefs should strive for consistent hard work but they shouldn’t strive for the same taste every time, and that it’s okay to enjoy a burger and fries even if you work at an upscale restaurant because you’re exposing your palette to other tastes. Adam also points out that it’s not fair for her to turn her nose up at fast food, and accuses her of being classist and not wanting to eat food prepared by people making minimum wage. Helene points out that she works on minimum wage as a sous chef, and he continues to say that people with upscale tastes often view fast food as “food for the working class”, and asks why it is more expensive to eat at the place he and other chefs like Helene than it is at fast food joints such as Burger King. Even though I didn’t like him condescending to her, I do think that as someone who used to work in fast food, I think he made some valid points. Now of course the minimum wage for fast food workers is supposed to (hopefully) go up, so Adam’s argument might be slightly outdated in years to come.

But still, he has a point: does making fast food so accessible and inexpensive cheapen our appreciation of the food? As a kid I ate out all the time because it was convenient to just go after sports lessons to get something from McDonald’s upstairs, but after going vegan and eating most of my meals in and bringing my own meals to lunch, I definitely feel a lot more appreciative when I do have the spare moment to eat out. Even when I went to eat at Panera, I hadn’t had it that often since I started eating in, but when I ate the chocolate chip bagel I literally felt all the sweet and savory pop in my mouth and I relished it, even though I ate it rather quickly. Even a $2 bagel was an aesthetic experience simply because I learned to not take eating fast food for granted. Even eating Taco Bell became a special occasion, and I actually enjoyed it a lot more when I didn’t eat it every day. Honestly, as someone who would have to save up serious money to afford to eat the kind of Michelin star foods being prepared in Adam’s kitchen (they looked positively delicious and made me wonder if I should start binge watching Food Network like I did when I was a kid), savoring a $2 bean burrito with guacamole and chips is no less a beautiful experience than if I were to eat a $100 vegan zucchini souffle covered in truffle sauce and sprinkled with 5 karat gold dust (or some other kind of elegant-sounding dish).

The film also teaches the importance of teamwork, very similar to The Imitation Game. In The Imitation Game, Alan Turing recruits people for his team to crack the Enigma code, but then ends up shutting himself off from his colleagues and not accepting their lunch invitations or ideas. But Joan teaches him the importance of teamwork, and so the team is able to crack the Enigma code together. Burnt teaches that especially in a competitive industry like food service, people need to work together. When you work in fast food, you can’t worry about whether you made a better latte than someone else. The only thing you have to really worry about is getting someone’s order exactly how they tell you to make it. There is no ambiguity really; you have someone working at the register, and you’re making the drinks according to the recipe cards and warming up the food. If there’s any bad blood between you two when there’s twenty people in line waiting for their orders, you’re toast. It doesn’t matter if something is perfect; in food service, you just work with your teammates to get the customers out the door with their beverages and food, whether or not the customer gives you a pat on the back for it. We all had to work together without letting our egos get in the way, and, this is just me, but from the film’s portrayal of the restaurant business, teamwork is a no-brainer. When someone’s ego gets in the way, it messes up the flow of all of the kitchen employees because now no one can focus on their work. Adam’s ego gets in the way of his successful management of his team and it takes him a long time to sincerely change his outlook on success. Basically, the message of the film is that success can be lonely and consuming, especially if you struggle with mental health issues, but you can’t let your personal problems ruin the flow of your workspace, and while it is easier said than done, your employees will get their jobs done better when there is no drama. Also, Helene’s use of the sous vide method was genius, and honestly, I would have loved to see her open up her own restaurant during the movie because she held her own throughout the film even when Adam didn’t want to accept her help (he at first joked that the sous vide bags looked like condoms, but then after it worked, he swallowed just a dash of his pride). Her and Michel would have the most bomb restaurant, with women and people of color running the show. That should be a movie in and of itself.

While I think that hard work and criticism are necessary for success in a tough career, I think Adam did too much of a Fletcher (the demonic coach of a jazz band in the film Whiplash who threw chairs and screamed at his students) and this prevented him from having any meaningful relationships with his coworkers at the beginning. But as I mentioned earlier, he realizes that knowing how to work together with people is just as important as knowing how to manage people. A mentor should encourage their employees, not necessarily by always coddling them, but also not by out-rightly abusing them. The film taught me especially as a performing artist who has played with ensembles that you cannot let your rigid ideas about a piece get in the way of the teamwork efforts you and the other ensemble members put into creating beautiful music. Also, you need to take care of your mental health. Read a book, watch a movie, paint a sunset, anything that will get you back in the swing of things and help you destress from your professional creative life. I know a lot of people don’t have this luxury though, so here’s a list of tips for helping restaurant employees cope with stress.

Overall, great lessons about perfectionism, teamwork and the importance of never giving up.

Burnt. 1 hr 41 minutes. 2015. Rated R for language throughout.

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