In the Sleek Universe of the Menu, Fiction is Scarcely Stranger Than Fact

In creating 'The Menu', a new horror-satire that examines the dynamics at play in fine dining, the production team looked to the thorny and complicated world of high-end restaurants for inspiration.

Credit (all images): Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

It’s telling—or perhaps revealing—that Mark Mylod, the director of the new haute dining horror-satire The Menu has also directed 13 episodes of the hit HBO drama Succession since it premiered in 2018. The new film, which stars Ralph Fiennes, Anya Taylor-Joy, and Nicholas Hoult, explores what happens when the power dynamics between the absurdly privileged patrons of an exclusive restaurant and the staff who cook for and serve them are flipped.

The film is set at Hawthorne, a remote restaurant on an island with a self-contained agricultural ecosystem: scallop beds, produce fields, and a “Nordic-style smokehouse,” all tended by employees who answer to the simmering rage of chef Julian Slowik (Fiennes). The restaurant may be fictional, but it’s a composite of many real-life cult-favorite spots, the clientele they draw, and, in some cases, the ignominious scandals the industry has finally begun to take seriously.

“We were reading the exposé as we were shooting,” Mylod told the New York Times of the newspaper’s own reporting on allegations of wage theft, sexual harassment, and faking of ingredients at the Willows, a seemingly idyllic island restaurant and inn off the coast of Washington state. Noma, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Eleven Madison Park, and Atelier Crenn were among the other fine-dining spots alluded to by the fictional Hawthorne in some way.

After his experience filming on location for Succession, which has featured revered haunts such as Le Coucou, Quality Italian, and the erstwhile Del Posto’s in New York City, Mylod upped the ante with The Menu’s set design, enlisting decorated chef Dominique Crenn to design and style the courses of the unhinged tasting menu (the breadless bread plate, a single scallop plated with “flakes of seawater,” whatever that means) in the film. She also schooled Mylod and Fiennes on how to make “the world’s best fucking cheeseburger,” the director recounted to British GQ.

“I’ve always felt awkward with fine dining,” Mylod told the magazine. “[Game of Thrones writers] David Benioff and DB Weiss are big foodies, so I’d always hit them up for some fancy restaurant in Spain or wherever we were shooting and we’d go to these lovely multi-Michelin star restaurants. I’d love their company but always felt kind of uncomfortable, and never really appreciative of the food. What I came away with from the movie was respect for the people that practice it, that almost madness-inducing work ethic. I didn’t come away thinking ‘Oh, I want to eat you know, a Michelin-starred dinner’ anymore. I’ll still have a pasty.”

Even in the costuming, the boundary between fiction and the reality it references is thin. For the wardrobe of Taylor-Joy, who plays the film’s heroine and is tasked with outwitting the prodigal chef Slowik, costume designer Amy Westcott worked closely with Jennifer Zuccarini, the founder of lingerie and ready-to-wear brand Fleur du Mal. Taylor-Joy is a real-life fan of the brand (“We adore her, she’s a Fleur fan and customer,” Zuccarini told Surface).

In doing so, Westcott flouted an industry norm of avoiding recognizable or buyable fashion in costuming. “Sometimes contemporary buyable fashion is the only way to go for certain characters to make them realistic and make them relatable,” she says. “Fleur du Mal is an exception because it feels artisanal in its approach. The look of the dress is so unique and the gorgeous lilac and shine permitted Anya’s character to stand out in the environment.”

Zuccarini and Westcott took the collaboration a step further and launched a limited-run of the Margot dress—so named for Taylor-Joy’s character. “I had no idea what the movie was about, other than it involved food,” Zuccarini says of the unorthodox alliance.

For all its similarities to the real world—from mining Crenn’s culinary prowess to outfitting Taylor-Joy in one of her fashion labels of choice—The Menu is an action-packed thriller that’ll leave audiences on the edge of their seats. And, unlike the real world, in this one the scandals and misbehavior come to an end.


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