Burnt, featuring Bradley Cooper in only his second-best turn as a chefbro, explores the tension embodied by the toque: the chef’s aspirations for artistry versus the vaguely martial realities of the professional kitchen. And: the chef's aspirations for commercial legitimacy as well as cultural. What does it mean to be a chef—per the word’s etymology, a leader—at this particular point in culinary history? What does it mean, at this moment, to bring innovation to that most basic and also that most contentious of things: nutrition?
Burnt is, to be clear, not a good movie. It is in fact a pretty terrible movie. Its plot lacks tension, its characters are underdrawn, its female lead sacrifices both herself and her young daughter, inexplicably, to the whims of an only marginally charismatic chef. (Its entire plot revolves around the question of whether or not Adam Jones (Cooper) will earn a third Michelin star. That audiences are meant to become invested in this goal in the first place reveals a lot about its flaws.) But the film, like the chef’s coat, is also revealing in its insistence on the purity of the culinary project: Burnt, in its loving celebration the art of fine dining, ends up making clear how outmoded the notion of “fine dining” has become.
Burnt comes during the time—maybe even during the height—of the celebrity chef and the Food Network and Smitten Kitchen and Instagram and “food porn” and Guy Fieri. It comes during a time not just of the democratization of food culture (indeed, during a time when “food culture,” as a phenomenon, seems more legitimate than ever), but also of a widespread focus on the details of food’s production and preparation and politics. Locavorism. “Sourcing.” Food deserts. Farmers’ markets. Blue Apron. Spatchcocking and canning and pea guac and GMOs.
Burnt nods, in its way, to those shifts: We get scenes of Jones—a chef whose career was almost derailed with drugs and booze but who is staging a culinary comeback—at food stalls, in markets, in hole-in-the-wall dining establishments we are meant to understand as “ethnic.” When he’s feeling overwhelmed in his quest for that third Michelin star, he goes to a fish market to find his peace. Which: Local! And soulful!
For the most part, though, Burnt—remarkably, considering that almost all of its action takes place in a kitchen—is a celebration not of the process of cooking, but of the result. Here, food is presented not as much as a production, the result of the messy thermodynamics of work, but rather as an artistic representation that happens, almost inconveniently, to be edible. Food is fetishized not as nourishment, but as a kind of aesthetic triumph.
So while there are shots of turbot being basted in butter, and of fresh linguine that flutters and falls like thick strands of hair—this is a cooking movie, after all—that action crescendos with lingering shots of finished plates, dainty and fastidious, sauced with squeeze bottles and finished with edible flowers and generally evoking a Pollock-meets-pollock style. There is very little description of the foodstuffs actually contained within the plates displayed. And almost no attempt to describe what the food in question might actually taste like.