What Is ‘Fine Dining’ Anymore?

Burnt, in its celebration of the artistic possibilities of food, forgets its primary purpose: to be eaten.

The Weinstein Company
The classic chef's outfit, passed down from the French masters of the 19th century, consists of a coat of thick cotton, double-breasted and secured with cloth-covered buttons, a hat (toque) that roughly resembles a piece of rigid rigatoni, and accessories that include an apron and a neckerchief. Everything, per tradition, is bright white. It is a uniform that is meant, like all uniforms, to give the illusion of order—the neat lines of the buttons, the meaningful ornaments (it is said that the 100 folds in the classic toque represent the 100 ways a master chef will be able to prepare eggs)—and also, in its insistent whiteness, of cleanliness.
The chef’s outfit acknowledges something else, too, though: the messy physicalities of the professional kitchen, with its open flames and sharp blades and varieties of boiling liquids and hot human bodies jockeying for extremely limited space. The buttons on the chef's coat are covered in cloth so they won’t melt or scald during the hours spent hovering over stovetops. The apron serves not just as a barrier against stains to the chef’s coat and pants, but also as a makeshift mop. The toque is tubular so as to conduct the heat of the kitchen away from the chef's head—a design meant to minimize both sweat on the chef’s forehead and in turn the dripping of perspiration into the food the chef serves to her guests.
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.
What we do get, though, are debates about the moral vicissitudes of the sous-vide bag (is it innovation, or cheating?), and glib judgments about the moral valences of food. (“You’re serving seared tuna,” Adam scoffs to a maître d’ he used to work with. “What happened to your self respect?”) And philosophy-inflected discussions of the moralities of cooking (“God gave us oysters and apples. We can’t improve on them, but it’s our job to try”) and the sensualities of pasta. We get a lot about What Food Means; we get very little about what food is.
So in Burnt, in other words, food is an artistic endeavor, and an intellectual one. The point here is Taste much more than it is taste: Burnt is more interested in food as a normative thing than as a subjective one. Food, in its vision, is a commercial product and a form of media and a kind of intricate performance art in which, improbably, the food itself is largely beside the point. Burnt’s nearly inevitable pre-restaurant-opening montage focuses on shots of Jones’s gleaming kitchen, and of white napkins being ironed to glistening crispness, and of polished cutlery being placed around plates with the help of a ruler, and of latex gloves used to handle wine glasses, so as to leave no evidence of human touch. Everything is polished and pristine.
This is meant to be a good thing. Burnt doesn’t just revolve around the will-he-or-won’t-he of Adam Jones’s third Michelin star; it also plays by Michelin’s rules. It celebrates all the old—old, as in traditional, and old, as in antiquated—ways to make dining, you know, fine.
Thus, the ironic anachronism of a culinary movie released in 2015. It used to be that “fine dining”—a theatrical thing as well as a gastronomic one—was as much about the “fine” as the “dining”: Service and ambiance and the like were integral aspects of the whole dining experience. Many “fine”—which is to say, expensive—restaurants prided themselves on the balletic coldness of their service, on their adherence to a set of codes that they themselves had determined. (Hence: that (in)famous New York Times article, 100 Things Restaurant Staffers Should Never Do,” which included admonishments like Do not announce your name. No jokes, no flirting, no cuteness” and “Never mention what your favorite dessert is. It’s irrelevant.)
Now, though, the pageantry of the restaurant experience has shifted from a spectacle of service to a spectacle of soulfulness. The emphasis is on the back of the house rather than the front—food is the focus—and restaurants that try too hard on the “fine” front read as stuffy and thus outdated. In vogue now is the hipster lunch counter of Momofuku and the open kitchen of Girl & the Goat and approaches that emphasize a connection between chef and patron, between food producer and food consumer. These days, the closer a restaurant can resemble a food truck, for the most part, the better.
All of which makes “dining”—not just as a word, but as a concept—increasingly antiquated. The fineness in food now comes not just from its artistry—its plating, its ingenuity—and from its flavor, but from something fuzzier, too: its soulfulness. The politics of food—all that attention paid to the organic and the sustainable and the ethical—have given it a sheen of spirituality. And, so, “dining” is giving way to, simply, eating. The pageantry of the past is being overtaken by a performance of democratization. The tagline for “The Sporkful,” the writer and food philosopher Dan Pashman’s podcast, insists that the production is “not for foodies—it’s for eaters.”
Burnt was originally going to be called Chef, before the Jon Favreau movie of the same name was released, to acclaim, last year. It’s striking how different the two films are. Chef—which focuses on not just its eponymous cook, but also on friends and family and food trucks and the drippy delights of the Cubano sandwich—celebrates the communal intimacies of food. It treats food as a means, rather than an end in itself. Set largely in Miami, and also in the convective heat of a truck outfitted with flattops, Chef imbues food with an almost visceral warmth. Burnt, too, may be set for the most part in the heat of a kitchen; it is, for all that, noticeably cold.