top of page

[Decoding Evil] When Passion Becomes a Prison for THE MENU’s Chef Slowik

Decoding Evil is a bi-monthly column exploring the monstrous and villainous antagonists in horror cinema, with Mitchell Brown providing an analysis of their symbolism and the films that made them.

 

"So once again, thank you for dining with us tonight. You represent the ruin of my art and my life, and now you get to be a part of it. Part of what I hope is my... masterpiece." - Chef Slowik, The Menu (2022)


Ralph Fiennes in THE MENU (2022), directed by Mark Mylod.
Chef Slowik casts his disapproving gaze toward Tyler and his elite guests in The Menu (2022)

A well-known Mark Twain quote says, "Find a job you enjoy, and you will never work a day in your life." A few lucky people can turn a hobby into a career and get paid to do what they would otherwise do for free. However, what happens when those lucky few become obsessed with their passion, which eventually breaks their spirit and merely becomes a job? The result is Chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), the titular villain in Mark Mylod’s The Menu. Slowik is a tragic villain that shows the repercussions of sacrificing your life for a goal and career because when the joy of the work is taken away, you're left with nothing. Slowik is a complex character because he’s an artist with a ‘God Complex’ whose rising success led to diminishing happiness. Yet, he resents the elitism of his customers and respects the working class.


The film follows Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), an escort on a date with Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), a pretentious “Foodie,” to a private island to attend an upscale restaurant called Hawthorn. The other guests include food critic Lillian Bloom (Janet McTeer), her editor Ted (Paul Adelstein); business partners Bryce (Rob Yang), Soren (Arturo Castro), and Dave (Mark St. Cyr); a has-been actor, credited as “Movie Star” (John Leguizamo), his assistant Felicity (Aimee Carrero), and restaurant regulars Richard (Reed Birney) and Anne (Judith Light). The guests are greeted by Elsa (Hong Chau), the polite but strict maître d', who welcomes them to Hawthorn, where they’re introduced to enigmatic and perfection-obsessed celebrity Chef Slowik. While treated to the loyal kitchen staff’s haute cuisine, the patrons slowly realize something is amiss. Their suspicion is verified when the sous chef, Jeremy (Adam Aalderks), kills himself as part of the evening’s menu. It’s slowly revealed that Chef Slowik and his staff intend to end their lives and take the guests with them.


Chef Slowik’s professional life is remarkably contradictory. From an outsider’s perspective, Slowik has reached the pinnacle of his career. He’s the head chef of a highly recognized restaurant, respects the culinary community and his staff, and has become a wealthy man. There’s only one problem — he’s miserable and hates what his life has become. Throughout the film, it’s revealed that his drive for a career and the need for approval from customers and critics have led to a life devoid of joy or purpose. The more successful he became, the more he despised the work he once loved. This reality is only revealed to the audience when Margot explores his house on the island.


Ralph Fiennes in THE MENU (2022), directed by Mark Mylod.
Margot discovers one of Chef Slowik's treasured moments in The Menu (2022)

The home’s layout, tables, and chairs are identical to the restaurant. The only variation is a bed placed within the service area. Even when away from his work, it encompasses his personal life. After an altercation with Elsa, Margot enters a private room that holds Slowik’s few personal items. It’s here where, in a series of photographs, we see his dwindling love for cooking.


The first is a clipping of the positive review, written by Lillian, of his first restaurant as head chef. He has the slightest of smirks, no doubt full of ambition and proud of his work. The second captures him with a woman and baby, presumably his family. In the film, he doesn’t wear a wedding band, and we can assume they’re divorced. A casualty of his career. His expression is neutral. In the third, he stands in front of Hawthorn with his ‘Angel Investor’ Doug Varick, a man Slowik loathes for owning the island, restaurant, and, by extension, him. Slowik’s highest achievement is the restaurant, but he’s visibly scowling, having lost his passion. In the final image, we see him as a young man, awarded ‘Employee of the Month’ in August 1987 at Hamburger Howie’s — Slowik beaming with joy.


It is the only photo where he’s smiling. The photo sits on his table, away from the others, within a distinct decorative frame. It is this moment that he holds in the highest regard. This should be his most meager accomplishment throughout his career progression, but it represents when he cooked because he loved it rather than money or prestige. It’s revealed he grew up in an abusive home, with alcoholics for parents. His job at Hamburger Howie’s was likely a daily escape from his rough childhood. It’s worth noting that in each photo, Slowik has less and less hair. This may depict aging, but it’s also been confirmed that high-stress levels can lead to hair loss, correlating with Slowik's stress.


Ralph Fiennes in THE MENU (2022), directed by Mark Mylod.
Chef Slowik oversees the plating of his dishes in The Menu (2022)

Perhaps it’s his humble beginnings, but Slowik respects the working class despite his celebrity cachet. This is contrasted with the views of his customers. The three business partners talk down to Elsa when they don’t get their way — like when they don’t receive bread with their accompaniments. While Tyler is ambivalent about the kitchen staff to the point of scoffing when Margot mentions that he didn’t ask the name of a line cook that he spoke to, and he constantly belittles Margot, which he believes is his right, considering he’s “paying.”


Slowik, however, is courteous of other service industry professionals. His dynamic with Margot is representative of that courtesy. Early on, he suspects Margot isn’t what she appears to be, but he doesn’t undermine or speak down to her. Though the upper class would likely look down on her for being an escort, Slowik sees her as an equal because they share a similar goal: to make the customer happy.


His kinship to blue-collar professionals nourishes his resentment of his elitist guests. His guests are charged exorbitantly for their meticulously designed meals, most dining at Hawthrown as a symbol of their status versus any love of food artistry. No one appreciates the food or those who prepare it. The only one who appreciates the food is Tyler, whose enthusiasm is merely a bid for Slowik’s attention. He uses his fine dining and food knowledge to feel superior to everyone else.


While the others may not appreciate the food, Margot is the only one to admit that she doesn’t like it and requests to return her meal to the kitchen. She recalls her discovery in Slowik’s home, his cherished memory of flipping burgers at Hamburger Howie’s. She asks Slowik for a cheeseburger and fries. She didn’t want a pretentious meal. She simply wanted to be fed. Though unable to satisfy his elite guests with gourmet cuisine, he could satisfy the cravings of a working-class woman with a well-made, inexpensive meal that she could get almost anywhere. His elation at watching Margot enjoy the cheeseburger leads him to spare her life. At the beginning of the night, he informed the diners, “Do not eat. Taste.” Ironically, what saved Margot was her desire to do both.


Anya Taylor-Joy in THE MENU (2022), directed by Mark Mylod.
Margot enjoys Slowik's well-made cheeseburger in The Menu (2022)

Despite his god complex, Slowik’s joy is derived from the approval of others, especially critics like Bloom. As a chef, he creates and takes from nature to feed others and sustain life. Tyler even compares Slowik to God by saying, “It’s art on the edge of the abyss, which is where God works too. It’s the same.” Hawthorn is Slowik’s church, and the staff are his disciples who demonstrate devout respect and loyalty towards him. They even live on the island like monks at a monastery. Slowik’s house could be compared to the rectory of a clergyman. Before each course, Slowik gives a sermon about the dish.


The Menu boasts a religious subtext with comparisons of Slowik to Jesus. Slowik receives wounds to both of his palms. He is widely known but comes from humble beginnings with a rough home life in Iowa. He respects Margot and escorts, specifically those whose names start with ‘M’ and are two syllables long, like Mary Magdalene or Margot. He even compares the bread course to biblical practices, “How did Jesus teach us to pray but to beg for our daily bread.”


Ultimately, Slowik sacrifices himself, though not for noble reasons. The murder of his guests and his suicide, along with his staff, demonstrates a lack of care for the laws of men — he is above such laws. If he sees himself as God, what he’s doing is ‘Divine Retribution.’ He’s punishing the wicked, those who degrade and lack respect for his work. Thereby freeing his faithful servants from the pain of life without meaning. If his work has no value and his sermons fall on deaf ears, then ‘God is Dead.’


While his actions throughout the film are undoubtedly wrong, Slowik is a tragic and sympathetic character. The film’s events result from years of scrutiny about his food leading to a deep depression he’s unable to cook his way out of. The scene is heartwarming and heartbreaking as we witness him making Margot a cheeseburger. For a few fleeting moments, Slowik once again feels joy when cooking. However, his inevitable demise reveals his life and purpose were beyond saving. There are many characters whose arc is achieving a singular goal, but the truth of having too much ambition often leads to a life devoid of happiness. Slowik learns that the hard way.


 

Mitchell Brown is a Wisconsin-based horror enthusiast and writer. He is an aspiring screenwriter graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, majoring in English with a minor in Film, Video, Animation, and New Genres.





221 views
bottom of page