“Burnt,” which stars Bradley Cooper as a bad-boy chef seeking his third Michelin star, goes heavy on the character’s cockiness and volatility and light on what people want to see in food movies – like lingering shots of delicious dishes.
The film assumes we’ll root for chef Adam Jones despite his abuse of his kitchen staff. It also assumes we’ll take his talent as a given, because he once earned two Michelin stars in Paris, before drug addiction took hold.
Adam’s current commitment to sobriety turns out to be his lone admirable trait – at least among those traits revealed to the viewer. Director John Wells gives us a mere whiff of the chef’s culinary talents, via shots of a cake that looks tasty and lamb that appears expertly seared.
Or maybe that was beef. It’s hard to say because “Burnt” cuts so quickly from shots of food to those of Adam berating his staff. He screams at, and grabs the clothing of, his saucier (Sienna Miller), who, in an only-in-the-movies development, returns to work instead of consulting a lawyer.
Adam is so unlikable – not too far a trip for Cooper, whose eyes say “villain” even in heroic and comedic roles – that you wonder why anyone would devote a movie to such a character.
But not for very long, since the culinary world has captured the public’s imagination for a good 10 years (Cooper also starred in a 2005 sitcom based on Anthony Bourdain’s book “Kitchen Confidential”). Politics and entertainment can eclipse it, but only on Election Day or Oscar night. Then it’s back to your dad describing his lunch at that new poke place.
During this same period, more aggressive aspects of food culture have threatened to overwhelm its essentially nurturing nature. TV competition shows carry “cutthroat” and “hell” in their titles. Hot-tempered TV chef Gordon Ramsay is a role model.
Plus, Hollywood always has liked talented but troubled lead characters, from artists (“Lust for Life”) to musicians (“The Rose”) and mathematicians (“A Beautiful Mind”). In Cooper’s leather jacket and swagger, one also sees the cinematic archetype of the rugged individualist: that cop, cowboy, or in this case, chef, whose iconoclastic nature cannot be tamed.
Thus, we get “Burnt,” which hits all the posturing and hostility marks while missing the point of food films, which is to celebrate the kinship that shared appreciation of food can inspire.
In real life, and in better movies, a chef’s success can depend as much on his ability to inspire ride-or-die loyalty among staff as on his creativity. A low-paid cook who can’t stand a creep in charge will find another low-paying job, in another kitchen. There’s no incentive to stay and withstand abuse.
In “Burnt,” Adam gets some blowback for his bullying, but not enough to make storytelling sense. Elsewhere on the jerk front, Adam seems to lack regard for his customers, or food in general, apart from its ability to win him Michelin stars.
This narcissism stands him in contrast to Carl (Jon Favreau), lead character in last year’s hit indie film “Chef.” Carl possesses a clear appreciation for his own skills but also an evident love for good food and a compulsion to feed others – from paying customers to friends and family members. Though he too blows up on occasion, he directs his frustration away from his simpatico kitchen staff and toward a food critic who pans his menu.
“Chef” also satisfies viewers’ desires for scrumptious shots of food. So do other films about chefs, most of which, not coincidentally, also came out during the food-crazy past decade.
As a film-turned-food critic, I can recommend the movies (available for home viewing) below over “Burnt.” We’ve also designated each film’s pièce de résistance, or its most mouth-watering or story-defining moment.
“Eat Drink Man Woman” (1994)
Before director Ang Lee won Oscars for “Brokeback Mountain” and “Life of Pi,” he made this lovely Taiwanese film about a widower chef (Sihung Lung) and the three grown daughters for whom he cooks an elaborate meal each Sunday. Pièce de résistance: The chef crafting a perfect edge to the dough surrounding a crab dumpling.
“Big Night” (1996)
An adventurous Italian-immigrant chef (Tony Shalhoub) scoffs at the “philistine” spaghetti-and-meatballs taste of the clientele at the failing 1950s Jersey Shore restaurant he owns with his brother (Stanley Tucci). Though the brother, who handles the front of the house, is slightly more practical, his taste also runs toward the exquisite. The pair go all out one night in preparing a dinner for singer Louis Prima. Pièce de résistance: A drum-shaped, baked pasta “timpano” stuffed with meat, eggs and other ingredients.
“Mostly Martha” (2001)
Chef Martha (Martina Gedeck) cares only about food. Instead of spilling her innermost thoughts to the therapist the restaurant’s owner forces her to see, Martha cooks for him. After her sister dies suddenly, Martha assumes guardianship of her 8-year-old niece, and although she’s better at it than Cooper’s character would be, she’s not great. She gets help from the ebullient Italian chef (Sergio Castellitto) brought in to help in the kitchen. Hollywood remade this German film into “No Reservations,” starring Catherine Zeta-Jones. It lacked the original’s poignancy, and milquetoast Aaron Eckhart could not match Castellitto’s warmth. Pièce de résistance: The niece, unable to eat for days after her mother’s death, digs into a pasta the kind Italian chef makes her.
In this Pixar animated film, Remy, a rat with an exceptional palate, abandons the trash pile for Paris haute cuisine. He hides under the chef hat of a novice cook, orchestrating movement by pulling the cook’s hair. Pièce de résistance: A formerly merciless food critic’s eyes go wide with awe upon tasting Remy’s ratatouille.
“Julie & Julia” (2009)
It takes more work for Amy Adams to reach repellent than it does Cooper, but she manages it here. As Julie Powell, the real-life blogger who cooked her way through 524 recipes in Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” in a year, Adams is so whiny you wonder why Julie’s handsome, kind husband (Chris Messina) puts up with her. But Julie’s story is only part of the film, thankfully. The rest follows the boisterous, lovable Child’s (Meryl Streep) love affairs with French cooking and her diplomat husband, Paul (Tucci, again) in late-1940s Paris. Pièce de résistance: Julie’s attempt at Child’s boeuf bourguignon. Although her husband later deems it bland, this stew looks hearty and appetizing as it sits, just cooked, in a fetching orange pot on Julie’s stove. Moreover, it looks possible to make at home – Child’s whole point.
“Today’s Special” (2009)
In this low-budget gem, Aasif Mandvi (“The Daily Show”) plays Samir, sous chef for a high-end New York restaurant serving New American cuisine. After quitting his job in a huff, movie-chef-style, Samir takes over his family’s neighborhood Indian restaurant. Though the story sounds predictable, the specific circumstances behind Samir rediscovering his love for Indian food are not. Pièce de résistance: Samir carefully choosing Indian spices, from a colorful array, on his first night as the family restaurant’s new chef.
A creatively stifled Los Angeles chef (Favreau) regains his confidence via a food truck serving Cuban food. He sometimes throws fits, but unlike Cooper’s character in “Burnt,” this chef, Carl, clearly loves food. Pièce de résistance: Carl puts care into a grilled-cheese sandwich he makes for his son, grilling the bread slices separately, with cheese atop them, before joining them – a method I adopted after seeing this film. Who says movies can’t change lives?
“The Hundred-Foot Journey” (2014)
An Indian restaurant owner (Om Puri) and his wunderkind chef son (Manish Dayal) set up shop in the south of France and just across the street from a Michelin-starred haute-cuisine restaurant owned by a snob (Helen Mirren). This film eventually goes too heavy on sentiment, but its characters always show a deep love for food. Pièce de résistance: None. The film reserves its most loving shots for pigeon, which does not entice visually in any form.