IN 2015, FOOD is more than just what's on your plate. The kitchen has thrown open its doors, and, as well as the prevalence of open kitchens in city restaurants, if you want a more metaphorical window into the way chefs work, you only have to sign into your Netflix account.
Where food as a subject matter used to come in the form of a lament – as in Morgan Spurlock's hard-hitting fast-food documentary Super Size Me – you're more likely now to find food films that celebrate the discipline and artistry of the chef. There are cerebral food documentaries like Chef's Table and Jiro Dreams of Sushi, along with narrative movies like Jon Favreau's 2014 comedy-drama Chef – in which Favreau plays a former trailblazing Los Angeles cook who falls out of love with the stagnant restaurant industry and starts a Cuban-themed food truck with his ex-wife and his young son.
On the scale of indie releases, Chef was far from tiny. But I'd be surprised if, on watching it, you didn't ask the same question as me: with interest in food at an all-time high, when is it going to be represented in a mainstream release? When will we see an A-list actor put on the whites and cook?
Next month, the food industry, and indeed the industry world, will see that question answered. The film in question is Burnt, based on a screenplay by Steven Knight and Michael Kalesniko and developed in part by a man London diners will know very well: Marcus Wareing. Its stars? Bradley Cooper, who plays Adam Jones, an American head chef on the trail of a Michelin star in London, and Sienna Miller, who plays his sous chef.
Matthew Rhys, Daniel Brühl and Uma Thurman, among other well-known names, complete a cast list that underlines the fact that this is not someone's passion project. This is the film that proves, beyond all doubt, that food culture has entered the mainstream.
For anyone in the country who sees food as worth geeking out over, this is huge. Not only is a chef being played by an undisputed A-list actor, but the plot takes place right here in our capital. No surprise, then, that the chef whose steady hand helped guide it from a potential project seven years ago to a green-lit script, and who was tasked with making sure the cast of the biggest food movie ever would look beyond any doubt like real chefs in a real kitchen, was someone who knows the London food scene inside and out.
This is the film that proves food culture has entered the mainstream
"Hollywood doesn't come calling often," Wareing tells me with a chuckle. "Especially to chefs. From my point of view, the project began about six or seven years ago, when Steven Knight started doing his research into chefs and wanted to write this script.
"He ended up sitting in front of me – how he got there, I've absolutely no idea. I think he did a lot of cold calling – but we got on very well, and he asked lots of questions, and he really developed an idea of the industry, by talking about where I've been, what I've been through, how kitchens work."
It was, he explains, a lot more than just teaching. "It was development of the menu, development of the food concept, development of the kitchen design, layout design, and then also getting involved with the service – how they pour the wine in a restaurant, how the managers work."
I suggest that, to me, this doesn't sound dissimilar from starting an actual restaurant, and Wareing agrees. "But also," he adds, "it felt a lot more difficult. You've got film crew, you've got all the people that come with the movie, plus the actors. Yes, I can surround myself with my own chefs, and we can get a kitchen set up so it looks like the middle of service. I can direct a chef how to work and how to do his job, because they have the basic training. But for me, the question was: 'How do I get this into the mind of an actor? How does that work? And how do I make it look real from a chef's point of view?'"
Whether or not you can cook, it takes more than that to be a chef. Personally, and especially bearing in mind that the size and scale of this movie will see it microanalysed by thousands of critics and scrutinised by millions of audience members, I'm interested in just how real it can get.
Bradley Cooper, for all the audience knows, may be a fantastic home cook. But the difference between home cook and chef, despite the insurgence of street food and its blurring of the lines, is still vast. I ask Wareing about the size of the task he'd taken on to ensure that the audience would look at Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller et al in the kitchen, and believe them.
"The ability of the actor to watch, listen, pick up and then do is quite extraordinary," he tells me. "I saw it in Bradley more than anyone, because I think I spent most time with him. I found it inspiring, as a chef – I didn't teach him how to cook – he was just an amazing person who could pick up what we were doing, and how we would act; how a chef would walk, talk, move, clean and so on. I don't need to teach him to cook. He can cook. I don't need to teach him to be a three-star Michelin chef. That's not my role.
"We'd start filming at 8am, but we were filming a scene that was 8:30pm on a Friday night; the restaurant's full, Adam Jones is fully in the shit and it's all going wrong. You're creating that scene from cold, and that's what my job was.
After a while the actors look like shit. Tired, miserable – that's when the chef comes out in them
"As time went on – the long days, the hot kitchen – you could see the crew and the actors getting more tired and more frustrated, and they started to look like chefs, as every day went by. And the mundane, monotonousness of 'action, cut, action, cut' takes its toll. I think after a while, they all started to look like shit, tired, miserable, aggressive. And that's when you start to see the chef come out in them.
"It was about turning all the stoves on, getting the kitchen hot and aggressive. Getting it feeling like there's a sense of place and being. It smells right, it looks right, we're cooking real food, we're tasting it. I don't give a shit if it's Bradley or anyone else. If they're in a kitchen, we're going to do it, and this is the way we're going to do it."
The knives are out
British writer Steven Knight developed the concept for Burnt alongside Wareing, and created the screenplay from a story by Canadian indie specialist Michael Kalesniko. Knight's most recent bow as a writer was in last year's Tom Hardy-starring thriller Locke, while director John Wells' last film was 2013's Oscar-nominated August: Osage County. Needless to say, the hype around Burnt continues to grow. The film marks the second time Cooper has played a chef, after a turn in cancelled sitcom Kitchen Confidential in 2005. Story-wise, it centres around Cooper's character, Adam Jones, a renowned chef who’s burnt (excuse us) almost all his bridges in the US through alcohol and drug addiction, and who comes to London in pursuit of getting his career back on track. "I don’t want my restaurant to be a place where you come and eat," Jones says in one scene. "I want people to sit at that table and be sick with longing."
As well as the on-set guidance, the actors spent plenty of time with Wareing in the kitchen, learning about the kitchen environment as well as the techniques that would give the film its all-important verisimilitude.
"Bradley didn't really need to be taught to cook; how to manoeuvre himself," Wareing says. "I spent more time with Sienna in my kitchen at The Berkeley, because she does a shitload of cooking all the way through the film. I taught her how to fillet, how to cook, how to make pasta, how to roll it. She'd struggle with it, and she'd get frustrated with it, and she'd get annoyed with herself. But she was so determined to get it right. She kept doing it again, and again, and again. Then, when we went on set, my job was just to tweak her movements, her actions, her cooking, her tasting."
The film's release on 9 November will prove how well Wareing has imparted his years of kitchen experience on to the film's cast. But beyond that, it will also surpass any doubt that, in 2015, the chef really can be the star. Open kitchens and bar dining have made some kitchens a stage, but the fact that it can now be the setting for a multi-million-dollar movie is huge. That becomes my last question for Wareing, and possibly the most important one: beyond the film itself, what can this release do for the industry?
"Chefs inspire other chefs," he says. "That, for me, is probably one of the most important things about this movie: if it can inspire new people to come into what I consider to be one of the best industries there is, then that's only good for us.
"An actor like Bradley Cooper, who is admired by so many people – when they see him in whites, and they see him work, I think that with this movie he can inspire a whole new generation around the world to become chefs. And I think that's fucking amazing." ■
Burnt is out in cinemas Friday 6 November. For more info: burntmovie.com