Burnt toasts high-stakes food prep biz

by Bob Brown
Posted 11/03/15, 01:20 pm

Burnt follows one fictional chef’s comeback in the restaurant business, a dog-eat-dog world where success brings superstar status and all of its trappings.

Adam Jones (Bradley Cooper) was the head chef of a high-end Paris restaurant until he plunged into alcohol, drugs, and promiscuity. Not only did he destroy his own career, he ruined the restaurant and put its staff in the unemployment line. Along the way, he made enemies of other chefs and ran up huge drug debts.

The film opens more than two years after Adam’s downfall. Now sober, Adam is nearing the end of a self-imposed period of penance at a New Orleans seafood dive. When a friend from the past asks Adam to take over his new London restaurant, Adam consents, recruiting his Paris sous-chef and a talented, local saucier. He sets out to earn the Michelin Guide’s elusive three-star rating for the restaurant, an ambition designed to prove he’s regained his status as the best chef in the world.

The restaurant takes off, and Adam finds himself back in the spotlight with all of its attendant pressures. Try as he might, he can’t shake his past—friends he’s hurt, drug dealers he’s stiffed. Although the story is a garden-variety drama with romantic ingredients, a well-designed plot twist gives Burnt a savory finish.

Viewers who haven’t already had their fill of cable cooking shows or reality series like Top Chef might find the culinary focus, magnified by sharply executed close-ups, Burnt’s most entertaining feature. Pats of butter figure skate around a sizzling bronze skillet. Kitchen staff, identically girded in dark blue aprons and topped by toques blanches, stand in military formation, side-by-side along a room-length, stainless-steel counter. Hunched over at harsh angles, like jewelers with painstaking precision, Adam’s cooks dab golden oils, position small portions of grilled meat, and sprinkle purple, leafy treasures onto gleaming, oversized white plates.

Equally educational is Burnt’s behind-the-scenes glimpse into a chef’s high-pressure job. Part drill sergeant and part symphony conductor, Adam manages his subordinates with curt commands. He quickly walks from one to the next, dipping a spoon into a pan and sampling its contents. He might recommend a small adjustment to the concoction or angrily heave the pan against the wall. “Clean it up!” Adam barks. “Yes, Chef,” is the only acceptable reply.

Like too much paprika in remoulade, though, the film’s frequent profanity (the only reason for its R rating) will leave many viewers with a bad taste in their mouth. Still, Burnt acknowledges self-help can be self-defeating. Unlearning selfish behaviors is a craft to be perfected, but it requires outside support.

Bob Brown

Bob is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute’s mid-career course.

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