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‘Burnt’ or how military basic training came into haute cuisine

“To be in my kitchen, you have to defend yourself,” says Chef Adam Jones, an arrogant, abusive, unforgiving megalomaniac who is a tantrum waiting to happen.

He wants, he says, his sous chefs to be like Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” in the Japanese movie that John Sturges Americanized as “The Magnificent Seven.” And what does he want from the diners at his tables? He doesn’t want them to just sit and eat. He wants them to be “sick with longing” before the food arrives.

What will happen in their mouths, after all, will be the equivalent of orgasms after eating his food. So says Jones, the washout master chef now in drug recovery (Emma Thompson is the one regularly monitoring his bloodstream) who did penance for all his nastier misdeeds by shucking a million oysters in New Orleans and has now gone to London to finally win a third Michelin star for one of his restaurants. (Three is the highest awarded by Michelin dining guidebooks and they are seldom given.)

Everything in his joints must be perfect.

And that’s why life in his kitchens is virtually a paramilitary boot camp. Hierarchies are rigid. Aspirants call the big shots “chef” the way basic trainees at Parris Island used to call the guy shoving their faces into the mud “sir.” In the ethic of these kitchens from hell, pursuit of perfection is everything and, to that end, all ego-annihilation and abuse is forgivable.

Let’s say you come from an entirely different and homier idea of food preparation. Let’s just say that you’re convinced that love or something in its neighborhood is what made your mother simmer her incredible beef barley soup for 36 hours and invented that mind-blowing onion gravy to go with her brisket and kasha. Let’s imagine that your Aunt Minnie’s bracioli was heaven on the tongue and your Aunt Bert’s apple and peach pies did to fruit what God himself might have done if he’d had the right recipe and the right 50-year-old baking dish.

You’ll look at all the diabolical bullying and competitive shenanigans as a somewhat daft testosterone poisoning of one of our species’ loveliest and most lavish and warmest expressions of regard.

So, OK, by all means enjoy “Burnt.” It’s a very well-made and very entertaining film in its allegorical tale of a demonic, insulting and wayward chef who finally learns that other people matter – in his kitchen and everywhere else.

It’s directed by John Wells, who took over “The West Wing” when Aaron Sorkin bowed out. It stars Bradley Cooper as Jones, the seeker of culinary nirvana who insists that his fellow seekers dwell in ego-crushing hell. (Yes, TV’s Gordon Ramsay was a consultant.)

Cooper’s ace co-star in “American Sniper” Sienna Miller is back by his side here playing the woman who drizzles humanity and currency over his reawakened ambitions (she mocks frying pans as utensils from the food “museum”).

Foodies will no doubt understand everything going on. The rest of us will watch all the food porn on screen and get very hungry. The stuff looks awfully good, although the eeny-weeny portions and the artistry of the “plating” recall Julia Child’s delicious line about nouvelle cuisine – that everything served looked so perfect “you knew somebody’s hands had been all over it.”

Fortunately, Steven Knight’s script is a lot smarter than that. When it tells you that what fast-food joints do with cheap meats and salt is the same thing in principal as French peasant cooking, you know this is somewhat enlightened foodery here, not just warmed over snobbery.

An entertaining fable about artisanship, starring an actor and co-star and director clever and ambitious enough to cook up very tasty comfort food onscreen.



3 stars

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Alicia Vikander, Daniel Bruhl, Uma Thurman and Emma Thompson

Director: John Wells

Running time: 100 minutes

Rating: R for constant rough language.

The Lowdown: A washed-out chef stops shucking oysters in New Orleans, opens a restaurant in London and pushes to get his third Michelin Guide star.

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