Monday, February 15, 2016

Governing cuisine

The film Burnt  is a tale of personal redemption complete with reflection, atonement for past sins, vindication and, ultimately, success. The film takes the audience into the world of elite chefs in London (and to a lesser extent Paris), where family exists in the form of a tight-knit kitchen and where a combination of intense passion, dedication and ego is necessary to produce what can only be described as culinary art. It is a seemingly glamorous world that masks often ugly realities – addiction, broken personal lives, and personality disorders to name the most prominent.

Within this setting, there are many forms of unofficial laws and rules that inform the culinary community and keep it together as a functioning entity while at the same time serving as an educational environment in which chefs are challenged to invent and reinvent themselves while they teach the chefs who work with them. The kitchen is presented – with some great degree of accuracy – as an autocracy in which the head chef is the ultimate source of authority and approval. Chefs with particular specialities are tasked with ensuring the perfection of their jurisdictions and ensuring that those who work under their oversight comply with the rules of their jurisdiction and the larger kitchen. From this point on decreasing power and authority granted to those in the kitchen, and each member of the kitchen is required to know his/her place in the governance structure.

As depicted in the film, in this hierarchy the failure of one level to comply with the requirements of appropriate jurisdiction have disastrous impacts and potentially undermine the kitchen both as an internal matter and among members of the outside communities. There is perhaps no better illustration of this than when there is an (erroneous) encounter with supposed Michelin restaurant reviewers and one of the sous chefs commits a deliberate act of sabotage that completely undermines the integrity of the kitchen to the outside world while also creating turmoil in the accepted strictures of conduct within the members of the kitchen community. In the aftermath there is a good deal of soul searching by the chef, which leads to a reorientation in many of his policies in order to create one unit of functioning and authority where each of the sub-units of jurisdiction work together. When the real Michelin reviewers arrive, the kitchen is able to execute the menu perfectly as a cohesive unit, leading to the advancement of the kitchen’s standing in the culinary community.

As is perhaps expected from most films, Burnt takes audiences on an allegorical adventure, seeing the main character through from failure and self-loathing to success and stability. Beyond this, however, the film provides insights into an often unseen community that functions on a unique governance system based on autocracy on hand but interlocking dependence on the other.

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