October 28, 2020

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'Toxic genius' trope past its prime

Abusive chef could use more satirical seasoning but dialogue, performances feel fresh

SUPPLIED</p><p>Antagonistic chef Daniel (Aaron Abrams) is awful but his offal is to die for.</p>


Antagonistic chef Daniel (Aaron Abrams) is awful but his offal is to die for.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/2/2020 (257 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

An indie Canadian drama that centres on the plate-throwing chef at a failing Toronto restaurant, this is a well-constructed character study with a compelling lead performance from Aaron Abrams (TV’s Hannibal) and some sharp dialogue.

In 2020, though, the story of an abrasive, occasionally abusive man getting away with jerky behaviour because he’s a genius sometimes tastes a little stale.

Writer-director Jesse Zigelstein is leaning into the bad-boy dramatics described by Anthony Bourdain in his Kitchen Confidential years — restaurant culture as macho, ego-driven and self-destructive. Bourdain himself later questioned this aggressive mythologizing. As he said in 2017: "To what extent in that book did I provide validation to meatheads?"

Zigelstein’s attitude to meatheadedness is tricky. Sometimes the awfulness of Daniel, his main character, seems to be validated, his raw emotion allied with the authenticity of his food.

And sometimes it’s critiqued, as in a satirical scene where the restaurant’s chef de cuisine Keith (Brandon McKnight) tries to explain to Daniel why he’s leaving to go out on his own: "You’ve always said you’re not a real chef without your own kitchen."

"I was talking about me!" Daniel shouts, in a concise comic reveal of his complete self-absorption.

Daniel starts his morning with black coffee, a cigarette and some 18-year-old scotch. He’s also popping pain pills at a risky rate. In the course of a long day, he yells at subordinates, argues with his ex-wife, lies to his landlord and attempts to save the financial sinkhole of his restaurant by preparing a seven-course tasting meal for a prospective investor.

He also wrangles with Chloe (Lara Jean Chorostecki, another Hannibal alum), his maitre d’. Playing the ever-reasonable woman working with a difficult man, Chorostecki is making the best of a role that sometimes runs close to cliché. Chloe’s job is ostensibly running the front of house, but she spends most of her time bogged down in emotional labour related to Daniel’s needs — talking him down, cheering him up and smoothing things over.

It’s not quite clear whether Daniel is Chloe’s boyfriend or her boss, but he’s clearly crappy at both. When Chloe wants to talk about their relationship, he accuses her of airing "trivial personal grievances." When she wants to talk about business, he asks for a backroom sex act to take the edge off his stress.

Abrams brings a messy, angry energy to his role and wisely resists the need to be liked by the audience.

The script also rejects any kind of sentimentalization, instead lightening the mood with humour, much of it revolving around Daniel’s critiques of contemporary food culture. "It’s ‘food culture’ now?" he complains. "Not just plain food?"

Critics are, of course, dismissed as "pandering parasites," this being a food-movie trope since Ratatouille. Daniel also skewers — sometimes hilariously — Instagram-driven restaurant buzz, corporatized assembly-line "bistronomy" concepts, culinary school ("coddling!") and food-truck "punks." That latter complaint eventually devolves from a "kids these days" rant into something much darker.

Zigelstein’s feature film debut is solid in technical terms. His emphasis on dramatic unity — the film takes place in one location on one day — effectively conveys the pressure-cooker atmosphere of a struggling restaurant. But a little more context might help, especially in moving beyond Daniel’s solipsistic vision of his plight.

Is Daniel a tragic figure, fighting for artistic purity in the face of the profit motive, like Tony Shalhoub in Big Night? Or is he just a toxic jerk, like Bradley Cooper in Burnt? And is Zigelstein’s take on Daniel complex or a little confused?

At one point, Daniel is cradling a $2,000 bottle of burgundy ("At least $2,000," murmurs his sommelier) that has become, with the passage of time, "more complex, nuanced and mature."

It’s not clear whether Daniel will ever be able to do the same. Zigelstein, on the other hand, will be worth watching in the future. This is a flawed film, but it’s got a lot of flavour.


Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

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