‘The will of philosophical men of power and artist-tyrants will be made to endure for millennia,’ wrote Frederick Nietzsche in the late nineteenth century.
So, it was that Western civilization would spend the next one hundred years attempting to actualise various forms of the Übermensch –or Superman, if you prefer.
The Nazis misappropriated the most totalitarian connotations of Nietzsche’s dissertation in their attempt to mould a race of Aryan overlords. They failed, and thankfully. What superseded their derivation was The Rock Star, a more Dionysian creation feted on supreme feats of self-indulgence, but still essentially fascist in nature. The Rock Star’s sense to entertain was replaced by the tyrannical urge to prance about stages, to be adored, and to command masses of public worship. Thus, The Rock Star shone bright but burnt out quickly, leaving the space for a new phenomenon: The Celebrity Chef.
Irascible, temperamental, philandering, boozing, and narcissistic, The Celebrity Chef is the artist-tyrant of the new age. Unlike The Rock Star, The Celebrity Chef is completely fascist. His kitchen staff are mere automatons to be ordered about with violent disregard for personhood, mere minions in the Celebrity Chef’s tyrannical quest for feats of egomaniacal culinary mysticism.
In Burnt, Bradley Cooper plays Adam Jones, an embodiment of all these attributes. Jones swears like a sailor, wears leather, rides a motorbike, beds everybody’s daughter (off screen), and is in the process of laying to rest an addiction to crack-cocaine.
Having made a mess of his career in Paris, Jones washes up in London, pursued for debt by drug dealers, stinking of booze and looking for Michelin stars with which to aggrandize himself. Of course, in the process he makes everyone around him miserable, including subordinate chef Helene (Sienna Miller) and gay maître d’ Tony (Daniel Brühl), who has a crush on him.
Jones is, however, actually a genius, a Jimi Hendrix of culinary delights, which is why anyone tolerates him. He is also temperamental, prone to vicious drunken tantrums as well as superhuman standards of perfection. Thus his quest towards greatness is fraught along the way with the pitfalls of the erratic artist both suffering for and self-sabotaging his art.
One of the beguiling things about Burnt is witnessing the sheer fanaticism held both by the people who cook food and those who eat it. While one appreciates the commitment and the talent it takes to be a highly regarded chef, seeing a cook trash a kitchen to bits, shut down a restaurant and fire his staff because he was unhappy with a plate of fish looks so over the top from the outside as to be borderline comical.
Bradley Cooper is fantastic in the role of this Gordon Ramsay-style chef militant, however, and what could be a completely off-putting character is made likeable because he underscores the childishness with a real sense of vulnerability, while the movie emphasises the sense of passion that drives such people and exceeds mere food for its own sake. Sienna Miller is also good as Jones’ potential love interest and co-conspirator, and as with Cooper, she grounds the film with enough heart to dissuade the impression of egotism and childish tempers.
Burnt may be un-extraordinary from a narrative sense, because in different iterations, we’ve mostly seen it before. Applied to the world of high-class chefs, however, it is a fascinating portrait of a modern phenomenon wherein art is edible and provocateurs wield spatulas and bake soufflés.
I, for one, welcome our new chef overlords.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10