Bradley Cooper and Marcus Wareing on cooking up a storm for the big screen
The actor and the Michelin-starred restaurateur talk about their collaboration on Burnt, a movie that shows the driving passion and the driven personalities at the heart of the world’s top kitchens
Remember all that aggression Bradley Cooper had to keep bottled up playing tightly wound Navy Seal Chris Kyle in American Sniper? It’s finally coming out.
In the new movie Burnt, Cooper is master chef Adam Jones, a worthy contender for the title of World’s Scariest Boss. After the subpar opening of his fancy new restaurant (also named Adam Jones, of course), the top toque throws a temper tantrum, hurling many plates and even more expletives before his pièce de résistance: grabbing an employee by the collar, screaming in her face and shoving her.
It’s a meltdown to remember. Alarmingly, it’s also pretty realistic.
“With all the research we did, we can regale you with hundreds of stories that are much worse than in the movie,” Cooper says recently from Los Angeles. “This is absolutely what happens.”
Adds director John Wells: “You’ll find a lot of chefs tell you it’s not really like that anymore,” except then Wells would talk to someone who would say, “I got hit in the face with a steak that just came off the grill - that’s what this burn is over my eye.”
When it comes to depicting the inner workings of an acclaimed kitchen, Burnt is nothing if not true to life. That makes it an anomaly among cooking movies, which tend to romanticise the craft, pulling heartstrings and inciting hunger pangs in equal measure. You’ll see it in Chef, No Reservations, The Hundred-Foot Journey or Chocolat. The camera might zoom in on a pair of hands carefully tending to a sizzling fillet or the cheddar oozing out of a generously buttered grilled cheese sandwich. The act of making an omelette approaches a spiritual experience.
Burnt is rougher around the edges. The food still looks tasty, but the process of getting it to the table isn’t pretty. Sweat and rage may not be on Adam Jones’s menu, but they go into nearly every dish.
Even before writing the script, Steven Knight began compiling insights from Marcus Wareing, the celebrity chef behind London’s Marcus, a restaurant with two Michelin stars – the restaurant equivalent of winning a Golden Globe. According to Wareing, Knight wanted to hear stories from the trenches. So the chef obliged, giving the writer some sense of “what makes [chefs] tick – what makes us get out of bed and do a 16-hour day, six days a week, day after day, week after week, plate after plate after plate.”
For Cooper’s character, it’s the desire to whip up “culinary orgasms”. Once the enfant terrible of the Paris dining scene, Jones vanished one day without a word. As Burnt opens, it’s years later and he has just resurfaced, sans his drug and alcohol habits, to open a London restaurant with the express purpose of getting his third Michelin star. In other words: an Oscar (an award, incidentally, for which Cooper has been nominated on multiple occasions but has never won).
The script intrigued Cooper and Wells for a few reasons. For one, it explored the almost pathological perfectionism associated with the restaurant trade.
“Then, I was fascinated by the idea of trying to re-create the kitchen environment,” Wells says. “I had worked in a lot of kitchens, Bradley worked in a lot of kitchens, and I think both of us felt that the only film that had fully done it justice over the years was Ratatouille.”
But doing it justice was a tall order. For starters, they needed a set that was an actual, functioning kitchen. And once Wells had a kitchen, he needed cooks. So all of the actors got crash courses in the craft. Cooper, who said he uses cooking as therapy, nevertheless needed to up his game, so he shadowed Gordon Ramsay, among others. That came in handy.
“There are no cooking doubles, like, ‘OK, let’s have the other people come in and cook, and we’ll film that’,” Cooper says. “Every day was a potential producerial nightmare.”
When the audience sees a red-faced Sienna Miller hunched over an open flame, she is in fact cooking fish on a 120-degree stove. And all of the extras in the kitchen scenes were real chefs from Michelin-rated restaurants. Cuts and burns were routine.
“That was real sweat,” Cooper says. “My eyes really were bloodshot.”
According to Wells, the cast produced as many as 120 Michelin-caliber meals a day. (The great benefit, of course, was that the cast and crew were very well fed.)
Wareing and his employees, meanwhile, were consulted during filming to ensure accuracy. He also designed the menus that the actors would be responsible for making, and his team was involved in everything from kitchen and table design to what fridges, chopping boards, knives and pans would be used.
“It was just like opening a brand-new restaurant,” he says.
Wareing was especially impressed by the actors’ ability to become something they aren’t. During one of the final scenes, for example, Cooper’s character has to transform a plate of pureed beetroot and lamb into an edible work of art, which is harder than it sounds. The chef showed the actor how and then let Cooper have a go. To Wareing’s chagrin, the actor pulled it off on the first try. Cooper looked at Wareing and asked: “What’s wrong?”
“And I said, ‘Nothing. It’s [expletive] perfect’,” Wareing recalls. “I said, ‘You’re pissing me off now because it took me years to get to this stage.’”
Just as Wareing taught the cast and crew a few things, he took some lessons from the set back to his restaurant.
“John never raised his voice once when he was directing,” the chef says. “He got what he wanted, and he never raised his voice.”
Wareing says he now speaks to his brigade a little differently. And how’s that working out?
“It works just as well,” he says.
Tribune News Service
Burnt opens on December 10