It is not often that a chef has to create a menu for an important dinner where the focus is not the taste but rather the visual aspect and the consistency. While in a restaurant you have to work with one dish at a time, for a movie there need to be a series of dishes that are exactly the same and which are served in rapid succession as a scene is shot repeatedly.
“It is like serving 50 people when in reality there are 12,” chef Jae Song told Food and Wine Gazette about the experience of creating a meal for the film The Dinner which is being released next month..
Jae Song and Paul Yee were the brains behind the food creations of the meal for the film. It is based on Herman Koch’s international bestselling novel The Dinner. Directed by Oren Moverman, this is a dark psychological thriller that features a fierce showdown between two couples during the course of an ornately prepared meal at a fancy restaurant.
When Stan Lohman (Richard Gere), a popular congressman running for governor, invites his troubled younger brother Paul (Steve Coogan) and his wife Claire (Laura Linney) to join him and his wife Katelyn (Rebecca Hall) for dinner at one of the town’s most fashionable restaurants, the stage is set for a tense night. While Stan and Paul have been estranged since childhood, their 16-year-old sons are friends, and the two of them have committed a horrible crime that has shocked the country. While their sons’ identities have not yet been discovered and may never be, their parents must now decide what action to take. As the night proceeds, beliefs about the true natures of the four people at the table are upended, relationships shatter, and each person reveals just how far they are willing to go to protect those they love.
Chefs Paul Yee and Jae Song created the menu for the dinner. “The story revolves around family, two brothers discussing the fate of their children and their own lives during dinner. That’s where we got the idea of using baby vegetables. I thought after finishing reading the script that the common feature was protection of the children whether you agreed with the character’s decision or not. So the idea of an egg motif came to mind. It not only encompasses the idea of family, child and the shell and next as protection but the breaking of the shell or barrier became something fun to play with,” Jae said.
“Once we got the idea, the creative process was fast. It took us around a week to come up with the idea and another week to try out a couple of dishes and then we put everything together,” he said.
“When we spoke with the director we talked about the story and we pitched the idea of protection. Once he liked the idea he gave us a lot of leeway. We would show him our creations, discuss the concept and get his approval,” he said.
They got their inspiration from Dan Barber’s Blue Hill for one of the dishes and also from Alain Passard’s egg at L’Arpege.
Jae explained how they would explain the dishes to the actor who was the server in the film, talking through the dishes with him, the idea behind the dish and to make sure that the pronunciation was correct. “We needed to look at all the details. For the soup which was served from the squash, we needed to show how it should be served,” he said.
“It was like running a restaurant. We wanted to have a creative menu but the food needed to be edible and it needed to taste good. It did not need to be great but it had to be something which the actors could eat everytime the scene was being shot from different angles,” Jae said.
Paul and Jae managed to create dishes that did not need to be hot no cold so they could be served at room temperature which made it easier.
Jae said the shooting in the film took place in an old mansion. “The house was turned into a restaurant and we were lucky that it had a really great professional kitchen. When we were looking at the property we asked if we could use the kitchen. It needed to be cleaned, fixed and brought up to scratch but it worked because we needed to cook there for three to four weeks.”
One of the biggest challenges that they faced was the cold weather. “Normally it is extremely hot in a restaurant kitchen but in this case we were shooting during winter and it was incredibly cold.
Jae said that during the film the kitchen was an amazing place to be. “It became the centre where the crew would hang out and we started to cook for the crew and for ourselves. There was a really great group and it was really crazy.”
Jae said that there was nothing crazy about the filming but there was one proud moment when the actor Richard Here had been eating a fish dish before the break for lunch. He returned from the break and asked to eat the fish dish because it was better than his lunch.
The chef said that it was easier to cook in real life than for a movie. “Since there are a lot of close-ups the dish has to be perfect. Sometimes the flowers or vegetables can wilt and you need to make the same dish over again,” he said.
Among the dishes created for the film was the burnt vegetables in a salad where they created a forest with baby vegetables and roots. Smoked meat was one of the dishes served in the background. The meat was served with smoke under a glass bell jar. Oren wanted some action, something a little bit theatrical in the background so they created this as a reminder of the crime.
What did Jae learn on set? “The kitchen is a place which brings a lot of people together. Although I knew that food is a culinary art, you can really tell as a story through a meal and a menu. Out of all the arts, this is very interesting art form as you can use the senses and eating can change the person inside,” he said.