Director John Wells was attracted to Steven Knight’s screenplay for Burnt partly because of this ever-growing foodie culture, and partly because it was a special look into the unique world of restaurateurs.
Food has become a lifestyle obsession, rather than the fuel it was considered twenty years ago. Television schedules have every variation of cookery shows, the kitchen is the center of the home, farmers markets abound, cookbooks are the new coffee table tomes, and social media entices people to new pop-up venues. Chefs are regarded as rock stars, and behave accordingly,
Burnt is not his screenwriter Steven Knight’s first encounter with food. He also wrote the screenplay for The Hundred-Foot Journey (directed by Lasse Hallström), about the convergence of two worlds through the power of acceptance and understanding and the unifying nature of food. He started his career in 1988 when he started a freelance writing partnership with Mike Whitehill providing material for television and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and also wrote and directed Locke, and also wrote the screenplay for Pawn Sacrifice.
“I read the script and admired it,” says Wells. I’m always attracted to good writing and I was very taken with the character of Adam Jones. He’s a man who has had success in the past, followed by tremendous failure. He disappears, and then comes back, determined to recapture that success. He discovers that he can only do it with the help of other people, something that his narcissism and ego hadn’t bargained for. Steven Knight has written a wonderful story of a man coming to grips with being an adult and what is required to succeed in life, not just in his profession.”
As creator, writer and producer of such seminal US TV series as ER and The West Wing, Wells insisted on accurately portraying the world in which the drama is set. He explains, “Shooting ER, we had four medics on set all day every day, and the non speaking cast members were all medical staff, so that whatever was being done around cast members was appropriate to the scene. On The West Wing, we were surrounded by people involved in high end politics, on the writing team and on the set, giving advice on how it would look and feel.”
Wells acknowledges that, currently, London is the world capital of fine dining. “London is where young chefs go to succeed, so it made sense that Adam goes to the place he can make the biggest impact to stage his comeback.” he says. “Being able to shoot in top restaurants and kitchens, like Michel Roux’s restaurant at the Langham Hotel and the Delaunay, a recent Corbijn King restaurant, was a bonus, adding to the authenticity on screen.”
Wells admits that before starting doing his research around kitchens, he hadn’t thought about the perils involved. “When you look around one of those kitchens, the arms of young chefs can be covered in cuts and burns. It’s a very physical world and reminded me more of iron workers than what I had in mind, which was a tableau of chefs wandering around in whites and long white hats. In fact, we had a number of people injured in minor, but very painful ways.”
The involvement of a Michelin starred chef was essential for the director to place an audience in the middle of the action
“I wouldn’t have done it without a chef of that calibre, because I don’t know what they do. I came into this project thinking I can cook, but quickly realized I don’t,” says Wells, who approached Marcus Wareing, Michelin star chef and presenter of the top rated BBC TV Master Chef, was approached by writer Steven Knight.
“I was intrigued to know that someone was writing a film about my world so I met Steven and we spent a lot of time talking. I told him lots of backstage stories from my own kitchen experience, and from others. It’s a small world we work in, so we all know what happens in each other’s kitchens,” says Wareing.
Wareing’s interest in food began when he worked for his father in his fresh fruit and vegetable business. “The respect that my father showed for basic ingredients set me on the path I’ve followed since the age of 15. Working 16 hours a day, it’s been my whole life.” I recognise myself in some of the scenes in the film. You can become a character that you don’t like but I know what I had to do to get where I am now. As a chef, it can be a fine line to your dark side.”
During early conversations there was never any discussion that Wareing would be part of the filming process. “My job is running restaurants and kitchens, but once Steven started writing, my life changed. Now I have a team around me that allows me to get involved in other projects, like this and Master Chef.”
Wareing was impressed with Wells’ determination to make the scenes reflect the reality of life in a Michelin star restaurant. “When the set was finished, I was envious of the size and it was difficult for me not to step into that kitchen – it looked real and felt real. The level of detail that John insisted on in that set, with the food and the kitchens, reflects what I do. John didn’t want to fake it – the stoves are on, the chefs are cooking. They got better with each take, and they start to look tired and annoyed, which is what happens in a kitchen every day.”
Wells explains that during the shooting of the cooking scenes, the cast and crew were virtually running a high end kitchen.
“Again, our non speaking cast members were all trained chefs, surrounding the main cast. Marcus and his team designed dozens of dishes which had to be duplicated again and again, just as if we were doing a service, putting out 50 – 80 meals that looked Michelin star quality. I think audiences are quite sophisticated and they watch a lot of programs about food and cooking these days. They have a sense of what is authentic, so it has to be done properly. Marcus and his team were on set every day, keeping us real.”
Before shooting, Wells took the professional chefs through technical rehearsals, telling everyone what would be happening in the action of the scene, and what would be happening within the service at each moment of filming. He says, “It meant that when we shot with the cast, the food was prepared to the correct stage, and each of 40 or 50 pans on hot stoves would be in the right part of the process. The heat was high every day, around 40 degrees and the sweat, the cuts and the burns you see are real, so the audience should feel they’ve been dropped into a real kitchen.
Wareing acknowledges the comparison of filmmaking to running a Michelin star restaurant.
“The obsession is in getting it right, and it’s the same in both worlds. My job on the film was to impart my experience so that they look as if they know what they are doing. The actors came into my kitchen and asked all the right questions. They were willing to practice endlessly. Bradley knows how to work a kitchen. He has no fear and adapted to it in a way I can only admire. I like the respect he showed for my world. Sienna has real application and could be a professional if she wanted to take it further. A restaurant kitchen is like a home kitchen; attack those ingredients and don’t be frightened. Have confidence. “
John Wells acknowledges the parallels as well. “Both are pressured environment and need periods of prep. There is pressure to get everything right, or there are huge financial penalties. No one person does everything, and everyone must work in unison, trusting in what everyone else is doing, or the job doesn’t get done. The choreography of knowing where you have to be, and where everyone else is, is very similar to a film set. The same camaraderie exists, as in any tough workplace. They are tough on each other, but outside work everyone sticks together. And a kitchen is a place where you love it, or leave quickly.“
A Note on Michelin Stars
Michelin awards 0 to 3 stars to restaurants on the basis of the anonymous reviews. The reviewers concentrate on the quality, mastery of technique, personality and consistency of the food, in making the awards. The stars are categorized thus:
- One star: A good place to stop on your journey, indicating a very good restaurant in its category, offering cuisine prepared to a consistently high standard.
- Two stars: A restaurant worth a detour, indicating excellent cuisine and skilfully and carefully crafted dishes of outstanding quality
- Three stars: A restaurant worth a special journey, indicating exceptional cuisine where diners eat extremely well, often superbly. Distinctive dishes are precisely executed, using superlative ingredients.
Michelin stars are hugely important to a chef, awarded by a team of anonymous inspectors who scrutinise many aspects of the restaurants – the food, the presentation, the ambience of the restaurant and the originality of the dishes. “They are the Oscars of our world.” says Marcus Wareing. “But, unlike Oscars, they can be taken away from us, so on a day to day basis we have everything to lose. It keeps us constantly striving, challenging yourself. At the same time, if you don’t achieve stars, you must recognize what you have achieved.”
“The kitchen is the engine room but the dish has to be incredible – Mother Nature at its best, delivered by man – perfection.”