Burnt: Getting it Right

Watching how a movie is made is incredibly exciting in part because of the precision the filmmakers show in their attention to accuracy. For me, it's almost identical to being a chef -- we're both obsessed with getting it right.
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My father was a potato and fruit merchant in Southport, where I grew up. Starting at the age of eleven, I'd go to his warehouse after school every day and learn the basics of how to look after all the fresh produce and hang out with all the dodgy, but always fascinating, characters who used to drive the wagons and trucks responsible for delivering the city's carrots, onions, potatoes and fruits. That marketplace is probably, even to this day, my favorite memory pertaining to food. When my father would spot an apple on the floor that looked rotten, he'd take it. Most people would just kick it, booting it against the wall and watching it splatter. But he would pick it up, cut the bad parts off and we'd share the rest. And that's where I learned what restaurants are all about: sharing.

I was approached by screenwriter Steven Knight five or so years ago with the concept for a movie about an acclaimed chef struggling to regain his glory. My curiosity got to me when he reached out, because he was crafting a script about experiences like my own and I was intrigued by to the idea of talking openly with someone who was that interested in what goes on in the culinary sphere. Never in a million years did I think that my involvement in BURNT would go much beyond those meetings about the screenplay, though. It's Hollywood, after all; it could happen or it could not. My job is running restaurants and kitchens, and I keep my feet very firmly on the ground. But after much waiting and a whole lot of lunches with Steven, the green light came. I very soon found myself in a world that, oddly, reminded me much of the one I've inhabited for so long.

Watching how a movie is made is incredibly exciting in part because of the precision the filmmakers show in their attention to accuracy. For me, it's almost identical to being a chef -- we're both obsessed with getting it right. So when I ended up being not just a consultant in development, but an actual on-set advisor on the film, I faced an interesting challenge in figuring out what my place was there. How intense should I get? How far could I push people like Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller and John Wells? All I knew was that I wanted to look at the camera behind us and see that what we were shooting looked real. The most important thing was not that Bradley or the rest of the cast could actually cook -- it was that they looked like chefs, acted like chefs and conveyed the attitudes of chefs. People in my industry would be able to look at the footage and tell instantly if it seemed fake, which is the mistake you see in the majority of movies about cooking. It was my job to make sure that didn't happen with BURNT. This was a story about a man who's gone through a great deal of the same trials that I have, and so I took the attention to details very personally.

What many people don't realize when they watch this film is that nothing John shot in the cooking scenes is staged or fancy camerawork. I basically came in with the stipulation that, if I was coming to the table in this venture, we had to make it real. I wanted to see the cooks cooking. I wanted to see the stoves on. I wanted to see them tasting and seasoning. I wanted to see them burning themselves. That's how a kitchen really is, and everyone had to go through that process. The best part was that take after take, they would get better at everything they were doing, yet at the same time start to look tired and annoyed. And that's exactly what a chef looks like: exhausted, sweating and aggressive. I tried to impress upon these amazing actors that they needed to feel like chefs, and they needed to have confidence in that feeling. When someone gives you a box of ingredients and says 'Cook me a dish from here,' you have to look at them without fear. It isn't rocket science. Just fall in love with the idea and get on with it.

But this isn't to make what Bradley or Sienna or any of the actors did sound fun or privileged, because my job was to impart my knowledge on them in the purest way possible. I'm always of the point that, if you don't want to do something right, then you shouldn't be doing it to begin with. I didn't care if it was a Hollywood actor I was dealing with -- if we were going to learn how to run a kitchen, we were going to do it properly or not at all. I took the same approach with the actors, in truth, that I do with my own chefs. It's a sweaty job and an eighteen hour day, but one of the best in the world if you can put your mind to it. I think anyone who wants to be successful in life, wherever they are or whatever they're doing, needs to put in hard work. Nothing arrives on a silver platter, apart from a good plate of food.

BURNT was also special for me because of the way that the story of Bradley's character, Adam Jones, echoed much of my own. There's a fine line for most chefs that can easily lead to a dark side. When you're in a kitchen and striving for something in life, you can become a type of character that people don't enjoy being around. In combing though Steven's script and watching Bradley shoot certain scenes, there were an astounding number of instances where I saw myself as I once was, proud of it or not. Nevertheless, I know now that I had to go though those turbulent times in order to come out on the other end. Some chefs turn to alcohol, some to drugs, some run away. For me, it was about smashing through a brick wall and pressing onward. When an actor wins an Oscar, they keep it for the rest of their lives. We as chefs, on the other hand, can earn a Michelin star and lose it. That's what makes you push yourself so continually, and what keeps you ahead of the game. There's so much to lose, and you feel you have to earn it plate after plate, customer after customer. No matter how good your dish looks, you will set the bar for yourself to a new height and be on the verge of disappointment always. Adam Jones is a character who, deep down, cannot give up because he won't accept being a failure in the work that he loves so much.

My job is a way of life and I love it. No one -- not my wife, my children, no one -- will ever ask me to take my jacket off, because if I take my jacket off, underneath I'm just Joe Blogs. I'm a normal man. With it on, I have a sense of place, and a place I want to be, and a presence. That's what my jacket gives to me. It's like a uniform being in the army. It's like the stripes you earn, and I never want to take it off unless it's my decision. This was my message for Bradley and the rest of the cast, and they actually had a huge amount of respect for that. But they also know at the end of it, they get back to their own world and there it is on the big screen. When I go to a particular kitchen training, that's a chunk of my life. That's like a movie to them. Then I go to the next kitchen for more training, and they go to the next movie. And we're all doing exactly the same thing. And at the end of it, they want to be standing there as an amazing actor, with their Oscars, and I want to be standing there as an amazing chef and restaurateur with my Michelin stars. We're both on the same path, just slightly different goals.

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