Like the bellies of knives, most movies have arcs, a gracious curve of circumstance, a rise, a fall and, perhaps, a rise again. Not Boiling Point, perhaps one of the most brutal—and best—restaurant films of the last 20 years. The film, starring Stephen Graham as English chef Andy Jones, is a straight stark line which starts dark and gets darker. It chronicles a single night in a mid-tier fine dining restaurant in London, near Christmas. Much has been made of the technically virtuosic method of shooting. The 90 minute film was shot in one very long take which renders unto the scenes something choreographic. The performances are uniformly brilliant but in a way that does not unduly shine. From the perspective of someone who eats out professionally, the highest achievement is that it forces you—me, us—to consider whether fine dining is worth the trouble and suffering at all.
We first meet Jones pre-service, heading into the restaurant. He’s already late, already on the phone apologizing to his ex-wife for missing his son’s swimming competition. We follow him as he enters to find a health inspector high on his own power; an understaffed, overworked kitchen crew; turbot that’s been tossed due to Jones’ lack of labelling the night before; and a clueless GM, the daughter of one of Jones’ partners, who has overbooked tables that evening. Andy’s a mess. Carly, his sous chef, is tired of covering for him. Another sous, Freeman, the rotisseur, is surly. Camille, a green girl from France, is working the entremetier and can’t understand Graham’s scouse (though to be honest, I have a hard time too) and another cook, Tony, is out of his element on the shucking station. In short, it’s all gone tits up before the first table sits down.
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Boiling Point is like the Cookbook of Job. Some customers are racist fucks. The porter is more concerned with scoring drugs than helping out his pregnant colleague. A table of influencers arrive in full on Dave Portnoy mode, demanding off-the-menu steaks in exchange for something or other. A rival chef—and silent partner—arrives, with food critic in tow, to demand his money back. There’s a nut allergy on Table 13. It doesn’t end well.
It’s tempting to say that this is a dramatization, and certainly it is. But as countless memoirs, scandals, apologias, and lawsuits have made clear, although the recency and frequency of the tribulations are compressed for dramatic expediency, that kitchens can be infernal is indisputable. That the back of house frequently views customers as enemies is a dynamic well chronicled, perhaps most famously by Anthony Bourdain in Kitchen Confidential. But eavesdrop on any line cook and you’ll find the same antipathy. Food, as it must be in the brigade system, is viewed as a challenging logistical problem to be solved involving many moving parts that must arrive at the pass more or less simultaneously over and over again.
Because it is in the interest of both the diner and the chef to keep opaque the veil separating front and back of house—regardless of whether the kitchen is nominally open or not—these dynamics are rarely observed in situ. The diner is there for a good time; the chef is there to provide it. Any suffering, especially suffering caused by the dynamic in which both diner and chef play a part, gums up the machine with guilt. (On the other hand, it is in the interest of media outlets to expose the dysfunction of the kitchen and this has been much done. However, even this project feels at times more driven by the economics of journalism—views, revenue, prestige—than it does an underlying concern for those involved.) Movies like Boiling Point, though fictionalized, nevertheless point to truth. And once this truth is known, it’s difficult to unknow. Once one becomes aware that the pleasure of the plate is offset by the unhappiness of those who get the food there, how can one dine as one did before?
So what is the solution? Boiling Point captures a particular type of restaurant: a multi-partnered undercapitalized high-end bistro. Would the problems be diminished with more money, a kitchen renovation, higher prices, Resy, Tock, less fancy food, more seats, a fast-casual grab-and-go? Would the misery be lessened with a more robust social safety net, destigmatizing mental health care for men, automated purchasing systems, pooled tipping? As a diner, should I avoid these mid-tier one-man (or woman) fine dining shows and hew to the Bouluds, Colicchios, and Changs of the restaurant world whose companies are so vast there’s an HR department and clear reporting procedures? Or maybe one simply can’t eat food prepared as meticulously as one wishes without endangering, or enabling the endangerment, of others. In other words, stews and sandwiches for humanity.
Like I said, Boiling Point doesn’t have a happy ending. But you knew that; it’s called Boiling Point. It’s not as if anyone is going to turn down the heat at the last minute. And though it doesn’t leave you feeling good, it leaves you feeling and thinking and wondering, in a way I hadn’t considered as fully before, what should I eat for dinner.
Joshua David Stein
Joshua David Stein has written for publications including _The New York Times, Fatherly, Esquire, and The Guardian.
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