Thank You, Chef
On Tantalus and the Art of Writing
Note: This post contains spoilers for The Menu.
I’ve always been a writer. It’s taken me years to be able to say that without flinching or apologizing for daring to label myself as such, and I’ve gone long stretches of time in my life without writing anything, but that hasn’t changed the fact that I’m a writer. I don’t say that to boast. I’m not telling you that I’m the best in the world at what I do, because that simply isn’t true. On days when my mind isn’t clouded by debilitating anxiety or self-doubt, I will admit that I think I’m good, even great; but I understand and accept that I am not, and never will be, the best.
There are a lot of moments in The Menu that ring painfully true for people who create. “Artist” covers a lot of different callings, and while I feel like an impostor for calling myself by that name, I’ll have to grit my teeth and use it for the purposes of this post. By their — by our — very nature, artists are never satisfied. As Martha Graham famously said: “There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.” Those of us who create may, debatably, be more alive, but we are also never happy.
As a working-class girl in a den of upper-class wolves, Margo (Anya Taylor-Joy) is the easiest character to relate to in The Menu. Her unease while dining at Hawthorne, an island restaurant that costs $1250 per person, is palpable and refreshing. However, I find myself drawn back repeatedly to a different character: Jeremy (Adam Aalderks), Hawthorne’s sous-chef. Celebrity chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) informs the diners that Jeremy is good at what he does, but that he will never be great. He will never achieve his dream of being as talented as his idol Slowik.
But Slowik isn’t interested in Jeremy’s greatness. Ultimately, neither is Jeremy himself. Both men see what lies at the end of that road: endless frustration; a creative hell where Tantalus is forever reaching not for food or drink, but for the artistic validation that comes from others enjoying what he has cooked for them. It will never be enough. There will never come a time when either man — the good-but-not-great sous-chef or the culinary genius — feels a moment of true achievement.
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As an artist, you can never arrive. That’s the beauty of creating: you are always seeking to improve, to grow, to write or paint or cook your greatest work. That ephemerality is also the torture of creating. Satisfaction and happiness are just out of reach, and you must accept that they will always stay that way. You can’t quit, because it’s all you want to do, but you can’t keep going, because it’s a way of life that’s guaranteed to make you miserable.
So what do you do? You can follow your most self-destructive urges and choose “The Mess,” as Jeremy does. It’s an option I’ve considered myself, far more times than I can count. Or you can keep going. You can cling to the brief glimmers of satisfaction — an appreciative customer who savors a delicious cheeseburger you’ve cooked for them, perhaps, or a reader who says you helped them see a movie from a wholly new perspective. You can use these tiny moments of joy as breadcrumbs to mark your path…as long as you accept the irony that those breadcrumbs are behind you and you’re never going in that direction again. You can only move forward, lost amidst the pain and the hopelessness and the self-doubt that lie unavoidably ahead.
I often write out of order, saving my introduction for last or moving paragraphs around once I’ve finished a draft. These words were some of the first ones in this piece that I typed out:
Ironically, I feel like this piece will be the hardest for me to write. I will agonize over every word, placing each one as carefully as a garnish applied with tweezers. Once it is complete, I will wait patiently for readers to enjoy it and I will gain no satisfaction, even if (a big “if”) I receive likes and comments praising me for my writing or my insights or my honesty.
I always write from a place of truth (forgive how pretentious that sounds), but those words are perhaps the truest I’ve ever written. I will hate this essay as soon as I publish it. I will smile and thank people if they compliment me on it, and I will feel the briefest sense of accomplishment. The Mess inside me will be soothed for a few seconds. But it will roar back so, so quickly. Like Jeremy, I will sigh resignedly. Like Jeremy did a thousand other times before the night of The Mess, I will put my apron on and get back in the kitchen. Despite — and because of — my dissatisfaction, I will sit down, put my hands on the keys of my laptop, and reach out once more for the happiness I know will never come.
Am I a writer? Yes, Chef.