02 Dec On Location: Savannah’s Finest Dining Is on Display in ‘The Menu’
They are the lucky few: 12 guests who’ve managed to secure a coveted seat— $1,250 a head—at Hawthorne, a gastronomically ground-breaking restaurant on a private island at the center of The Menu. It is there, however, that their luck will run out.
Hawthorne is helmed by Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), an intimidating culinary mastermind whose menu is different from what the guests are expecting. Among the diners are the archetypal Insta-food influencer (Nicholas Hoult), the food critic (Janet McTeer), and the celebrity (John Leguizamo). Anya Taylor-Joy, who plays the girlfriend of Hoult’s character, arrives uninvited and without any idea that she’s in for the night of her life. The film, according to production designer Ethan Tobman, turns “the restaurant into a microcosm of society.” Tobman sat down with us to tell us how, exactly, he cooked up Hawthorne.
Where is “Hawthorne” and the island it sits on?
Not where we expected! We were planning on shooting in Scotland. Most three-star Michelin restaurants are in cold, rainy, and dramatically seasonal environments, so Scotland was perfect. But then, just two months before shooting [in the summer of 2021] Covid started raging in the United Kingdom , so we did a sudden 180 and decided to film on Tybee Island, Georgia near Savannah. We’d been so excited to film on Scotland’s brutal, northern, moss-infested coastline that director Mark Mylod told us to keep that look, which meant an extraordinary amount of landscaping trying to mask Savannah’s low marshlands. Every weathered tree and piece of gnarled driftwood was brought in by the art department. But to be able to create that nature around Chef Slowik—a man obsessed with the perfection of nature, and ultimately haunted by it—turned out to be a deliciously meticulous experience.
The restaurant is an architectural wonder—is it real?
Nothing is real. It’s so ironic how these things go in filmmaking. You show up at a location and you’re like, “It’s perfect!” And then you change every single little thing. But that’s the process of image-making.
Tybee Island was beautiful—and it did have a very long path through a very long field, leading to a very old barn. The symmetry of that landscape inspired us. But we wanted to use Brutalist, Nordic architecture in the plot; I call it organic modernism, where the shapes are inspired by nature—rock walls or sweeping glass bay windows that infer the drama of the elements. So we covered the path with white limestone, and lined it with Brutalist lamps, and covered all the brickwork with concrete. We basically built the façade of the restaurant as well as enough hallway to film actors going through a door and walking into the “esophagus” of the restaurant—but then they’d walk into a blue screen. The interiors were shot on a stage .
In fact, that door was obsessed over. I was inspired by cattle doors; I love the idea that people feel like proteins when they walk into this place—like lambs being led to the slaughter. I wanted it to be the last clue to the viewer that all is not well.
Was the restaurant inspired by any real meals you’ve had?
I’m a huge foodie and I find filmmaking and food-making really similar—they’re both ephemeral; they bring together very random groups of people and they create an artificial, highly immersive environment that you miss the moment it’s over. Where I personally felt that most was Noma in Copenhagen—I was lucky enough to get a last-minute table there on Christmas Eve in 2017. I didn’t realize it was the last time they’d ever be serving that menu (prior to a six-month refurb closure) and the staff were ready to celebrate; the lines between upstairs and downstairs blurred and my four-hour dinner turned into a 12-hour dance-athon! They showed us the fruit cellar, the dry cellar, how emulsions are made. I was so sad when I left, and I thought: to recreate that on a film set would be the greatest joy.
I also worked with chef Dominique Crenn [the only female chef in the United States to attain three Michelin stars, at Atelier Crenn in San Francisco] who consulted on the movie . She and I became so close; I was designing the plates that would house the film’s dishes, and a fully functioning kitchen that had to pass the rigors of a Michelin chef’s opinion. By the time we got to the first day of shooting, she said, “I want you to redesign my restaurant.” And I said yes. We plan to open early 2023. It’s the greatest example of art imitating life, imitating art.
The Georgia coast is a magical place to take a trip—where did the cast stay?
The Perry Lane Hotel in Savannah, which was excellent, [and has] a beautiful rooftop bar. But what was most memorable was the local food—of course, it was such a big part of our journey. Common Thread was our favorite—we liked the restaurant so much we hired the then-chef John Benhase to work on our advisement crew. The other huge discovery was Chocolat—the owner, Adam Turoni, ended up making our custom chocolate for the film; it was so fun to hang out in his shop after hours, making chocolate sculptures at 3:00 a.m. for the s’mores scene in the movie. Then there’s The Crab Shack on Tybee Beach—I’ve been all over the American South and it’s the greatest I’ve ever been to. We also loved Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room, the oldest restaurant in Savannah; Mrs. Wilkes fell in love with us and would send over hundreds of boxes of her fried chicken she’s known for. In fact, the Obamas were eating there on one of our visits.