One of the hottest fantasy jobs for millennials is to become a high-end chef, and a number of movies have expressed that fantasy, with actors like Jon Favreau (Chef), Bradley Cooper (Burnt) and Catherine Zeta-Jones and Aaron Eckhart (No Reservations) portraying temperamental cooks. Even the animated film Ratatouille got in on the action. Most of these movies dramatized the egotism and volatility of these chefs, but few have painted quite as devastating a portrait as the low-budget Canadian film Nose to Tail, which tickled audiences at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
The movie, written and directed by first-timer Jesse Zigelstein, takes place over the course of a single day and in a single location — the Toronto restaurant that gifted but irascible chef Daniel (Aaron Abrams) is trying to rescue from financial ruin. His landlord is closing in, his gifted sous-chef is leaving for another job and besides that, his ex-wife arrives to inform him that she is taking their son and moving to Paris. Yet there’s a ray of hope on the horizon: A former classmate and now a financial wizard is bringing a group to dine at the restaurant, with the promise of making a major investment if he likes what he tastes.
That’s all there is to the story, but it’s consistently sharp-edged and even suspenseful, as it makes us wonder not just whether Daniel will find a backer but whether he’ll self-destruct as pressure mounts. Most of the other movies about chefs present their characters as flawed artists, but they usually have redeeming qualities. Nose to Tail is more uncompromising, presenting Daniel as a welter of ego and anger who eventually alienates just about everyone who crosses his path.
Why, you might ask, does the restaurant staff continue to cater to his whims? And why should an audience remain interested in such an unredeemed narcissist? There are a couple of answers to those questions. For one thing, Daniel has unmistakable talent in the kitchen, as the lovingly photographed shots of luscious looking delicacies make clear. And there’s also the fact that Daniel is played by Abrams, a skillful, handsome actor who manages to be convincingly charismatic without ever softening the character.
All of the performances are solid — Brandon McKnight as his disillusioned disciple, Salvatore Antonio as his beleaguered but loyal sommelier, Genevieve Kang as a talented rising chef and Lara Jean Chorostecki as Daniel’s maître d’ and sometime girlfriend. Chorostecki conveys credible impatience with Daniel, though we’re not thoroughly convinced that she would continue to share his bed despite his despicable treatment of her.
Tensions mount as the day continues. A popular food truck parked across the street rankles Daniel, and he finally steps outside for an unwarranted confrontation with the ingenuous young cook (Jason Tome). Then he has a conflagration with his potential investor that leads to further self-destructive activity. And yet when a defeated Daniel contemplates a bottle of pills at Nose to Tail’s conclusion, the film has been successful enough at creating a compelling anti-hero that we find ourselves rooting for the cur’s survival.
Audiences who catch this pic on the festival circuit may be surprised to find themselves hoping that Daniel has a future. There’s no question that Zigelstein will have a future directing bigger-budgeted movies. His collaborators — cinematographer Benjamin Lichty, production designer Rabab Ali, editor James Vandewater and composer Ben Fox — help him to sock this sour and tasty drama home.
Production companies: Motion Offense Productions, Monolith Pictures
Cast: Aaron Abrams, Lara Jean Chorostecki, Salvatore Antonio, Ennis Esmer, Brandon McKnight, Carolina Bartczak, Genevieve Kang, Robert B. Kennedy, Jason Tome
Director-screenwriter: Jesse Zigelstein
Executive producer: Tony Wosk
Director of photography: Benjamin Lichty
Production designer: Rabab Ali
Costume designer: Nathan Laws
Editor: James Vandewater
Music: Ben Fox