Food and restaurant critic Jonathan Trew reviews Philip Barantini‘s new release, Boiling Point.
In the Eighties, I worked in a kitchen as a pot washer. Aside from the glamour of being up to my elbows in greasy steam for six hours at a time, what stuck in the mind is how angry the kitchen could be. When things went wrong during a hectic service, it was not unusual for the chefs to lose the rag. There was shouting and swearing and much banging of fists on worktops. Crockery was smashed. On more than one occasion, hot and heavy frying pans became flying pans.
Respect in the workplace was not really a concept that was given much consideration back then. The heat and stress did strange things to people. They made normally calm people aggressive. They shortened tempers. At the end of a shift, copious amounts of alcohol were used to smooth things over. It did not always work.
One particularly villainous chef brought his time at that establishment to an end by assaulting a customer. After a busy and ill-tempered shift, the chef had changed into his civvies and wandered into the bar for a few drinks and a hugely unprofitable session on the fruit machine. Having gambled and lost a sizable chunk of his weekly pay packet, the disgruntled pan-rattler saw red when one of the bar’s other patrons nonchalantly put a quid in the slot and scooped the jackpot. Cue mayhem, a P45 and a court appearance.
This all sprung to mind while watching Philip Barantini’s Boiling Point. In the recently released film, Stephen Graham plays Head Chef Andy, a man whose world implodes around him in the course of one chaotic dinner service. Andy’s multiple, spiralling problems include obnoxious customers, staff problems and a visit from an officious environmental health inspector. Unexpectedly, a TV chef who is also Andy’s former boss has turned up to meddle. Worse, he has brought a feared and reviled restaurant critic with him. Grasping Instagram influencers are blagging freebies. As is often the case, the relationship between the kitchen and front of house is a long way from teamwork making the dream work.
Adding to these external challenges are Andy’s own circumstances and character flaws. His family life is a car crash and his finances are in a deep, dark hole. The drink and drugs do not help. His head is a mess and his mood swings are volatile. One moment, he is shouting furiously at his staff, bullying them. The next he is contrite and wheedling. The charisma and leadership are there but they are being swamped by unending pressure.
The entire 90 minutes of the film are shot in one continuous take which ratchets up the tension and makes the viewer feel as though they are in the heat of the kitchen with the protagonists. It is not a comfortable watch. If an episode of All Creatures Great and Small has the same effect as a cup of hot cocoa then experiencing Boiling Point is like being jolted into consciousness with the hangover from hell and realising that in twenty minutes you have a can’t-miss appointment for root canal work.
It is a visceral contrast with cooking-based reality TV. Sure MasterChef has tight deadlines, intense competition and peer judgement but it is all pointless jeopardy. It is cooking without consequence. The worst thing that might happen to a MasterChef contestant is that Gregg Wallace might look disappointed because he doesn’t want to marry your pudding. In Boiling Point, the stakes are rather higher.
Reaction to the film from the restaurant industry has been mixed. Some voices applaud its portrayal of the toll that kitchen work can take on mental health. Others say they do not recognise the macho attitudes and the on-the-edge, one step from chaos organisation of the Boiling Point kitchen. Perhaps not unexpectedly, it is the female chefs and restaurateurs who say that the film is not representative of the way they run their kitchens.
Curiously, I mostly enjoyed my time as a humble kitchen porter. The buzz of a busy service was strangely addictive but it did confirm that I would not be opting for a career in chef’s whites. There are parallels with watching Boiling Point: it is full of anxious thrills but it will not have wannabe chefs knocking on kitchen doors asking for a trial shift.
Boiling Point is on general release in cinemas and some streaming services.
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