In 2005, before he was a capital-M movie star, Bradley Cooper starred in a short-lived sitcom adaptation of Anthony Bourdain’s cooking memoir Kitchen Confidential. Ten years later, he is starring in a film with an almost identical premise: Burnt. (I’m certainly not the first to make this comparison.) Both the show and the film feature Cooper as a talented and critically acclaimed chef who, after ruining his career with drugs and alcohol, looks for new success in the fast-paced world of high-end restaurants, while figuring out how to lead a passionate and sober life. Though the two properties seemed just shy of identical at first glance (in trailers, synopses, etc.), a longer look reveals that Burnt cleverly disguised its premise as a story foodies already know, to bring them into a film with a divergent, often opposing perspective — albeit one that’s ultimately not so fresh, either.
It cannot be overstated how similar these stories are on a superficial level. Case in point — here are synopses of the two, from IMDB:
Burnt : Adam Jones is a Chef who destroyed his career with drugs and diva behavior. He cleans up and returns to London, determined to redeem himself by spearheading a top restaurant that can gain three Michelin stars. Kitchen Confidential (2005): Jack Bourdain, a once famous chef, has hit rock bottom. Out of the blue, Jack is offered an opportunity to get back in the game as head chef at a top New York restaurant.
The details are different enough for Burnt to seem like a bit more than an unofficial film adaptation of a memoir that was already a TV show — and it would indeed have been a mistake for Burnt to attempt a “more faithful” version of Kitchen Confidential. The Fox show, which isn’t terrible and is currently available in its entirety on Hulu, takes cues directly from its source material, with many episodes that are based on passages from the book. Though it doesn’t have the smarts or sass that made the memoir, the spirit of book lends itself more to comedy than drama.
Instead of adopting a lighthearted tone, Burnt reshapes the often-glamorized, idealized story of a chef’s life into a portrait of a career one braves and learns to survive. Ideas that are played for laughs on Kitchen Confidential, such as a scenario where Bourdain ruins a fellow chef’s restaurant by releasing rats in their kitchen, are treated with far more gravity in Burnt. The screaming tantrums and disdain Cooper slung as Bourdain are portrayed, in the star’s new movie, as signs of the character’s emotional instability and “old-fashioned” cooking style.
After the film’s quick, exposition-heavy first act, Burnt steadily distances itself from Confidential philosophically. When Cooper’s character Adam Jones’ first attempt at a culinary comeback, with a menu rooted in the classic French culinary tradition (like Bourdain’s) and a diva’s disdain for publicity, fails miserably, he accepts the notion that other people’s opinions are just as important as his own. In Confidential, when Cooper returns to the kitchen as Jack Bourdain, the notion that he’s traded his need for drugs for his need for control is frequently noted, but rarely presented as a serious character flaw or a quality that might impede his abilities as a chef.
Of course, the difference in mediums partially accounts for these divergent approaches; a character has to grow over the course of a film but must retain his or her core character traits in a sitcom. But, these constraints aside, Burnt still seems like a reaction to Kitchen Confidential’s portrait of how a chef should behave. In revealing the not-so-hilarious effects of this volatile perfectionism, it steers away from the full-on cultural worship of the rock star chef that Kitchen Confidential (the book) helped create. It preaches that no single person can will perfection into existence, especially in a kitchen, which is a space predicated on group activity.
But despite its initial cleverness, Burnt‘s approach to the bad-boy chef has limitations of its own. Jones’ story is, in many ways, a cliché story of an artist “finding himself.” Over the course of the film, he is coaxed into accepting help in recovering from his past demons, both financial and psychological; he learns to cope with failure, to ask for help, and, of course, to love again, which is where his protégé/love interest Helene, played by Sienna Miller, comes in.
Burnt’s arc of an addict’s recovery plays out exactly the way you would expect in a big-screen adaptation of Kitchen Confidential –even though, again, it technically isn’t one. If there’s a difference, it’s that Jones’ highs are higher (Bourdain, unlike Jones, has never won a Michelin star) and his lows, lower (an early scene refers to a time when Jones stole methadone off a dead sous-chef). And though he learns to control his anger, his arrogance still ends up looking like an asset.
Burnt may in some senses flip the script on the “rock-star chef” archetype, but it’s still tepid, derivative, and driven by its own host of clichés. The good news is that it leaves plenty of room on the cooking-film menu for a truly great, and genuinely unique, dissection and rejection of both Kitchen Confidential‘s and Burnt‘s tired tropes — so long as it doesn’t also star Bradley Cooper, in another ten years, in a third role that recalls Anthony Bourdain.
Burnt is out today in wide release.