A tense portrait of the life of a head chef

Aaron Abrams in the new film Nose to Tail (Motion Offense Production photo)

One of the best scenes in the new Canadian indie film Nose to Tail comes early on. The aggressively stubborn head chef, Daniel, who alienates everyone and is slowly, unintentionally, dismantling his entire life, is standing outside behind his restaurant, complaining about a former employee to a current one. He hears a defence of the guy who quit, but won’t listen. “Of course it’s understandable from his point of view,” he yells, exasperated. “Nobody’s a villain to themselves. Hitler had reasons.”

The employee doesn’t laugh, but it’s a funny moment – and one of the more poignant (if obvious) ones in the entire film. For 90 minutes, audience members could be forgiven for desperately wanting this guy to look in the mirror and ask himself, “Am I the jerk?”

Nose to Tail, the debut feature by writer-director Jesse Zigelstein that opens today across Canada, analyzes Daniel’s compulsive hideousness through an unflattering lens. The character study shows his ambition, talent, desperation and hatred, and how all these qualities bleed into one another, from the way he speaks to women to the way he slices up a whole pig to serve that night.

Like Adam Sandler’s unsavoury jewelry dealer in Uncut Gems, Daniel is an angry, uncompromising man whose subtle Jewish anxieties manifest not in nebbish awkwardness, but in outright toxic masculinity.

“He’s Jewish to the extent that the character is an alter ego for the writer and director,” Zigelstein explains with a laugh. “The character is an exaggerated – verging on caricature – version of a kind of artistic id run rampant.”

Writer-director Jesse Zigelstein

Speaking with The CJN over the phone during a visit to his hometown Toronto, Zigelstein describes his film as “a cautionary tale about the perils of uncompromising ambition, and how destructive – and self-destructive – it can be if your priorities force you to place a certain goal above all your interpersonal relationships.”

Nose to Tail traces a single pivotal day in Daniel’s chic, high-end restaurant in downtown Toronto. He yells, belittles, insults and gets physically in the face of everyone he meets: his employees, a food blogger, a potential investor, his ex-wife and the young guy running the food truck across the street.

With claustrophobic cinematography and grey wintry skies, the film is a snappily paced, if sometimes bluntly written debut from Zigelstein, who has spent years working and networking in Los Angeles after graduating from York University.

Zigelstein decided to return to Toronto to make this film not out of patriotic love, alas, but because “I knew it could be done here,” he says. Canada’s tax incentives, combined with his local knowledge and professional union connections, meant he could actually produce a feature film more securely and cost-effectively than if he stuck around in California.

“I very consciously conceived and wrote the film to be manageable on this scale,” Zigelstein says. He started with a realistic budget, then wrote a script to match – a single day, a single location, a small cast and a short shooting schedule.

Zigelstein and his casting director found a local Jewish actor, Aaron Abrams, to play Daniel. The film orbits around him: his controlled outbursts, screwdriver face and blast-furnace monologues propel the film to work as well as it does.

In the world of the movie, of course, it’s that same temper that tears things apart.

While Zigelstein has never worked in a restaurant, his ex-wife was a sommelier who owned a wine store in L.A., allowing Zigelstein a glimpse into the world of fine dining.

“For a long time, I’ve had a very up-close view of how those worlds work behind the scenes,” he says. He supplemented that knowledge with research into the gritty reality of high-end kitchens, reading books like Heat, about Mario Batali, and Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain.

“It was important to have as much realistic texture to have the kind of dramatic conflicts that propel the narrative,” he says.

To that end, having the main character be Jewish turns out incidental to the plot, but fundamental to the character.

“I do identify to some degree with the inherited cultural tradition of American Jewish or Canadian writers. Even though, if you talk about Philip Roth or Mordecai Richler, they’re a couple generations removed from their firsthand experience, there is something residual that I identify with. It’s not the dominant principle from which I work or live my life, but it’s residual.”

Nose to Tail opens in select theatres in Toronto, Calgary and Winnipeg on Feb. 14.