A veteran chef of almost 20 years, for the past year-and-a-half Brad Sorenson has been responsible for creating custom menu items that accompany select films for The Alamo Drafthouse. For their latest feature, the Instagram stalker-comedy Ingrid Goes West, Sorenson designed two custom menus — a fast food-friendly selection of burgers and fries to reflect the character of Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza), and some trendier west coast fare to represent social media influencer Taylor (Elizabeth Olsen).
During a screening of Ingrid Goes West, we got to try a sampling of all six dishes offered, which ranged from green chili cheese and queso fries, smashed avocado toast, a quadruple-double cheeseburger, and a coconut-crusted avocado cashew mousse. While it was a plethora of flavors, they all worked together (even more than the two characters they represented), to create a fully-formed dining experience.
Afterwards, we had the chance to sit down with Sorenson about what goes into making his custom creations, as well as how his time at the Alamo Drafthouse has reshaped how he watches movies in his own time.
What was it that lead you to the kitchen at the Alamo Drafthouse?
I’d been in the independent restaurant game as a chef, or sous chef, in Austin for seven years before I joined Alamo. I did some time on The Food Network, stuff like that, and was really looking for a place where I could have a bit of a wider reach, and something different than grinding away in restaurants every day. There happened to be an opening here. The timing worked out kind of perfectly. So, since January of 2016, I basically write every special that’s related with a movie for the company.
What was the first custom dish you created?
So, it started off, back when Deadpool came out on Valentine’s Day. So, I guess it was February of ’16, my first special was a chimichanga. Which, as a comic book nerd, was like an awesome way to kick off my new job. And I’ve written every special for movies for the company pretty much since.
Did you know this was going to end up being your job, creating movie-specific menu items?
That was what the long-term goal was. I operated the [Alamo] Lakeline Menu for the first couple months after I joined the company. I helped open up the San Francisco Alamo, and was a little bit of a jack of all trades for my first six or so months. And then Deadpool, and the following menu, were almost like an audition for it, and I did well. And I’ve been doing that ever since. This was the goal, this is the job I wanted with the company.
When it comes to movies like Deadpool, or The Big Sick, they sort of lend themselves to specific food items. Does it become more of a challenge when you have to dig through the subtext of a film?
It all depends on the film, ’cause even in some films you wouldn’t think of there’s been… just some awesome connections that I’ve been able to pull. And whether it’s from, if it’s a fictional character, [or] it’s from their lore. Star Wars, you never really see food, or anything. But you start digging, there’s official cookbooks, there’s official recipes. Star Trek was another, where you’re like, “What am I gonna do for this?” And so, if there’s the fandom kind of behind it, there’s research available. And then, other movies, I reach a little bit sometimes.
I suppose that’s where you get to let your creativity come into a play a bit.
Well, and some of my fondness for puns, as well. [For] Guardians of the Galaxy, I was able to put something on the menu that had a connection, because I called it I Am Fruit, and it was a shake. And that was my connection to the movie. Whereas, The Big Sick, and even Ingrid Goes West, there’s some pretty deep connections, where it offers an even more, kind of unique, in-theater dining experience.
Like, the menu for Ingrid Goes West, I actually think that it’s the most connected to a movie, because of the way it’s set up, [and] the idea behind it. There was a lot of people who were into coming up with the concept of the menu. And then, the dishes, as I was coming up with the dishes to fill that concept, watching the movie. It started making a lot of sense.
With these Ingrid Goes West specials, not only do you have this dueling menu, but you’ve captured the opposing personalities of the two main characters.
Yeah. It was really… I don’t wanna use the word juxtaposition, because I’m not quite sure of the real definition of it, but, those polar opposites, where there’s a ton of similarities. It’s delicious food, it lives on the same menu, but they couldn’t be different. And now that you’ve seen the movie, those two characters, and what really kind of drives them, I think we’re able to relate as much as you can on the pages of the menu.
And get both those sides: that dark, kind of grimy, greasy side, and then that “everybody like my Instagram post” side — and it can live on the same menu. I don’t know anywhere else I could have put a triple chocolate shake and a vegan key lime pie right next to each other on the menu and have it make sense.
Is it your goal to have people sample from both sides of the menu and maybe challenge their palates a little bit?
I think, really, if I’m just being honest with you, my goal with this menu is [this is] the way people are nowadays. There is that side of, “I wanna eat healthy,” [and] everybody takes pictures of their food. And everything has to be pretty before you eat it. So I do kind of hope that they start off with cauliflower samosa, and they’re like, “Ah, I want that fuckin’ cheeseburger!”
Or, [since] I also see it kind of being a date movie, too, where one person might have a different diet than the other person. And so I really wanted to make it, kind of hipster/Instagram friendly, but also, very craveable. Because a lot of this movie is about cravings, in one way or another. And that shake, loaded fries, double cheeseburger side is kind of, I think, what most people actually do crave. But if you’re gonna be restrained, we’ve got very delicious healthy options for you as well.
Did the plating factor into that as well? On the Ingrid menu everything’s served in paper boats, but you’ve got this really elegant plating with the Taylor-friendly dishes.
That’s very deliberate, yes. The scene where you see all the empty bags and wrappers, and the scene where she’s shoving the fries straight from the bag, I really wanted [that]. And not that serving stuff in disposables is grungy, but I wanted it to have very visual difference when it came out, as well. So, using disposable products, and then on the other side of the menu, plating on white China, it just kind of adds to that, being able to compare the two, or contrast the two, [and] have both sides of that experience.
What’s the process in creating something like this? Is it just you in a kitchen or do you bounce ideas off a lot of other people?
From menu to menu, it does change. There’s some menus where I’m like, I’d know exactly what I wanna do. And then, there’s approval process, right? I don’t have just free rein of serving whatever I want. But if it’s good enough, this movie kind of falls into the collaboration, where I wrote all the dishes, I wrote all the recipes. I did that, but it was a big collaboration to figure out what the direction was. We started off with it being, just like a very glamorous, all vegan, all gluten free kind of menu. And then, once we kind of decided on having, like, an Ingrid menu, and a Taylor menu, then from there it was, “Let’s just start cooking, and figure out what would make sense.” And I, with this movie in particular, I took some very noticeable cues from the movie.
That cauliflower samosa’s from the scene is basically what inspired [that dish on] the menu, where there’s this thing that she really wants to like. She really does. She wants it to be what she wants. And then she spits it out, and just starts eating fries. That was kind of like the mantra, almost, for this menu. The avocado toast, I took a big screen shot of the Instagram post from the movie, and I made the decision to go with a different style of egg, instead of serving it with scrambled, and just tried to mimic that exact dish, that basically led to her moving across the country for her obsession.
And then, [with] the dessert, there wasn’t anything I could pull from directly. And I just really wanted something that fit all those buzzwords: vegan, gluten free, and then, fitting it to California. [Even] the name was kinda making fun of Taylor. Instead of Desert Door, I call it Dessert D’or. So, I thought that was being a little cheeky, but I was able to pull a few things from the menu as well, and then kind of flesh out the rest out of it.
That was a very unique one. It’s the only time we’ve been able to do that, [with] not only the star, but the writer. Kumail has a relationship with us and is excited about what we wanna do. That menu started off with, like, “What did you used to eat together as a family?” And then, he sent me a list of, like, 30 dishes. So, I went through, started doing research. I’m familiar with this style of cooking, and the regionality, but we wanted [a] kind of authenticity.
So, to do that, I had to research, and really learn it a lot better, and figure out how what dishes made sense, and what we could do in our theater. We don’t have, like, sautee pans and stoves back there. And when we actually got into the testing and cooking side of it, the owner, Tim League, was basically live-streaming the tasting with him, and getting feedback. It was super nerve-wracking, but super cool. Then, we even got to cook it for him in person. I watched him eat it, and enjoy it. So, it was very full circle. “Hey, there’s all this awesome connection. Don’t mess it up!”
Does doing all this change how you’re watching a movie just for fun? Even if you’re not having to concoct a menu out of it, do these kinds of thoughts still run through your mind?
100%. And not in a negative way whatsoever. New movies, I do kind of find myself thinking, “Oh, it’d be awesome to serve food to this,” because some things just make total sense. That movie from last year, Swiss Army Man, after I got done watching that, I walked into the creative meeting and said, “We have to do a menu just for this, because it just makes so much sense.” [That] movie was a menu.
There [were] specific food scenes that followed along in the movie, that almost paced and wrote a menu perfectly. So we were able to do a very special dinner with that, where there’s some scenes where they’re all in the woods, and having this woods fest. The same stuff they’re eating on the screen [would come] out in front of you while you’re watching it. So, watching the movies actually sometimes leads to events where there’s so much of a connection. And then there’s other movies I watch where it’s like, “I’m so glad I don’t have to do food for this, because I have no clue what I would do.”
But it sounds like it’s always there, at least a little bit.
Well, I’ve been cooking for damn near 17 years now. And so food’s always on my mind, in some form or fashion. This is almost a lot more fun to have as that kind of culinary voice that’s talking to you. Because there’s a whole new medium, there’s a whole new angle with the movies. Instead of trying to figure out what French fusion dish I wanna come up with, I can watch a film, and then, kind of be inspired by it, and have something to plate.
Sometimes, I do references and stuff that people will never get. But it’s just something so unique that, really, we only do, and I’m proud of that. So that’s why, anything I watch, anything I do, I want to kind of keep pushing it. Because there’s more theaters serving food now, and we gotta staying ahead of ’em. They don’t do stuff like this though, it’s one of the reasons we’re special.