The 2023 Netflix Thai drama thriller film “Hunger” predominantly portrays the story of Aoy, a young woman working as a chef at her small family restaurant, when she stumbles upon the chance to be a part of a famous and elusive culinary team. As part of the plot, the film also explores the character of the distinguished Chef Paul, a figure quite akin to the skilled but arrogant chef character that is becoming quite popular in cinema these days. Through its narrative, “Hunger” also makes a note of the ludicrous habits of the rich and the elitism that is fast becoming a part of culinary practices, all while the masses still struggle to get hold of basic regular meals.
The very first characteristics that can be associated with Aoy when she is introduced are hardworking and sincere toward her family. Being the eldest of three siblings and with an aging father, Aoy has automatically stepped into the role of anchor and guardian of the family. She is sometimes tired and weighed down by the responsibilities of the family and their small restaurant or eatery, as Aoy laments to her college friends, who have office jobs. Obviously, Aoy’s situation seems better to these friends, as she is doing something of her own, but Aoy has already realized that there is nothing great or ambitious about having to run a small eatery. She even has to work hard at present times to save up money to support her sister’s education in nursing, but it is not like Aoy has any prejudice toward doing so. To some extent, she does enjoy caring for her family since her father and siblings are the only support she has. But Aoy is also extremely talented at cooking and inventing dishes, so she is also quite ambitious when she gets the chance to train under Chef Paul. When she first checks out the website for Hunger, she watches the video in which Chef Paul invites people who want to leave their ordinary lives and make themselves into someone special. This is when Aoy finds her first calling, for being someone in life seems to be part of her ultimate ambitions.
When Aoy joins up with the Hunger team and works extremely hard to perfect her job as the fry chef, she does so out of a determination to prove her place and skill. A very early comment made by Chef Paul, in which he remarks that people of Aoy’s social status do not belong on such a prestigious culinary team, stays in Aoy’s mind. This and the determination to prove herself push the woman to keep practicing all through the night, severely burning spots on her hands from the hot oil. She is noticeably happy when praised by the guests on her first job at the birthday party, but Aoy never places her mentor or the clients at any pedestal of high respect. She is quite mindful of the behavior of Chef Paul, and in fact, all the other sous chefs are also of the same mindset, which is very different from other similar films made in the West.
The sous chefs discuss among themselves that they really cannot be anyone individually if they keep working under Chef Paul, who, they all agree, does not really value them much. But during her time working under the man, Aoy does pick up on his habits, which are not the best ways to deal with one’s sous chefs and workers. When Aoy has to taste something made by a sous-chef at Flame much later on, she is irritated and throws away the entire bowl, instantly reminding one of the behavior that Chef Paul would dispense. In this process, the woman also grows gradually distant from her family members. While she is mostly there beside her father when the man has to get bypass surgery after suddenly collapsing, Aoy does not really visit him or her siblings once he is released from the hospital. Because of the father’s ill health, the restaurant also has to be taken over by the younger brother, Au. As Au is neither as skilled in cooking nor as sharp in business as his elder sister or his father, the family restaurant struggles to survive and is on the verge of shutting down too.
A similar fate takes place with Tone too, who started his own restaurant after Chef Paul was hospitalized and the Hunger team was temporarily disbanded. At this time, Aoy had offered Tone the chance to work in her kitchen at Flame, suggesting that Aoy had always remembered the role of Tone in her life. After all, it was he who had found Aoy’s eatery and then encouraged her to work under Chef Paul. Over the time when they worked on the Hunger team, the two had even gotten close and intimate, although a romantic relationship never really panned out for them. Despite this, Tone remained the closest colleague to Aoy at Hunger, and it was out of this gratitude and professional admiration that she offered her a position at Flame. However, Tone turns down the opportunity, saying that he is unwilling to work under Aoy in the kitchen space, which would have happened since she had been appointed the head chef. It is a decision that does hurt Tone, as he fails to give stability to his business, and he does eventually join hands with Tos. Tone also seems to stay loyally by Aoy’s side, as he brings in the crucial video incriminating Chef Paul and therefore creates a space for Aoy to become the next illustrious chef in the country.
The character of Chef Paul is introduced with his extremely harsh and tough exterior, with a slight hint of a more positive trait hidden underneath. Nonetheless, the man is terribly ill-mannered and outright insulting in his behavior and attitude toward almost everyone around him. Ultimately, his character does not really receive the positive arc that had initially seemed possible, and instead, he has a severe fall from grace. Although Chef Paul did originally begin as a mentor and role model, in a sense, to Aoy, by the end, he turns out to be a glaring example of what not to be for the woman. When the man talks about his childhood, it is revealed that Chef Paul actually had humble beginnings, as his mother used to work as a maid. As was natural for a young boy, he was always mesmerized by and attracted to the jars of caviar that he would see at the rich household and had finally made an attempt to taste it. While things did not go as planned, what followed made the vanity of the rich even more apparent to the young boy. After this experience, and perhaps other similar ones later in his life, Chef Paul was determined to exact revenge on the rich by making a ridicule out of them. His entire plan had been to create a brand that would be associated with an elite lifestyle and social class. His insistence on serving great food was merely a façade, at least beyond a point, since he obviously had to maintain a certain standard.
This is perhaps quite clear from the fact that Chef Paul actually uses ready-made powder mixes to make soup in times of emergency, not caring about his meticulous quality at the time. Although the reason for this is that the little girl is allergic to shrimp, the man is actually aware of the fact that the family is thinking of ending their lives either way. The logical reason for Chef Paul to stop the soup being served seems to be that he does not want his or his team’s name to come up as the reason for someone’s death. Had the girl died from allergic poisoning, the police would have surely tracked down Hunger, and Chef Paul did not want such legal troubles. But the fact that he was aware of what was going to happen to his clients and that he had agreed to such a job makes his character all the more questionable and dark. Also, his decision to serve them the cheap, ready-made soup, probably because the clients could never tell anyone about this because they were dying, strikes a chord of suspicion in Aoy’s mind.
Finally, during their heated conversation at the gala party, Chef Paul really manages to show his true colors to Aoy. Despite being against the idea of exclusivity with regard to food and the gatekeeping of culinary experiences as only part of an elite lifestyle, Chef Paul ultimately ends up becoming an ideal example of the same. While he had started his business only to secretly ridicule the rich, the arrogance he had garnered through the experience had made him an extremely self-centered and inconsiderate human being. When one of his sous-chefs admits to stealing some Wagyu A5 beef from the pantry, Chef Paul ridicules the man and openly insults him, saying that the only way he could afford such fine meat was if he could ever gather enough money to afford hiring Chef Paul. This is an instance of the man practicing the very same elitism that he supposedly wanted to mock and work against. Similar tones and attitudes can be felt in the scene at the gala party too, where Chef Paul gloats about his importance to Aoy, suggesting that she is insignificant in front of him.
Although Chef Paul had indeed worked as a great mentor to Aoy, he had perhaps not done so intentionally. It was his remark about the likes of Aoy not belonging to high society and elite culture that had pushed the woman all the more towards making it big in her life. Despite this, Aoy had never really disrespected the man and had even visited the hospital to help the man after he had been stabbed. The fact that Chef Paul had no family struck Aoy, and she decided to give him some support like any family member would. We watch Aoy do the same for her own father, and despite knowing about his apparent flaws, she had perhaps given Chef Paul the same respect as a fatherly figure or a mentor. But the celebrated chef could not return the same respect and admiration for her, not only leading to his downfall but also showing Aoy that nobody in this business was selfless and genuine. Tos had gotten the man arrested only to help his own cause as a restaurateur and also to satisfy his own ego since Chef Paul had turned Tos down, which is not something that he is used to. Similarly, Tone also seems to have helped Tos only to ensure that he would get noticed and be on good terms with the man.
Both this and the realization that she had almost abandoned her family led Aoy to make the decision to turn down the offer made by Tos. While it does seem like a difficult decision to make, it comes very easily to Aoy as she walks back home that night, looking at common people enjoying inexpensive delicacies and even those who wait for someone to provide them with just the basics. It is now clear to her that food and the practice of eating can be looked at from two very different perspectives depending on one’s social status. While on the one hand, there is elitism and exclusivity with regard to culinary experiences, on the other, there is the simple, pure pleasure that any food made with love can provide to the consumer. Having always been a believer in good food made with love, Aoy decides to leave the cutthroat world of exclusive restaurants, which is really a business more than any genuine act and return to her family to revive their small but sincere eatery.