Why I’m Optimistic About Hollywood’s Latest Trail in the Professional Kitchen
The Great American Novel has nothing on the Great Accurate Chef Movie. There have been at least a handful of the former but, really, not one of the latter. For generations, those of us fascinated by the professional kitchen have yearned for a movie or television series that presents a classic, live action chef hero or heroine, along with a true-to-life supporting cast of cooks, front-of-house staff, customers, and critics, all in service of a narrative to which the industry serves as background.
Oh, sure, there have been glimpses into the culinary soul: Not surprisingly, in this golden age of television, the small screen has provided a slew of incisive looks at the inner working of Toqueland, with two of the best coming from the good people at Zero Point Zero (Mind of a Chef, parts of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown) and one — Chef’s Table — originating on Netflix. And there have been others: Once upon a time, Marco Pierre White’s BBC series showed chefs on the line, and in dialogue with each other at the table. Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a feature-length documentary, captured the soul of a chef as well as one imagines it’s possible. And Ratatouille evoked some essential truths, but – to be honest – my longing for a chef protagonist wasn’t fully satisfied by an animated rodent.
Inevitably, when filmmakers go for scripted, live-action entertainment set in the pro kitchen, something always gets lost in translation. In far too many television shows and movies, the prep-time banter seems canned; critics come off as Monty Burns-grade caricatures; and diners either swoon absurdly, or complain with all the verisimilitude of community theater scenery-chewers. (I know many readers of this blog loved Chef, but while I think it got certain things right, many of these shortcomings apply.)
Is chaos the problem? A live restaurant has as many moving pieces as a Swiss army knife, all of them interrelated and impacting one another in real time: Cooks might be flowing in perfect synch until, suddenly, an unexpected rush of orders comes pouring out of the POS system, or a cook falls victim to a cut or a burn, throwing things into triage mode for a good forty minutes; the front of the house might be humming along, until a critic darkens the door, sending a ripple of anxiety through the service squad, throwing the kitchen for a loop, and redirecting the attentions of the chef. And those are just two of the endless possible curveballs looming at all times….