Art Imitates Chef

British Actor Lenny Henry Cooks in Restaurant Sitcom

Most patrons of fine dining establishments have no concept of what transpires in restaurant kitchens. Chefs in pristine whites may greet devoted fans in the dining room, but rarely are civilians invited into the inner sanctum where fragrant stockpots boil, saute pans sizzle, and tempers are known to flare. Even the most avid foodies never get a glimpse of the hard, hot, backbreaking work, the intense stress, or the prevailing camaraderie experienced by a kitchen team. It's doubtful that the epicurean tucking into a fabulous turkey dinner special at the table by the window has any idea what indignities the chef had to suffer in order to secure the best quality organically raised turkeys for the feast... only to have the majority of the dining room reserved by vegetarians.

Surfing television channels late one Sunday night last year, I happened upon a program with a handsome black man in chef's whites basting his kitchen staff with withering, literate insults, addressing waiters as "morons" to their faces, and arguing with the proprietor about food costs. To someone who spent her entire adult life in professional kitchens, it all seemed hauntingly, hilariously familiar. Aside from the fact that the conversations were laced with British slang rather than crude American obscenities, it could have been any hotel kitchen in my past. No, this program was no outtake from the Television Food Network (TVFN), it was an imported sitcom called Chef!, produced by England's Crucial Films for the BBC and available to American audiences on PBS. And I became an immediate fan.

Chef! stars British comedy superstar Lenny Henry as the mercurial Gareth Blackstock, chef de cuisine at the fictitious two-Michelen star Le Chateau Anglaise, supposedly located in the English countryside west of London. During a recent telephone conversation from his English country home, Henry explained where he got the inspiration for the program. While in California in the early Nineties making the American film True Identity (in which he plays an out-of-work actor on the run from the mob) Henry's family sent him magazines from home which contained articles about all the hot, young British chefs at the time. "These guys were acting like rock stars, doing outrageous things like throwing people out of restaurants because they asked for salt or used cell phones. The idea of a megalomanic character appealed to me." Seeing the comic possibilities of a chef character, Henry pitched his idea to screenwriter Peter Tilbury when he returned to England and the research began just where you'd expect it to -- in a real restaurant kitchen.

Not in just any kitchen, either, but in the workspace of one of England's top dining establishments -- L'Ortolan, a two-star restaurant near Reading, west of London. Chef/owner John Burton-Race became a key contributor to the project. Tilbury spent some time interviewing Burton-Race about his experiences as an apprentice in hotel kitchens, the years he spent as sous-chef to the legendary Raymond Blanc, and the trials and tribulations that might be experienced at a chef-owned restaurant. Tilbury was then able to exaggerate these situations for use in his scripts -- escaped crawfish, errant finger bandages, wrangles with health inspectors, unpasteurized cheese police -- inflicting the incidents on the high-strung Gareth Blackstock with hilarious effect. "Looking for bank financing wasn't funny when it happened to me," recalled Burton-Race, ruefully, "but Peter took everything I gave him and made something funny out of it." Burton-Race also serves as consultant to the program, reviewing for accuracy any portions of the scripts that dealt with food or wine.

"The idea of a megalomaniac character appealed to me."
Fortunately, Lenny Henry was already well acquainted with Burton-Race when the research began because L'Ortolan is located just down the road from his home. "It's great. Down one road from our house there's your basic pub grub, walk a bit in the other direction and there's some of the best food in England. I was going to do some serious method acting, you see," he recalls with a tinge of self-deprecation, "So I arrived there one morning at 8:30 to observe, completely oblivious to the fact that they'd been going since 7am. I just thought I'd watch, sort of take it all in, but John said I'd need to practice my knife skills in order to really look authentic. He wasn't going to tolerate any standing around. He put me right to work." For three months before filming began, Henry spent mornings skinning rabbits, cutting meat, making sauces -- in essence taking a genuine culinary crash course in the L'Ortolan kitchen. He also learned something about the dynamic of professional kitchens. "John is Elvis," he explained, "he's the main attraction but his kitchen, his show, can only be as strong as the weakest link."

While the show was busy establishing its foundation in realism, Henry had definite ideas about the lead character. "Gareth was created to say, wouldn't it be great to have a black guy running his own restaurant, being very successful. That's why we gave him the two stars," Henry adds. "He's talented, accomplished, and articulate but still very much a human being. I mean, he's got a wife who's smarter than he is and he's having these nervous breakdowns all the time." Depicting a kitchen with a racially balanced staff was also important to Henry because at the outset he hadn't seen any press coverage about young black chefs. After the show first appeared in England, though, he did find out that French chef Albert Roux, who played himself in a cameo appearance the first season, presides over a racially mixed kitchen including some young, black sous chefs-in-training, a paradigm that has been successfully translated in Chef!

Surrounding the volatile Gareth with a talented supporting cast to provoke his silly tirades and absorb the abuse enables the show to make fun of classic stereotypes as well as to find the humor in discounting them. The multi-racial staff over which chef Blackstock presides experiences turnover from year to year as any real kitchen would. There's a blissed-out American pot head, a spoiled English aristocrat who arrives for work in the family "Roller," and an Asian woman named Debra with a working class accent and recurrent boyfriend troubles. Roger Griffiths plays Gareth's childhood school chum and favorite scapegoat, Everton, the kitchen apprentice whose West Indian family runs a Jamaican take-out shop. Griffiths is the one member of the cast who actually had some restaurant experience to his credit before the show began. In one episode, Everton is brow beaten for accidently making soup with the "washing up water," and losing Band-Aids in the soufflé. But he's the only one who can help Gareth produce real Jamaican food to impress his mean-spirited father. The crusty recovering alcoholic chef Gustave LaRoche is played by Ian McNeese, a portrayal that earned the British character actor such rave notices that Hollywood film work beckoned and the part had to be recast for the third season. The gifted but misanthropic Gustave is actually a Brit, but he's a throwback to the days when chefs had to have French names for credibility and women weren't welcome in professional kitchens.

Women are very much in evidence in Gareth Blackstock's kitchen, however, and his wife Janice -- a beautiful, whip-smart BUPpie played by Caroline Lee Johnson -- is a supporting character in the true sense of the term; there's no doubt she's the temperamental chef de cuisine's better half. She's also his business partner. Janice proudly proclaims that her goals are to have a lovely cottage, an E-Type Jag, and a husband who will "roger me senseless every night." She sacrifices all those things to help Gareth achieve their dream of owning Le Chateau. Reliance on strong, smart female characters gives the program yet another layer of credibility. During the first season, quiet little red-headed Lucinda blossoms into a tough and able task-master when promoted to sous chef. Series three brings a capable yet obnoxious American sous chef, Savannah, who annoys everyone by dropping names of stars she'd cooked for in L.A. Even the other woman who attracts Gareth during his separation from Janice is a cousin of Everton's who is an accomplished fast-food restaurant mogul. Perhaps Henry is so comfortable -- both in and out of character -- with smart women in responsible positions because he's married to one of the smartest, most accomplished women in the British entertainment world, comedy writer/producer/actress Dawn French, one of the creators of the wildly popular British series Absolutely Fabulous. But whether the casting of Chef! actually mirrors Henry's life or not, the role that talented casting plays in the success of the show is evident, from the featured actors right down to the ever-changing bit players.

The kitchen and dining room of the Chateau Anglaise is regularly augmented with assorted journalists, bank loan officers, poaching policemen, and Gareth's wicked West Indian father, all tormenting the chef into fits. Unfortunately, Creator Peter Tilbury moved on to other writing projects after the second year and the writing seemed to lose some of its sting as a result. Though the third series of shows is still funny, the focus is more often outside the restaurant kitchen, dealing with Le Chateau's crass new owner, Cyril, and the relationship problems of the main characters. There's probably plenty of working chefs and restaurateurs who wouldn't secretly like to relieve some of the stress of the restaurant business by erupting at a loan officer or health inspector with Gareth's wit and vitriol. It could be the vicarious pleasure of seeing someone else do those things that endears his character to food professionals.

By their very nature, the best situation comedies create a little universe rife with humorous possibilities and exploit them for all they're worth, and Gareth Blackstock's microcosm is the geniune article.

Unfortunately for avid fans, the third season of Chef!, culminating with the reunion of Gareth and Janice, is almost surely the show's last. "We've just about exhausted the premise, as far as I can see," Henry says. Television production in England differs greatly from America in that each series (season) usually only consists of six or seven shows, rather than the 22 episodes ordered for successful American sitcoms; Henry points out that there are only a total of 20 Fawlty Towers episodes and about that same number of Absolutely Fabulous. So it is highly likely there will be only 19 episodes of the outrageous exploits of chef Gareth Blackstock, but these will continue to be shown on PBS in this country for quite some time. Adaptations of British comedies have proven to be very popular with American TV audiences over the years, All in the Family and Sanford and Son most notable among them, and Henry admits that there has been strong interest from Hollywood about re-creating Chef! with an American cast, though there are no signed deals thus far. Gareth's American counterpart could suffer posh society types at charity events, greet fans at book signings, and make a fool of himself doing cooking demonstrations on TVFN or David Letterman. With the American foodie trend on the uprise, the possibilities for satire are endless.

Though it may be a while before someone brings a version of Gareth Blackstock to network TV, his creator is busier than ever. Lenny is proud of heading up the British version of Comic Relief that raised £112 million last year. His production company creates projects with black and Asian writers called "Crucial Tales" and produces documentaries on subjects as diverse as emerging nations in Africa and homelessness in England. Henry, who began his career as a stand-up comic, continues to perform a stand-up act and has a new television series in development for himself in England. Still, the actor/comedian maintains an interest in doing more film work in America, too.

But both home and abroad, the restaurant community's reaction to Chef! is a thumbs up, not only because it's funny, but there is also a high appreciation of the authenticity of the show. Henry says that while the first 12 shows were on the air in England, he could tell that chefs and restaurateurs were watching. "When we'd eat out, I got everything on the menu except what I'd ordered. It was, `Lenny, try this, tell me what you think, check this out,'" he remembered with a laugh. "I was just looking for an audience who appreciated comedy."

Where this particular program is concerned, I think they are one in the same. The makers of Chef! went mining for comedy and unexpectedly struck an incredibly rich vein of support among chefs and food lovers. By their very nature, the best situation comedies create a little universe rife with humorous possibilities and exploit them for all they're worth, and Gareth Blackstock's microcosm is the genuine article. Tilbury's writing is literate, witty, and nimble. Henry's delivery and comedy timing are impeccable. And hilarity is only the by-product of the dead-on authenticity of the situation. Food lovers who tune into Chef! may eat their next restaurant meal with pause to consider just what calamity put the daily special on the menu.

Chef! can be seen on KLRU-TV (channel 18) on Saturday nights at 10:30pm and on Sunday nights at 11:30pm.

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