Why Are Chef Movies and Shows All So Terrible?
I can forgive the Bradley Cooper movie Burnt for many of its sins: its belief that you can shuck a million oysters in three years; its warped understanding of the Michelin star system; and Cooper's protagonist, a man prone to sticking his finger in sauces, saying things like, "I want to make food that makes people stop eating" and "We should be dealing in culinary orgasms," being sexually ambivalent to Uma Thurman, and attempting suicide using a sous-vide bag.
All of that I'm willing to forgive. But not the leather jacket.
I get it. Cooper is supposed to be a bad boy. A rebel. A person who enjoys wearing calfskin in the steam room that is summertime in New Orleans. Plus he's got a motorcycle, so he can't exactly go around wearing a Saints windbreaker. Not safely anyway. But why, in a movie purporting to take the restaurant industry seriously, do they resort to that sort of lazy cliche to characterize the main guy?
At a loss, I called my buddy Sam, who has spent years working in every capacity in Michelin-starred restaurants. "What's the deal?" I asked him. "Do good chefs just wear leather jackets or what?" Sam didn't even acknowledge my question. Instead, he said, "You gotta stop watching all those shitty chef movies."
Sam could have saved some time and just said stop watching chef movies. Because they're all shitty. The American ones, at least. Outside of one incredible animated kids movie about a rat controlling a human chef by pulling on his hair, a handful of independent films, and some foreign stuff, chef movies are the absolute worst -- cliché-filled, inaccurate, yet somehow boring, to boot. Fictional TV shows about chefs are no better, and may even be worse.
But why? There is absolutely no reason for it. We're currently in the middle of the Good Food Revival Movement, a period of cultural mania in which chefs are deified to an unprecedented degree. At the same time, we've hit "peak TV" -- the combination of more outlets and more quality content being produced than ever before. Television even helped bring about this historical moment, following the successes of the Food Network, Top Chef, Netflix's Chef's Table series, and Anthony Bourdain's entire documentary travel-eating oeuvre. Those shows, along with feature-length documentaries like Jiro Dreams of Sushi and City of Gold, have been good. Some have even been great.
So it seems like it would only be natural for there to be a wave of great fictional stories about the restaurant industry -- smart and thoughtful fare showcasing the natural drama of a place filled with colorful characters, sharp knives, food porn, drinking, drug use, and casual sex in walk-ins. There are class tensions, ethnic tensions, front- vs. back-of-the-house tensions, chef/cook-hierarchy tensions, and many other dramatic things going on not involving the word "tension." You don't even have to make that much shit up. It really happens.
Yet, somehow, the films and television shows that try and capture this compelling section of the American working experience all fail miserably. And I should know. I have watched them all.
Here are just a few of the terrible chef things I've watched
I've watched No Reservations, a 2007 romantic comedy that just happens to take place in a kitchen, as if the writers picked the setting out of a hat. I have no problem with the girl from Little Miss Sunshine wandering around a professional kitchen with a crazy-sharp giant knife looking for basil to chop poorly, and trying to play Parent Trap with Aaron Eckhart and Catherine Zeta-Jones. But just try to get through Zeta-Jones telling her therapist that she wishes "there was a cookbook for life," only to be told, "it's the recipes that you create yourself that're the best," without clawing out your eyeballs.
I've watched The Hundred-Foot Journey, a glossy, Oprah-approved red herring from 2014. It's actually a trite, predictable Hallmark card of a film propped up by aesthetically pleasing shots of Indian and French foods and the glorious French countryside that makes you believe you are tackling Serious Issues with its declarations about ethnicity and food-triggered memories. It's a cardboard platitude about the ups and downs of understanding different cultures after cars have mechanical trouble.
I've watched AMC's Feed the Beast, the television version of a multiple-car accident between Vinyl, The Shield, and an extremely long advertisement for a fake farm-to-table restaurant run by white people in the Bronx. Mobsters and people of color occasionally show up and take out teeth or have casual sex. But by far the best parts involve David Schwimmer drinking wine and saying, "Now we nose the wine. That's wine jargon."
I've watched AMC's "Feed the Beast," the television version of a multiple-car accident between "Vinyl," "The Shield," and an extremely long advertisement for a fake farm-to-table restaurant run by white people in the Bronx.
I've also watched the restaurant subplot featuring Kim Dickens in the HBO series Treme. The first season of the David Simon show is actually quite good, showing her struggling with the closing of her small New Orleans restaurant and trying to make things work financially through other avenues. But when she goes to New York and starts working for real chef David Chang and talking with real chef Eric Ripert and throwing drinks on GQ's real buffoon Alan Richman (OK, fine, that was good) and saying things that sound like unfettered David Simon op-eds, things start to unravel. And when Dickens moves back to New Orleans, opens a restaurant, starts doing well because her crawfish ravioli is a hit on Chowhound, then takes the ravioli off the menu to show she doesn’t need financial success because she's an artist, even though she had to close her old place because of a lack of financial success, the whole thing falls apart anew.
All I'll say about Spanglish is that it involves Adam Sandler, and that's actually one of the movie's only bright spots.
And you know how I feel about Burnt.
Some of these shows and movies are just boilerplate templates that use the idea of a chef as a "cool" job. Some claim to be ambitious -- hiring chef consultants and nailing visual details (see: Burnt) -- but muck up the actual, you know, movie parts, and wind up being just as bad as the ones that didn't bother learning the difference between sous-vide and Sue Torres. These movies should be glory-hoarding Oscar bait, or at the very least rollicking fun, but they're not. They're terrible.
So what's the problem?
To answer that, I called some more chefs.
Theory 1: Nobody knows anything
Nguyen Tran is uniquely qualified to help answer my questions. Tran used to work in the film business (mostly on smaller indie films like Thank You for Smoking) before opening an illegal underground restaurant in Los Angeles called Starry Kitchen that he ran out of his apartment with his chef wife (they've since opened the actually legal restaurant/bar arcade Button Mash). When I asked why most of these restaurant movies and shows are so bad, he counseled patience.
"You've got to remember that our idea of romanticizing food in America is still really young," he said. "It's only been happening for maybe the last 10 years. We're the nouveau riche of food understanding, and the storytelling coming out of Hollywood surrounding that topic is going to reflect that."
Simply put, our knowledge base hasn't caught up with our enthusiasm. Europe, Asia, and India have hundreds and hundreds of years of adoring their food and treating it like something more than a commodity or a sustenance necessity. And when that is ingrained in your culture, your art is able to provide a more nuanced portrayal, because the assumption is that everyone watching comes in with certain understanding of what it is and how it works. And so they get films like Denmark's Babette’s Feast, Taiwan's Eat Drink Man Woman, and Japan's Tampopo.
Now, the fact that we're not food- or restaurant-industry experts isn't a deal breaker. Americans are capable of making and watching nuanced portrayals of things we don't intuitively understand. Like the prison system (Orange Is the New Black), the world of a cappella (Pitch Perfect), the New York symphony scene (Mozart in the Jungle), shorting stocks and the hedge-fund world (The Big Short, Billions), being from Chino, CA, but thriving in Orange County by living in the guesthouse of a well-meaning but occasionally bungling family (The O.C.).
The problem is this: we don't know anything, but, thanks to the ubiquity of food media, we think we know everything.
No, the problem is this: we don't know anything, but, thanks to the ubiquity of food media, we think we know everything. Because we like Burmese food and sip bone broth and once Instagrammed a picture pretending to be super invested in beef tongue tacos, we automatically assume expert levels of knowledge. And that happens with studio executives, too, I'd wager.
When you've got a movie about prisons or bog wolves or prisons overrun by bog wolves (don't steal that idea), the studio execs might offer notes about pacing and arc and whether Topher Grace could possibly play one of the wrongfully imprisoned bog wolves, but they'd have trouble weighing in on the actual content. But with a story about a chef or a restaurant, the studio executive will have no problem being like, "I just went to Trois Mec last night and BOTH VINNY AND JON CAME OUT TO THE TABLE AND DAPPED ME. Point being, I'm basically a chef, here are a hundred million notes."
Theory 2: Hollywood fears subtle darkness, banality, and prepping carrots for hours
Roy Choi, who worked as a consultant and producer on the 2014 indie darling Chef, has a different theory as to why the big-studio offerings are so bad. "Maybe [filmmakers/producers] don't value the nuance as much as the idea of it," he said. "The flame in the pan is nothing without the hours of mise en place and teamwork and little things that lead up to it. Feel me?"
I do feel Choi -- the man basically invented Korean tacos and singlehandedly made food trucks cool. And he's got a point: right now we just happen to live in this era of romanticizing and glorifying and extolling and all these other verb-ings the chef world, when an honest appraisal of the profession shows that it is, as my chef-buddy Sam put it, "blue-collar work that's dirty and messy and somewhat fucked and depressing, but kind of beautiful, too."
Tran summed up that frame of mind with an anecdote about working in his food truck at Coachella. "I can hear Ice Cube reverberating outside and fans losing their shit," he said, "but meanwhile I'm squatting in a cold truck cutting boxes of tofu and I'm thinking, I've been in The New Yorker and the New York Times but none of that matters, because I'm always just going to be an Asian dude squatting over these tofu boxes. This is my life.'"
Tran laughed. "I literally almost cried. I just don't think people realize that being a chef gets very dark, but no one in America wants to put that type of subtle darkness on the screen."
So instead we get Bradley Cooper sticking his head into a sous-vide bag and then not finishing the job. (OK, maybe that would be too dark?)
Theory 3: Fat-cat, greed-headed moneybags wreck everything
Just talking to chefs and restaurant-industry folk about these movies sucking wasn't enough. So I convened a panel (i.e., texted three restaurant-industry friends), bribed them with bagels, promised I wouldn't use their last names, and made them spend their off-day watching as many chef and restaurant films and TV shows as I could find.
The assembled crew had a collective 40 years of every form of service-industry experience -- hostess, cook, server, bartender, sommelier, general manager -- across all spectrum of places, ranging from two-starred Michelin joints and Bon Appetit Best New Restaurants of the Year to dive bars and "literal crapholes."
Over the course of many hours, we went through half a dozen recent films and shows. At one point, Sam got into a discussion with Sarah, a San Francisco restaurant manager, about how many people in the industry laud Anthony Bourdain's original book Kitchen Confidential. About how everyone liked him because he seemed to be the first person to publicly tell the unvarnished truth. About how you watch his various documentary series and you're like, "This guy is compelling and makes me feel good about myself via his honest takes on American and foreign places and foods."
But then we watched FOX's 2005 sitcom adaptation of Kitchen Confidential (starring a young Bradley Cooper!) on YouTube and it was like seeing a garbage truck get struck by an RPG filled with horribleness and pain. The difference between the nonfiction and the fiction is so stark and embarrassing that it's almost impressive.
But how does that happen? I wondered aloud. How is it that even Bourdain's foray into fiction was such a clusterfuck? "Money," Sarah said. "It's got to be money. The studios all have shit-tons of money, so they just dump that in someone like Bourdain or Rocco whatever-his-name's lap and then make a watered-down final project with an ultimate goal of not pissing anyone off rather than trying to entertain and tell a story."
Sam agreed. "When he's actually on camera, he's going to fight for his vision, because that's his reputation, right? When it's just someone else playing him, he can say to his buddies, 'Yeah, I know it's shit, but they paid me $500k and I don't have to do anything, so shut up. And the reality is, most chefs are broke, and so they probably need that money. And if they're not broke, it's likely because they already sold out in some other way, by opening something in Vegas, or Asia, or peddling a line of crap products with their faces on them."
So what have we learned here? That our mass glorification of food culture is so new in the context of the global food world that our films and TV shows can't help but reflect that by glamorizing the industry and overlooking the small details? That actually being a chef can get pretty dark and intense and scary, but that's a hard conceit to sell to a big studio unless it involves attempted sous-vide suicide? (Sousicide? Still too much?!?) That money ruins art? That leather jackets are versatile outerwear for chefs during any season regardless of proximity to the equator?
In trying to answer all of my own rhetorical questions, I thought of something Choi said when I asked about working with Jon Favreau on Chef. He said that he knew he wanted to work with him because after they hung out, it became clear that Favreau "cared about the little things." And maybe that's it -- maybe Hollywood struggles depicting chefs because cooking is, in essence, a series of very small things -- bits of food, precise cuts and movements, subtle techniques. The actual tasks involved are all small, and Hollywood hates small, because it believes audiences lack the attention span and sophistication to follow along without erupting into one huge overweight frustration-tantrum and never going to the movies again.
And then, at last: relief
It only seemed fitting that the final film I put on for the industry folk was Chef, and for the first time all day, they are silent and engaged. During the original conversation between the owner, played by Dustin Hoffman, and Favreau, the chef, I saw several of them nodding. "This owner-chef thing, this exists," said Sam. "I've seen this conversation."
Minutes later, when it became clear that hostess Scarlett Johansson and Favreau were hooking up, there were more nods. "Oh, this happens all the time," said Sarah. "Super-hot, way out-of-his-league hostess sleeping with the old and chubby chef. Classic move."
My optimism grew with each silent nod. But just as I wrote in my notes, "it seems like everyone is very invested," Favreau quits the kitchen and goes on the road with his son and buddy, interest dies, and sarcastic side banter resumes.
Also, people started getting ready to go to their own restaurants. As Sam prepared to leave, he grabbed an extra bagel off the counter and studied it suspiciously. When I asked his final thoughts, they were tempered. "I mean, for 20 minutes in the kitchen, they were getting things right," he allowed tentatively, stuffing a hunk of bagel in his mouth. "Just imagine if someone figures out how to do it for a whole movie."
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