Jun 5, 2014

[TV] Kitchen Confidential: Season 1

So I've sort of been immersing myself in all things related to Anthony Bourdain for one reason or another. I've been watching episodes from his various shows and I'm still in the middle of finishing up reading Kitchen Confidential.

So I was kind of surprised that the Kitchen Confidential TV show that I used to see commercials for was in fact based on the same book, even if only loosely. But I had never really paid attention to it before, and thus it slipped past my radar for the most part. But now I've doubled back and have managed to go through the entire series in one fell swoop.

It's a shame that this show got cancelled before it got to fully explore the kind of stories it could tell given its quirky, crazy cast. The show had a lot of things going for it when you really think about it, but at the same time it was still stumbling along with the usual pains of any show in its first season. But you know how the US networks are - you have to win big right out of the gate, or you won't live to race again.

Synopsis: Kitchen Confidential is a US television comedy series based on the book by the same name as written by Anthony Bourdain. The series was created by David Hemingson but it was cancelled before its 5th episode aired. Thankfully it was at least allowed to push through with the 13 episodes already produced.

Jack Bourdain (Bradley Cooper) has had a pretty wild history as a chef, but now he's cleaned up his act, largely thanks to his girlfriend. And looks like his efforts are going to pay off now that he's been offered the position of Executive Chef at Nolita, one of the many restaurants of Pino (Frank Langella). But he only has 48 hours to assemble his crew and re-open the restaurant.

Thus Jack reaches out to all the usual suspects - pastry chef Seth Richman (Nicholas Brendon), seafood chef Teddy Wong (John Cho), and sous chef Steven Daedalus (Owain Yeoman), who is also his best friend and long time partner in crime, so to speak. They also inherit Jim (John Francis Daley), a rookie chef practically fresh out of culinary school. Then there's the staff that man the front of the house including the less than intelligent hostess, Tanya (Jaime King), and Pino's daughter, Mimi (Bonnie Somerville).

It's a little tricky to fully understand how Bourdain's book managed to become translated into this unusual TV show. But if anything, those who have read the book will come to recognize how little stories were developed into full-blown characters and how real people featured in the book also fulfill the same roles in Jack Bourdain's life as in Anthony's. The best example of this without a doubt is the character of Steven - the sous chef who colors most of the stories in the book. And then you get to unexpected characters like Jim, who may be a reflection of Bourdain's younger life while Jack represents the older aspect of himself. Or at least that's my read on things.

The show seemed to start things off by drawing heavily from the book - at least in terms of focusing on the individual characters and trying to better explain to us viewers who they are why Jack hired them for the team or whatever. And of course we have to learn more about Jack himself and appreciate his past excesses and just how important it has been for him to turn a new leaf and become a serious chef for a change. And that's consistent with the tone of the original book.

But at the same time, the show was trapped by two things: the accepted sitcom format that requires each episode to stand on its own two feet, and of course the fact that you can't swear as much on TV as you can in, well, real life. And given that Anthony Bourdain had dedicated an entire chapter of his book to the uniquely vulgar language of the kitchens, things seemed a little too clean and almost too tame at times. Thus the kitchen antics were reduced to more slapstick  moments instead of being able to tap into some of Bourdain's more colorful stories from his life.

Many times, it wasn't too clear to me what they wanted to do with some of the characters. They had no clear plan for their development and growth and thus it wasn't all to clear what motivations and aspirations defined these figures. And given the irony that many of them were sort of based on real people makes it all the more disappointing that the writing felt flat. Sure they had some crazy, entertaining sequences, but then by the next scene we had all moved on.

I enjoyed the show and wouldn't have minded seeing more of the adventures of the Nolita crew. There's a lot more story to be told here and the show just felt like it had so much potential. And given how Cooper's career has rather taken off in recent years, I bet there are some studio executives regretting having not pushed the show a season or two more.

Kitchen Confidential is an interesting side experiment derived from the words of Anthony Bourdain, but I suppose it's not quite the same as featuring him directly. Thus the show gets a decent 3.5 kitchen pranks out of 5.

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