One Toque Over the Line

Not long ago, a catalogue arrived at my home called Signals: A Catalog for Fans and Friends of Public Television. Among its wares is a variety of merchandising derived from trendy PBS shows. It offers Are You Being Served? videos, a Keeping Up Appearances etiquette book, a replica of Mr. Bean's teddy, even a Wallace and Grommit talking alarm clock. But it does not offer a single item from my favorite of current TV sitcoms, a BBC import called Chef!. It plays--and long may it continue--Saturday nights at 10 on KAET-TV Channel 8.

Where is the Chef! cult? Why aren't both foodies and lovers of brilliant verbal comedy abuzz over the show? Why aren't people wearing tee shirts--or, better yet, aprons--emblazoned with the image of the title character, master chef Gareth Blackstock? Why does KAET persist in yanking it off the schedule in favor of Riverdance and the like during its frequent subscription wheedles? Why aren't people having Chef! parties, in which they gather around a gourmet meal while they watch? And if they are, why haven't I been invited?

I've run across a number of people who know the show and like it, but, apart from my wife, I've only met one other true junkie--a friend who came near to threatening me with violence if I didn't watch it. I was highly dubious of the show's chances with me. The antics of a tyrannical, egomaniacal chef du cuisine at a posh French restaurant in provincial England sounded like the sort of yuppie bait that has made me, I must confess, a bit of a reverse elitist where Brit TV is concerned, the glorious Monty Python's Flying Circus always excepted, of course.

How wrong I was. The best half-hours of Chef! are as elegantly conceived and expertly executed as a dish from Gareth's kitchen at Le Chateau Anglais in Oxfordshire. Lenny Henry, who plays Gareth, is little-known here--his only American film, a fairly weak farce called True Identity, was a bomb--but he's a major comedian in the UK, and Gareth Blackstock is the role of his career.

Gareth's temper is the key to what makes the character so funny, and, I suspect, so recognizable to those in the upscale-restaurant world. He's readily acknowledged--most readily by himself--as certainly the greatest chef in Britain, possibly the greatest chef in the world. But being in the presence of such greatness comes at a price. As Lola (Elizabeth Bennett), Le Chateau's ever-diplomatic maitre d', tells a customer, "You must try and look upon him more as an artist than as a rude, arrogant, insufferable, overbearing megalomaniac." Gareth has just finished ranting at this diner for having the temerity to ask

for the salt before even sampling the dish he's been brought.
Blustery rantings--intricate tapestries of hyperbole and invective and rodomontade and ultimatum and mordant, blistering sarcasm--are Gareth's favored mode of communication, and the only art at which he may be more gifted than cooking. Some brief samples:

* To a kitchen helper, on the cleanliness of his work space: "I took one look at your section as I came in, and all your past life flashed before my eyes. Please remove the maggots, the rat carcasses and the corpses of shocked health inspectors and render the place fit for the preparation of sodding food. Anyone seen the film Alien? This kitchen is like the place where they found the egg."

* To his sommelier, on the natural order: "There's the aristocracy, the upper class, working class, dumb animals, waiters, creeping things, head lice, people who eat packet soups, and then you."

* On a wine's bouquet: "This smells like the interior of a Datsun minicab. It doesn't promise, it threatens."

* On his chef's hat: "I have adorned myself with the culinary condom."
* To his kitchen staffers, on the level of their expertise: "Please don't think I mind giving bog-standard, bone-basic pre-nursery-school cooking lessons. I've only got to prepare 90 three-course meals in the next one and a half hours. I was hoping something else would crop up to fill in the time."

With the possible exception of Frasier, any American sitcom which accomplishes this sort of epigrammatic wit even once per episode is having an unusually good week. Yet all of the above examples are drawn from a single first-season episode--last week's, "Beyond the Pass." Although Henry came up with the idea for both the show and the character, the actual scripts are the work of a dazzling writer, Peter Tillbury.

Tillbury is careful to provide glimmers of warmth behind Gareth's mania. Gareth is, for instance, capable of instantly and penitently recanting even his most passionately expressed sentiments and firmly entrenched opinions when challenged by his stunning, even-tempered yet sexually frustrated wife, Janice, wonderfully played by Caroline Lee Johnson.

Yet Gareth's spleen and Janice's unflappability aren't the whole show. Other characters are allowed to shine as well, most important being Everton (Roger Griffiths), Gareth's bumbling apprentice, who's the bane of Gareth's existence and maybe, also, is his conscience. There's Gustav LaRoche (Ian MacNiece), the alcoholic and uncouth, but greatly talented, chef with whom Gareth works--enviously, of one of Gustav's dishes, Gareth remarks: "I've had a lot of things in my mouth. Of the ones you swallow, these are surely the best."

Also at Gareth's side is his assistant, Lucinda, who is not much less obsessive about her work than Gareth, just more pert about it. Lucinda is played by Claire Skinner, who comes to Phoenix this week as Desdemona in the UK/AZ presentation of Othello. (See the listing under Tuesday in Calendar.)

These characters, among others, are featured throughout the first two seasons, of which almost every episode is a delightful, tightly constructed gem. The third season is a bit of a slide; it's shot on badly lighted video rather than film, with a pop score instead of the cool chamber music that accompanies seasons one and two. The verbal wit isn't as sharp; the new characters, like a crass manager from the north of England or a crass female chef from Los Angeles, are broadly played; and MacNiece is replaced as Gustav by a lesser actor named Geoff Nuttol.

Worst of all, Gareth's character is softened up, in a transparent and misguided attempt to make him more likable (he already was). Yet even this watered-down Chef! is preferable to most American sitcoms.

The plots of Chef! explore the demands of restaurant life, and of being a culinary perfectionist. "Beyond the Pass" details the efforts of Gareth and Janice to salvage Le Chateau when it goes into receivership. Upcoming episodes depict such drama as dodging the law to acquire fine ingredients like wild (illegally poached) partridges or "unpasteurized Stilton cheese," or the panicked search for Everton's lost Band-Aid, which may have been cooked into the food somewhere.

In one episode, Gareth, to please his caustic Caribbean father, must sink to the indignity of asking the lowly Everton for help in making island cuisine, at which the apprentice is an expert. And in possibly the best half-hour of the series, Gareth and Everton, sensitive to the sneering hilarity of their French counterparts over the idea of an English gourmet, must hunt for some vin d'Angleterre--English wine--to take to a cooking contest in France.

It may all sound rather precious and snooty, but Tillbury, Henry and the other actors give it surprising pungency. In most American sitcoms--probably in most British ones, too--the workplace setting is usually little more than a hook on which to hang some comic actors. Perhaps what distinguishes Chef!, especially in its first two seasons, is that it's truly about the gourmet business, the thundering egos that work in it, and the scrumptious food that makes up for all. When the customer Gareth has insulted for requesting salt finally takes an (unsalted) bite of his food, the abuse he's suffered is instantly forgotten.

Howard Seftel is on vacation.

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