Thursday, March 12, 2009

Please Sir, I Wanted Something More

In most fields of endeavour there are people who inspire awe, fear, anger, and tremendous respect. In the field of food and restaurants, Marco Pierre White is one of those people. He trained some of the great chefs of the world including both Mario Batali and Gordon Ramsay. White's behaviour in the kitchen is legendary: he once made Gordon Ramsay cry after the young chef made a mistake and White shouted at him (White on the incident: "I did not make Gordon cry. He chose to cry."); when a young chef complained about the heat in the kitchen, White cut open the back of his chef's jacket and pants with a sharp paring knife; and he once hung a young assistant from a hook by the man's apron strings. Certainly Anthony Bourdain holds White the chef in high regard, certainly in higher regard than he does Gordon Ramsay on Hell's Kitchen (click on "more" to get Bourdain's opinion of both men). But of course what we're talking about here is White the TV personality, or more importantly the TV show that White is fronting on NBC, The Chopping Block.

Sadly my reaction to the two are vastly different. I like White as a TV persona (but more on that later) but the show is an entirely different beast. And since we're doing TV criticism here, that's got to be our focus here.

The problem with The Chopping Block as a TV show is that it bears a stunning but unsurprising resemblance to that old favourite, The Apprentice. It's unsurprising of course because the base of so many different shows has been The Apprentice. In this particular case the sixteen people – this time it's eight couples with a pre-existing relationship, whether it's friends, siblings, husbands and wives, and in one case a couple who used to be married (the husband says that the business part of their relationship was better than the marriage part) – are split into two teams of four couples each, the Red Team and the Black Team. Half of each couple will work front of the house and have will work in the kitchen. They are then given two restaurants – or rather two wrecks of restaurants – that they have to stock with equipment and make safe from the health inspectors. White has a couple of challenges for them before the opening of the restaurants. The first is to give each team two truckloads of supplies. They can keep what they unload. According to White this will show if the teams have any sense of strategy when it comes to menus and such and whether they can "shop smart." Apparently the answer is disgusting to White: none of these people has any sense of a strategic vision for their restaurants at all. Maybe the fact that they've only met a couple of days before might – just might – have something to do with the lack of coordination; they don't know each other's strengths yet.

The second challenge is something familiar to anyone who has ever watched an episode of Hell's Kitchen, the signature dish cook-off. The cooking half of each team is given a period of time to produce a signature dish. The Black Team has an amazing series of mishaps occurring, apparently, one right after the other; the Salamander broiler suddenly drops off the wall onto the cook top, one part of the glass door on the regular oven explodes, and the electricity suddenly goes off. This should probably be a warning for the Black Team, but they just don't know it yet. Once the dishes are completed they are sampled by Chef White to determine which chef on each team will be the head chef for their restaurant for this episode. Inevitably there are dishes on both teams that White finds to be horrible and several others that he finds to be quite good. Actually on the Black Team there are three very good dishes, though heaven forbid that White recognize one of the American classics – Jambalaya – as being worthy of being served in a restaurant that he had anything to do with; at home it may be great but not >arrogant sniff< in a restaurant. One of the chefs on Black Team cooks Salmon in a Beurre Blanc Sauce that White loves while another does a Chicken Florentine with way too much stuff on it. Of course he chose the Chicken – once he cleared the excess salad off of course – because it's a nice dish with simple flavours. Over on the Red Team side he finds one dish, Chicken with Risotto from one of the female chefs bland, and of course if the food is bland the cook is bland too. Instead he chose a Veal Chop prepared by a female chef, apparently because everyone likes a Veal Chop in a restaurant. This sort of judgement makes you want to shake your head.

The next day the teams have just seven hours to get their restaurants set up, from setting up the tables and chairs (and figuring out where they should be) to taking delivery of their drinks, and actual prep work. The teams are impressed with themselves for taking their ramshackle establishments from empty hulks to places that don't look half bad in just seven hours, but as Chef White points out in one of his one-on-one conversations with the camera, "Time Is money." The next thing – the big challenge of the night – is the opening and operation of the restaurants. Needless to say things don't move smoothly. Front of the house doesn't do a great job of communicating with the kitchen and vice versa. It's the usual set of problems seen on just about every episode off Kitchen Nightmares on both sides of the Atlantic; the wait staff doesn't record the tables on the tickets, they're slow in picking up the completed orders, then they get mad at the kitchen when the food is either cold or not ready when they want it. In his brief visit to the Red Kitchen White observes this and tells Lisa, the head chef, to take one of the orders out herself to shame the front of house people into being more efficient. Over in the Black Restaurant Angie, one of the chef's but not the head chef, tried the same trick, only to be told off by the waiter she was trying to get through to, for embarrassing him. This happened while the server was giving his life story to the patrons at the table he was working at. But as we'll see the kitchens in both restaurants aren't entirely perfect either

Judgement between the two teams for each week's service was in the hands of a restaurant critic. His first stop was the Black Restaurant and it was then that I realized that this guy was an absolute snob. His server was Xan (brother of head chef Than; heaven knows what their parents were thinking when they gave their sons names like that) who made the mistake of pronouncing the word "claret" as "clar-ray." Once Xan had gone with their order, the critic immediately told the rest of his party that "the word is pronounced "claret" not "clar-ray"). Personally I would have been more upset with the fact that my server was recommending a wine that he personally hadn't tried. The critic ordered the crab cake as his appetizer. This was the specialty of Khoa who had one of the two best dishes in the head chef competition. Next he had the chicken prepared by Than. The dish was cold and worse, when he cut into it, found that it was pink and oozing a little blood near the bone. Not good performance.

When the critic went to the Red Restaurant he found more to be disappointed with and more to make me think that he was a bloody snob. The restaurant was packed, with people standing at the bar. The camera was quick to point out that there was an empty four top in the restaurant, and it seemed clear that the critic expected to get it. Two things were apparent to observant viewers; the table wasn't set yet, and there were people waiting to be seated ahead of the critic and his party. Eventually they were seated and the critic's party ordered their meal. There was a minor problem, or at least it would probably be a minor problem to anyone who wasn't a restaurant critic. Filet Mignon was listed on the menu but it had proven so popular with the patrons who weren't restaurant critics that there was none left. As the critic's waitress said the only way he'd be able to have any sense of what the Filet was like would be to go out and smell the breath of someone who had eaten one. He had to settle for the Salmon with Beurre Blanc Sauce, which he loved. He was less happy with the desert, Black and White Chocolate Truffles. They were hard – which was a legitimate complaint – and showed that there was no pastry chef – which was not.

It was the critic's job to determine which team would win the evening's contest and which would be forced to send one partnership home. But before that he gave some criticism of the meals. When talking of the Red Team's meal he mentioned the Salmon with Beurre Blanc sauce. He mentioned that he had specifically ordered the sauce to be served separately from the Salmon. He found the fish alone to be rather bland but when he dipped it in the sauce it came alive. Here's a clue pal; the reason they call it Salmon with Beurre Blanc Sauce is that the Salmon is meant to be eaten with the Beurre Blanc Sauce. He didn't like the Truffles, which he mentioned again was an unimaginative choice and were impossible to eat because they were too hard. But it was the Black team that came in for the most criticism, and which lost in the end, entirely because of the underdone chicken. It was left to White to decide which partnership from the Black Team would be going home.

It shouldn't have been a big problem. Xan hadn't been that great in the front of the house but Than had been personally responsible for the botched Chicken dish, and as anyone who has seen any Gordon Ramsay series will tell you, undercooked chicken can kill a customer, and Ramsay isn't kidding, it can. Still, things degenerated into a case of he said she said, or in this case they said they said. Xan went after Angie for coming out of the kitchen with the food, an action that Marco seemed to approve of. There was a lot of other discussion about the difficulties that the brothers had in working with Angie. Still it was rapidly becoming clear that the team that would be going home would be Xan and Than until...

Until Khoa spoke up. He didn't like the atmosphere on the show, hadn't been expecting the fighting and backbiting, and so had decided that he and his sister Denise wanted out of the competition. Amazingly White accepted their resignation, and told the others that they owed Khoa and Denise their respect. He also told Xan and Than point blank that if it weren't for Khoa taking that course they would have been out on their ears. Ramsay wouldn't have given Khoa and Denise the chance to quit, or if he did would have put Xan and Than out after them. He would have asked them who was responsible for the undercooked chicken and fired Xan and Than without any discussion.

Marco Pierre White has a pretty good TV presence. Anthony Bourdain refers to White as being much like Michael Corleone from the Godfather films. He says, "Marco can walk into a room full of strangers and bark out a command, and everyone would do it, no matter what he asked. He's got a real commanding presence. He's physically imposing; he looks like a Venetian prince. He's just somebody born to authority." That comes out quite clearly in those times when he's on screen. He does have a quiet, commanding presence that means that you pay attention to him. He rumbles in a quiet sort of way that makes it obvious that you don't want to be on the receiving end of his anger. The problem is that he doesn't spend any great length of time on camera. There's no real opportunity for him to bark out a command and see others race to do whatever is asked. That's the problem with the Apprentice format; the person who decides on the winner isn't present. That's what makes Hell's Kitchen work as a show. Ramsay is always on screen and the force of his personality is as much an attraction – maybe more of an attraction – as the competitors on the show, who are described by Bourdain as "a bunch of dimwits – the lame, the halt and the delusional.... None of these idiots would be qualified to work a Fryolator at a Chuck E. Cheese much less ever work in any Gordon Ramsay restaurant." I retain my own opinion on the quality of competitors on Hell's Kitchen but I don't think it's wrong to say that I would really like more of a chance to see White's personality in action than is seen on this show.

The Apprentice format – select a team leader, complete a project set by the nominal "boss" of the show who only makes a brief appearance while sending others to evaluate the team performance, select a losing team and get rid of one member from that losing team – is a well worn one. For a while it seemed like every other reality-competition show was using that format, and the only show that took it, twisted it around and made it suit the individual around whom it was built was Hell's Kitchen. Virtually all of those shows died because they weren't different enough from the original Apprentice to stand out. This series was no different from those imitators which is a pity because there are a lot of directions that a show like this could go in. The easiest might have been to use the model of the British series Last Restaurant Standing, where the individual partnerships compete individually, with their own individual visions of what their dream restaurant would be. There are other formats that would work and would showcase White and his commanding personality better. As it stands however, NBC has produced yet another imitation Apprentice and as a result is wasting the new show's only bankable commodity, Marco Pierre White. He and the viewers – for different reasons – deserve better than this.

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