[Chef Head]Sugar, Spice & Nothing Nice 
by David Okamoto
Originally appeared Dec 19, 1997 in the Dallas Morning News

By David Okamoto (Staff Writer of The Dallas Morning News)

[Chef! Series 3 Promo Picture] At Le Chateau Anglais, the menu is French but the house specialty is mean cuisine.

The fictional British restaurant is the posh setting for the hilarious BBC comedy Chef!, which airs Sundays at 11:30 p.m. and midnight on KERA-TV (Channel 13). The kitchen is ruled by chef Gareth Blackstock, a gastronomical genius with an astronomical ego who bellows at his kitchen staff like a drill sergeant.

To chef Blackstock, waiters are "morons." "Prix fixe" is an expletive. Health inspectors are ridiculed for banning unpasteurized cheese ("That's what cheese is—gone off milk with bugs and mold. That's why it tastes so good"). And any cook who thinks one of his creations is fit for Le Chateau's menu is instantly pounded into his place ("Let me put things in perspective for you—on the evolutionary scale of cooking, I am Einstein . . . and you are a mud dwelling, uni cellular speck of jelly with a predilection for consuming its own excrement").

At its biting best, Chef! is Fawlty Towers meets Big Night. Against a bustling backdrop of rising steam, whisking egg yoLks and sauteing vegetables, Blackstock—craftily portrayed by series creator and stand-up comic Lenny Henry—is relentless in his quest for culinary perfection. His only anchor to reality is his understanding wife, Janice (Caroline Lee Johnson); his only escape valve is a series of spittle launching, spleen-venting tirades so meticulously scripted they make Dennis Miller sound like Mel Tillis.

"This doesn't have a bouquet, it has a smell," Gareth sneers at a quivering wine steward in one episode. "A bouquet has flowery and fruity scents, it promises delights to come. This smells like the interior of a Datsun minivan. It doesn't promise—it threatens."


So does the Blackstock character, at least to some viewers. KERA program director Bill Young says the station received about 200 protest calls after debuting the series in April 1995. Most complained about the show's abrasive tone, although some said "they didn't like the character because he was black" Mr. Young recalls. ". . . We also had a number of people who said tongue-incheek that they didn't like it because they had worked for people like that and they didn't want to relive their former restaurant days."

However, Mr. Young says KERA received the same number of supporting calls from Chef! fans after the show was temporarily replaced by another British sitcom last year. Since being reinstated, Chef! has become one of the station's most popular shows; two episodes air back-to back every Sunday.

One of the reasons for the show's popularity is that each successive episode reveals an endearing, complex character who is driven less by blind rage and more by pride and passion for his art.

Mr. Henry says that even British audiences used to such snide TV loudmouths as Basil Fawlty and Sir Edmund Blackadder took time to embrace Blackstock.

"The big challenge was to convince people thgt this kind of person deserved a place in their hearts just as much as Basil Fawlty or Cliff from Cheers or Mary Tyler Moore," Mr. Henry says by phone from his home near Redding, England, "just by virtue of the fact that here is a perfectionist surrounded by idiots and it's only by his [sense On 'restraint' that he doesn't turn into an ax murderer and kill anybody.

"I'm playing a character that's unlike me in that he's dysfunctional, he's a depressive, he's incredibly obsessional. When I do standup, there's a kind of mixture of verbal acuity and physical stuff, but there's also a buffoonery and silliness that Gareth doesn't have. Gareth is quite a serious person. He says things that are witty and articulate but he really has no idea he's being funny—that's his key. When Gareth is screaming at somebody, 'Are you going to make table seven's gravy or should we just put it in an envelope and mail it on to them?' he's being deadly serious."

Mr. Henry, who rose to fame costarring with Tracey Ullman in the BBC's Three of a Kind and his Lenny Henry Show, got the idea for Chef! in 1990 after reading British newspaper articles about superstar chefs.

"It just seemed to me that the buzz, the sexy thing of the early 90s was cooking, and I thought, 'Wow, none of those guys were black,"' he says.

The BBC commissioned the series and Chef! premiered in 1993 as one of the few British TV series ever to cast a black lead actor. "They really are few and far between and it's a terrible shame," Mr. Henry says, noting that his established celebrity as a comic made it easier for British viewers to accept him. "People saw me as having a broad appeal, so they said, 'It's Lenny being a chef, so that's going to be cool.' I sort of snuck in, really. It meant that I could have, in the second season, myself and [cooks] Everton and Deborah, two black guys and an Asian girl. I wanted it to be multiracial. I didn't want it to be a solely black show."

Drool TV

Among the viewers who gravitated toward Chef! were "foodies" who delighted in the mouth-watering preparation scenes of everything from crayfish to pate de foie gras.

"It captured an entirely strange audience I naver thought I could get," Mr. Henry says. "I did some gigs after I did Chef! and the audience was full of middle-aged, sometimes geriatric middle-class people that you'd never get at a Lenny Henry show in a million years."

To ensure authenticity, the show hired a chef to design Le Chateau's menu and. another to prepare all the dishes for the camera.

"Basically you have to cook stuff that looks great but you can't really eat it because it has to stay under the lights," Mr. Henry says. "Especially when we were filming—the studio was so hot, if you made a real mousse or souffle it would melt in four seconds. So you had to make the thing look beautiful and then kind of fill it with sealing wax or polyfiller or something to withstand the lights."

Adding to the delicious look of the food scenes was the fact that the first 14 shows were shot on film, which resulted in richer colors and a softer look. But it also meant that completing one episode would take up to four weeks of location shooting and another week to rehearse, block and film studio scenes in front of an audience.

"It might look nice, but the aesthetic of it didn't really add up to a simplicity of life," Mr. Henry says.

That's one reason the third season of Chef! —which starts running Feb. 2 on KERA— was shot on video. As a result, the food preparation scenes have been jettisoned. The new season's emphasis is on Gareth and his financial woes, his pending divorce and his relationship with the other characters, including clumsy longtime cook Everton (Roger Griffiths), new American sous chef Savanna (Lorelei King) and Renee (Sophie Walker), the spoiled daughter of the restaurant's new owner.

Stock recluctlon

Aside from the look of the show, the most noticeable change is Gareth's de-fanged personality: His separation from Janice has caused his world to fall apart and his ego to crumble. His famous tantrums have been channeled into broader, more physical comedy that reaches its zenith with the Feb. 16 episode featuring him warbling Nilsson's Without You.

"There are only so many episodes of a show you can do about a chef where the key things are about food," Mr. Henry says. "I suppose if I was starting the series again, I would have made it more character oriented. We did 14 episodes of the best food comedies we could do. I just thought sometimes people have problems understanding the motivation nbehind a character, so let's give them a bit of how the character works this time. So you get Gareth singing, you get him doing big physical stuff because of his emotional state be cause normally he's a very cool guy. In this series, he's quite vulnerable, he's very thinskinned".