"Please re-arrange the contents of this plate so that someone in the latest stages of malnutrition will at least take a passing interest in it."
Chef! was a BBC sitcom starring Lenny Henry in the title role. It aired for three seasons (1993-6) and subsequently was released on DVD (2005), attracting a bit of a cult audience, particularly in the United States, where it had aired as one of the "britcoms" on PBS around 2000. It was based on an idea by Henry himself, who also produced the series. Henry already was a pretty accomplished comedian before this show was made but Chef! introduced him to new audiences.
Gourmet chef Gareth Blackstock is the master of the kitchen at the very, very fancy Le Chateau Anglais in the idyllic English countryside. Not a whole lot of things in the world of haute cuisine advertise themselves as "anglais" but this one suffers from the additional handicap of atrocious management. When we join the cast, the restaurant's fortunes are in inverse proportion to Blackstock's skill as a chef but in direct proportion to his temper and attitude.
The heart of the show is precisely this temperament. Blackstock is a total caricature of an accomplished Michelin-star cook. He is an egotistical, self-centred, arrogant sod whose main contribution to the discourse involves dispensing streams of highly graphic and imaginative invective, usually in the not-so-general direction of his kitchen staff. An ominous pause in the action is a sure sign that a tirade of red-hot, spit-spraying rage is not far away. Gordon Ramsay, eat your heart out.
Despite the tyrannical nature of the protagonist, or precisely because of it, Henry makes a truly great straight man as the self-perceived victim of virtually every situation that can go wrong in a kitchen that holds itself to high standards, whether it be waste, sommeliers, or health inspectors. Or customers. Especially customers. In fact most of Blackstock's problems have a lot to do with other people.
"Four Partridge. One well done. Debra, ruin a partridge for me please. Dry it out, destroy its texture, spoil its taste. Wantonly cast its very partridgeness to the four winds to satisfy this barbarian, this Visigoth, this Viking who has presumably ordered it because the knowledge that I am weeping in the kitchen brings him pleasure."
It's not the words but the delivery that makes one hoot or cringe as Blackstock shares his wit and wisdom with an unwilling world. The rest of the cast is just as good. Janice Blackstock (Caroline Lee-Johnson) is Gareth's long-suffering, business-savvy (and hot, oh my) wife who gave up her job in the City but has not lost any of the steel. Everton Stonehead (Roger Griffiths) is Gareth's childhood acquaintance who wangles a job out of him despite being good at little more than plebeian Jamaican cooking. He is at least half as inept as his boss makes him out to be. The series changed sous chefs almost every season but there was always a capable comic actor like Claire Skinner in the position.
Few characters made it through the whole series so the stormy relationship between Gareth and Janice often had to make up for the lack of continuity and always served to add a human dimension to the monster in the kitchen. The second lasting relationship in the series was the well scripted and well executed double act of Gareth and Everton. A predictable series of kitchen hands, commis, French waiters, and idiots (though all the former were synonymous with the latter in Blackstock's worldview) passed through the series and generally fit well into the storylines. The strength of Chef! was generally in Henry's delivery and in its ability to make the best of the available personnel.
The verdict: Highly recommended viewing. This is one of the funniest products of British comedy in the last 25 years.
"Me, my single aim in life is to send the finest, best presented food through that door there. That’s it! And if it’s at the cost of a few human lives, well, that’s fine by me."