The small screen schedule I
is packed with cookery programmes and diner dramas, but until now there has been a gap. Catherine Fellows toasts British TV’s first totally culinary sitcom, devised by and starring Lenny Henry.
Tune in to the first episode of Chef on 28 January, and be prepared. The face you will see sandwiched between neckerchief and white hat belongs to no demonstrating Delia. See how it contorts with passion, see the eyes ﬂash as blindingly as a steel knife, the veins on the neck bulge like those of a murderer . . . This is the exquisite agony of a culinary genius! This is Gareth Blackstock of Le Chateau Anglais, artist, gastronome, and proud possessor of two Michelin stars: ‘Chef’ to you, me, and other subordinates.
Over the next six weeks he will be ﬂexing his creative and emotional muscles and showing no mercy - to his wayward commis chefs; to Lola, the Maitre (1’, whose job it is to keep the heat of the kitchen out of the dining room; or to Janice, the wife with her head screwed on, who is trying to help him raise the money to take over the place.
Lenny Henry, who plays Blackstock, is a bit of a gourmet himself, and he came up with the idea of a comedy centred on a Marco Pierre White-style culinary primadonna through frequenting some of London’s most celebrated restaurants. Since the idea got the go-ahead, Henry has been busy researching — chopping veg and dodging ladies in some very prestigious kitchens.
Somebody had to see the potential here sooner or later. During the 80s the volatile chef stereotype reached its most extreme incarnations, and hideous acts of kitchen tyranny were forgiven in the name of extraordinary platefuls. But kitchens have always been pretty dramatic places. It’s all there — the heat, the pressure, the squidgey substances. The curiosity value of a scenario that is usually behind closed doors. The sheer feat of manoeuvring at speed in a small space - around each other, sharp knives, pans of boiling liquid - is highly theatrical: an impressive
piece of choreography if a team is in tune, a dangerous farce if not.
Then there’s the kitchen hierarchy, the clashing egos. If Blackstock, like so many of his real-life equivalents, dreams of becoming a chef patron , for your average commis or kitchen porter it is leaving fantasies that get them through many spud-scrubbing, sauce-beating, sweat-breaking hours: what would be the most spectacular way to quit? In the midst of peak-time frenzy? Just slipping out, as if for a pee, and never coming back? Then they might realise who gets the work done around here . . .
But this is just the drama of daily life, when things are going smoothly. The Chef Blackstocks of this world may have the highest Standards. but meeting them is another matter. John Quigley, now personal chef to
Bryan Adams, but once employed in various quality restaurants in Soho and Glasgow, has seen it all: mixed up orders, food dropped on the ﬂoor and scraped back on to the dish, a rat making its debut under the nose of the dreaded Hygiene Inspector.
He watched the chef of one of Glasgow’s best restaurants take his fanatical support of Celtic so far as to put Graeme Souness’s steak through the dishwasher before serving it. Football is certainly emotive. I know of an Edinburgh chef who tunes the radio in for every Rangers game; every goal sees him leaping round the kitchen yelling as if he were on the terraces. The staff prays for a Rangers win, if they don’t get one, the rest of the shift will be hell.
One busy lunchtime, Quigley found himself locked in his upstairs
Lonny Henry turns chef
kitchen - the only way to get food to mouths was to shin down the drainpipe Boeuf a l’Orange or Creme Caramel in hand, land in the street and take it in to the dining room through the front door.
It sounds like a cross between Fawlty Towers and Superman — and that’s what we’re getting next. February will see the release of Under Siege, a Die Hard-type action movie in which a ship’s chef turns out to have the skills of an SAS man, saves the crew from terrorist hijackers and, no doubt, cooks them up something hard-boiled to celebrate. Could Lenny Henry be the first of a new breed? Is 1993 set to be the Year of the Chef-Hero?
Chef begins on BBC] on Thursday 28 January.
74 The List 15 - 28 January 1993