Appellate Judge James A. Stewart doesn't want his face plastered on cookware.
"Certain restaurants take on the personality of their chefs—desperate, reckless, frantic…If Jack Bourdain can set his house in order, Nolita promises to be one of the city's premier establishments."
Kitchen Confidential—in case, like just about everyone, you missed it—is the Anthony Bourdain TV series without the actual Anthony Bourdain in it.
Anthony Bourdain, who appears on camera on Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, has been cooking up a reputation as the bad boy of haute cuisine since he wrote his notorious memoir on life at the stove called Kitchen Confidential. In it, he tells how he came back from heroin and stints as a hack cook to become the executive chef of Brasserie Les Halles, not to mention a successful author and travel show host.
Prime material for a steamy sitcom like Sex and the City (based on a book by Candace Bushnell)? Darren Star, one of the minds behind the sexy HBO sitcom, thought so. Just as Candace Bushnell evolved into Carrie Bradshaw, Anthony Bourdain was rechristened Jack Bourdain (Bradley Cooper, Alias).
Kitchen Confidential premiered in September 2005 on Fox, reaching its expiration date before Christmas with nine of its 13 episodes left to spoil in the pantry in the United States. Just so they won't remain confidential, Fox has released Kitchen Confidential: The Complete Series.
Facts of the Case
Kitchen Confidential: The Complete Series features 13 episodes, nine of which haven't been seen on American TV:
If you saw any of Kitchen Confidential when it was the incomplete series on Fox, you already know you don't want to work in Jack Bourdain's kitchen. And though he somehow gets rave reviews, you might not want to eat at his restaurant…if, say, fingertips in the food bother you.
The series opens with Jack Bourdain working at a pasta joint until his answering machine messages yield one good call—from the owner of a trendy restaurant called Nolita. Using his best lying and finagling skills, Jack assembles a crew of his old mates in less than 48 hours for an opening night that ends disastrously, with the recovering drug and alcohol user being confronted by a lustful, trashed female patron, a restaurant critic, and his soon-to-be-ex girlfriend.
The Complete Series delivers a lot more kitchen mishaps and psychotic bickering among the Nolita staff. In the pilot, one of Jack's men loses a fingertip and a cook at the pasta joint catches fire. Subsequent disasters include singed-off eyebrows, a fork in the leg, a chef handling a hot pan to show how well he deals with pain, and a pastry chef getting run over with a chocolate truck. It's mostly slapstick, though you'll see a spurt of blood in the pilot. At one point, two of Jack's team are discussing deboning a colleague as one sharpens a knife. The atmosphere's nasty, with the following contentious exchange between pastry guy Seth and fish guy Teddy serving as one of the kinder, gentler examples:
"Ever heard of a birthday fish?"
The Complete Series also cooks up a few disastrous sexual encounters as Jack ends up corrupting a vegan and sleeping with menacing owner Pino's mistress, among other trysts, as he finds that some woman will always offer "dessert." These give Kitchen Confidential a cynical sex farce tone, even finding Jack escaping down a fire escape in his underwear as Pino pounds on his mistress' door in "An Affair To Remember."
Jack Bourdain may be reformed, but he's still a real peach, taking credit for a colleague's yellowfin tuna in one episode and hatching a maniacal scheme to get sweetbreads ("Why can't we move these?" "Maybe because they're thymus glands and they're disgusting") back on the menu. He's always got a Jack-centric line like, "Don't we all benefit from working at a restaurant that serves my sweetbreads?" Bradley Cooper portrays Jack Bourdain consistently as the morally troubled underdog struggling to meet his potential, though the writing in later episodes doesn't match the finely etched portrayal in the pilot.
Who else is lurking, er, working, in Jack's kitchen? Steven (Owain Yeoman, Troy), a longtime buddy, ex-con, and ladies' man who "borrows" cars from the neighboring valet parking garage for his trysts; Seth (Nicholas Brendon, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), the trash-talking but insecure pastry chef who pines for beautiful hostess Tanya; Teddy (John Cho, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle), the touchy fish guy who's in therapy; Becky (Erinn Hayes, The Winner), a conniver who can drink any guy under the table; and Ramon (Frank Alvarez, Yard Sale), a hulking dishwasher you don't want to mess with. You'll want to catch Frank Langella (Dracula) in a small but pivotal role as Pino, the owner who may be able to get arms broken but prefers a mix of bribery and manipulation. Bonnie Somerville (NYPD Blue) as Mimi, his daughter, makes a good comic foil for Jack with her suspicious nature and transparently false bravado.
There's some heart, too, in the persons of Jim, the naive entry-level cook, and Tanya, the sweet but ditzy hostess. They're both the butts of jokes, especially when the guys plan to fix up Jim but decide to score themselves, but you end up rooting for them because of it. John Francis Daley (Waiting…) plays Jim as a straight-arrow neophyte with emotions still under the surface. Jaime King (Sin City) has a sweetly odd delivery style that leaves you wondering just what Tanya's thinking when she says of a missing espresso machine, "It's not as much there as it used to be."
The 13 episodes featured three gems that might have made a few top sitcom episodes lists if they'd been part of a more popular show: "Exile on Main Street," about Jack's hectic return to kitchen management; "Dinner Date with Death," about a former mentor (John Larroquette, Night Court) who believes Jack will cook the dish that gives him a fatal coronary (and is looking forward to it); and "The Robbery," which shows Jack losing his confidence after an armed holdup. There's also a nice little episode showcasing Teddy the fish guy ("Teddy, Takes Off") as he quits, talking to his fish in a drunken rage at home that night, then becoming a success at another restaurant.
The dialogue's sharp, with lots of good, if nasty, lines firing back and forth. The plots tend toward farce and slapstick. There are a few sharp satirical moments, though, as when Jack rejects a cookware pitch that would turn him into another Emeril Lagasse.
As for the look of the show, it's beautiful. I looked forward to the scenes tracking Jack through a kitchen full of frenetic activity. The show also uses speeded-up montages as part of its effort to give the restaurant a hyped-up, frenzied atmosphere—creator David Hemingson calls it "hyper-real"—that makes 24's CTU look relaxing by comparison at times. This sense of constant movement and hustle is the aspect of Anthony Bourdain's book that is captured best on the small screen. The camera work and editing are superb, and the activity comes across well in this transfer. The sound lets all of those sharp lines come through loud and clear amid the clatter and confusion of the kitchen.
The commentaries on the pilot and the final episode do some back-patting, but also tell a little bit about how the show achieved its stylish look (the real restaurant used to shoot the pilot was recreated in a studio for the remaining 12 episodes). There's also a brief tour of the Nolita kitchen and dining room sets with Bradley Cooper and a set of interviews that assembles the cast almost two years later.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I'm not sure whether the production team knew their show was toast when the last few episodes were made, but a couple more good character turns like "The Robbery" and "Teddy, Takes Off" might have convinced Fox to give the show one more chance.
It also seemed that the characterization of Jack Bourdain wandered in the writing of the unseen episodes. Sometimes he's the voice of responsibility, at others he's ready to let his crew down for a hot tryst. True, the pilot was a tough act to follow, but this sitcom wasn't given any room for error. The dialogue's always laugh-out-loud funny and the actors do great work, but I wasn't always sure these characters were going anywhere.
Certain sitcoms take on a personality that's desperate, reckless, frantic. We'll never know if Kitchen Confidential could have set its house in order to become one of television's premier sitcoms. Still, it was fun while it lasted. If you like mild-mannered comedy with heroic, immediately likeable characters, it will go over worse than Jack Bourdain's sweetbreads. But if you like your comedy spiced with venom, Nolita's one of the best places to serve it up.
This series acquits itself well with its delectable menu of laughs, but is guilty of slipping from a perfect start. The complete series still makes a tasty main course for those who enjoyed the four-episode appetizer of its Fox run.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary on "Exile on Main Street"
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