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BBC's 'Chef' a taste T-Day accompaniment
By M.V. Moorhead

November 19, 2005

Thanksgiving is an American holiday, so it may seem odd for me to suggest a British television show as a way to celebrate it.

But somewhere on the long list of things for which I’m grateful is the BBC comedy Chef!, coupled with the fact that it is finally available, complete, on DVD.

Chef! is about gourmet cuisine and the mad egos that create it, and watching it while stuffed with turkey and pumpkin pie may help you avoid a craving for pate or partridge.

The show follows the adventures, gustatory and otherwise, of Gareth Blackstock (Lenny Henry), chef de cuisine at Le Chateau Anglais, an upscale nouveau-French restaurant in Oxfordshire.

Gareth’s skill as a culinary artist is matched only by his mastery of verbal abuse—he regularly weaves extravagant tapestries of sarcasm and hyperbole and insult and threat toward his cringing kitchen staff, turning his perceptions of their hopeless incompetence and disloyalty and vile sanitary habits into soaring epic rants.

Gareth is, of course, a lovable tyrant. Beneath his epigrammatic bluster is a sweet uncertainty about every area of his life not connected to cooking.

Despite much defiance, he rightly worships his cool, unflappable, conjugally frustrated wife (Caroline Lee-Johnson), and he endures the quiet moral nudging of Everton (Roger Griffiths), his old school acquaintance turned bumbling kitchen helper.

Three elements combine to make Chef! such a delight:

First, the dazzling verbal craft and ingenious plotting of Peter Tilbury, who wrote the first two seasons (or “series” as the Brits call them).

Second, the performance of Henry, who plays to sly perfection both Gareth’s bombastic outrage and his underlying warmth.

Third, the superb ensemble cast who act as Henry’s foils, led by Lee-Johnson, Griffiths, and Ian MacNeice as the kitchen’s second-in-command Gustav, a cranky cockney recovering-alcoholic who, alone among the staffers, isn’t in awe of Gareth.

The first and second “series” of Chef! are brittle, savory perfection. The third and final series, written by hands other than Tilbury’s and marked by changes in cast and style, is much inferior to its predecessors. Focusing on Gareth’s marital troubles with Janice, it’s played too broadly, almost like a conventional sitcom. But even this heavy-sauced third course is better than most comedy fare available on the American TV menu.

The DVD: Chef! The Complete Collection from BBC video features all 18 half-hour episodes on three discs.

Disc 3 also has a few minor extras: fluffy “chat show” interviews with Henry and Lee-Johnson which amusingly prove that entertainment journalism is at least as unctuous and insipid in the U.K. as it is in the U.S.

There is, however, a cool behind-the-scenes segment from BBC’s The Good Food Show, which gives us a look at Paul Headman, the on-set chef who prepares the on-camera food and, at times, provides the hands for Gareth’s more digit-endangering stunts, like chopping carrots.

Chef! is unsuitable for family viewing less for its occasional urbanely off-color jokes than simply because it’s unlikely to interest younger kids.

It’s adult in the best sense of the word.

































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