Each week we take a quick, cautious look at what's going on with televised cooking. This week: Chef Hunter, a one-hour show that does not take place on a private island, Thursdays at 10 p.m. on the Food Network.
In Chef Hunter, unemployed chefs show up at the door of an important restaurant (like Wilshire, Border Grill, and Les Halles, thus far), and one becomes executive chef. This really happens. In every episode. The chefs each run a dinner service and then, here you go, bag of gold and 401K.
Compare this to Top Chef, which gives the winner a set of pots and a fifty cents after months of cooking, or Hell's Kitchen, which blindfolds the winner and throws him into Ramsey's House of Horrorcrepes, never to be seen again. This may be a good thing for television, but is it a good thing for the restaurants? Does the slice of publicity the restaurants receive make up for possibly getting saddled with an imperfect fit picked after a single night of televised cooking? Yes, of course. Or no, of course not. Nobody cares, to be honest.
We watched the Les Halles episode, and aside from the title, which is a textbook case of over-promising (no chefs are killed, alas), Chef Hunter brings a subdued restraint to the competitive-cooking genre. Well, sort of. It still relies on over-dramatized biographical interludes.
When the first chef is spitballing his menu on a notepad -- all chefs write like third graders doing Yu-Gi-Oh! doodles, it seems -- a melancholy guitar starts up. "And I'll have fresh vegetables, since we had a garden in our backyard when I was a kid," he says. WHAT ARE THESE FRESH VEGETABLES? Then he starts crying -- grandmother montage -- and redoubles his resolve, walking through streets at night, as he remembers, again, for the second time in the episode (and there will be a third, and a fourth) that he didn't go to cooking school.
Such hardship. THIS GUY WINS. He really wins. He actually wins. Spoiler alert. His overcooks his fish, he runs out of roulade without telling the waiters, he serves vegetables because he had a garden as a kid, and he's now the chef de cuisine at Les Halles, which is "the home base of Chef-at-large Anthony Bourdain," according to the bolded text on Les Halles' site, which serenades users with instant-on French music. (Spoiler alert.)
Remember all the terrible things Bourdain has said about Food Network chefs? And now his home base is run by a Food Network chef who won a contest that spanned a single dinner service?
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
Back to the show's perceived restraint: To its credit, Chef Hunter, in which no chefs are hunted and horribly die, lets the drama unfold largely free of interference. There are no surprise ingredients, no cooking for children, no panel of judges, no Alton Brown with a question. There are only two chefs running a kitchen for dinner services on separate nights -- with a crew the chefs have just met, in a kitchen the chefs have just entered, cooking specials the chefs have just created, for regular diners who get as pissed about raw lamb as the best Hell's Kitchen fake-diners.
Dammed if that doesn't sound like a night spent in the weeds, and it is, but the only people around to throw the required shitshow are the owners. At Les Halles, that's Philippe Lajaunie, and he gets pissed in a French way, so that's entirely charming. Someone waits 30 minutes for an appetizer, someone gets one crab cake instead of two, someone walks in and thinks you're watching Hell's Kitchen. Most of this show happened in 2008.
Once the insider-y nature of it wears thin -- this is Les Halles! Border Grill! -- Chef Hunter, which probably was about killing chefs in an earlier treatment for the FX Network, seems to get dull, and goes on too long. But there's a rule that every Food Network show must go on too long and seem to get dull, so this is more of an observation and not really much of anything.
And the host ... so, that's her? There's a person on the show, Carrie McCully, who nods to a few job related things, then dumps a pile of resumes into Lajaunie's lap and runs out to get a cab in the rain, leaving him to narrate all the action. Keep an eye out for McCully. It's fascinating to watch someone get edited out of their own show.