The Cooks: articles

Set to sizzle

Such a lot of steam, but Ruth Ritchie asks: will the recipe be overdone with all that lust in the kitchen?

We’re funny people. We just can’t seem to get enough of six-figure quizzes, singing contests and shows about food. What a godless, musical pack of gluttons we’ve become.

Food is terrific on television. Much better than a badly sung Celine Dion tune, almost any cooking show is watchable if you’re the least bit hungry, or interested in food.

In recent years, celebrity chefs have added an extra ingredient. No longer satisfied with learning how to cook creme brulee the correct way, we want to do it Neil or Jamie or Gordon’s way. Pay TV has an entire channel dedicated to food. The background sizzle of oil in a wok is easy listening to many ears.

Cooking restaurant food at home has become a passion. Personally, while it’s fascinating to see how the magician does his tricks and it doesn’t ruin my enjoyment, I don’t want to take up magic.

In Neil Perry’s Rockpool Sessions (Lifestyle) the deconstruction of some of his most memorable dishes has the potential to make you feel sorry for your family and bad about your stir-fry. As TV talent, Neil won’t have Jamie or Gordon shaking in their aprons, but his dedication and sincerity are infectious. The magazine format mixes grabs from other very likeable chefs, snappy insights from the Rockpool kitchen and the assembly of some of the most extraordinary dishes I’ll never cook.

All the elements of Rockpool Sessions have been captured in The Cooks (Ten, Thursday). The passion, the obsession, the humour, the theatre, the sexy, sensuous world of the professional kitchen has been studied and distilled to make a really well-produced piece of drama that doesn’t entirely work.

Having reviewed TV and restaurants for many years, this may be the equivalent of reviewing a restaurant on opening night (something that happens in The Cooks, but not in real life).

There is much enjoy. The cast is wonderful. A lot of the writing is slick. The restaurant and food preparation coverage is of a remarkably high quality for series drama. Many of the relationships are interesting and there is plenty of steamy sex in close proximity to hot pans and fresh food. Perhaps their ambition to capture every aspect of “the professional chef” faithfully has led the writers astray. They have clearly been told that chefs are moody, angry, obsessive, drunk, horny and unreasonable. All these things may be true. Most black people can dance and all homosexuals are neat, but even accurate generalisations don’t make great characters.

The second these people get near food their eyes glaze over and they starting acting as if they must finish the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or knock off Kim Basinger by the light of an open fridge. Kate Atkinson, who is otherwise excellent as Ruth, can’t approach the gas burner without her underpants falling off.

Her love interest, Gabe (Toby Schmitz), is certainly erratic, foul-mouthed and energetic enough to be a chef, but as soon as the olive oil hits the pan he makes the porn face and we know somebody’s finger is about to get sucked. If the characters settle in and the world of the show expands beyond two warring restaurants, The Cooks has the potential to replace Secret Life in the affections of the hungry and horny.

Which brings us to Elizabeth Chong’s Tiny Delights (Friday, SBS). Friday is porn night on SBS, so the slotting of this rather benign and wholesome little cooking show on sizzle night is rather mysterious.

Chong is one of those chefs who breaks with the horny/drunk/erratic mould represented on The Cooks. She is, however, no less passionate than her young sweaty counterparts about her food. As a Chinese Australian who worked in the industry long before chefs were elevated to the lofty status of hairdressers, Chong has much to share with the home cook.

Also assembled in the popular magazine format, Tiny Delights is part travelogue, part cooking demo, punctuated by plenty of good advice from dear Elizabeth. We cover a good deal of China, get inside some remarkably unglamorous but productive kitchens and learn to make some dishes that Australians have been ordering regularly for a century. Will I ever make wonton soup? Maybe not, but Chong’s wok tips, like Perry’s rather loftier creations, might jerk a few of us out of our ruts.

Oddly, Tiny Delights is cheaply, even badly shot. No sizzle. No simmer. No sex. It’s as plain as a Chinatown wok. The lighting, the editing, the videotape seem to drain the sex appeal from every dish and yet the show’s content is rock solid. Whatever makes Elizabeth Chong cook is probably what’s missing from The Cooks. Don’t you hate a secret ingredient?

By Ruth Ritchie
October 30, 2004
The Sydney Morning Herald