Kitchen Confidential, a 2005 television series loosely based on the Anthony Bourdain book of the same name, is today among the many short-lived shows littering the landscape of network television. I saw all four of the episodes that actually aired on Fox in the fall of 2005. What hooked me was the promise that the series might turn out to be an exploration of life in a professional kitchen, a source for ideas that hasn’t been mined much by American popular television. The final two episodes that saw the light of day in the US, “Dinner Date with Death” and “French Fight”, seemingly brought the series close to fulfilling that promise.
The DVD release of the complete series, which includes nine episodes not aired on Fox, was a chance to see how the show ended up. Alas, while leavened with small insights into the lives of professional chefs and benefiting from high production values, the series was, ultimately, not much more than a conventional workplace comedy, its premise employed as a set up for wacky hijinks, and, above all, as a pretext for sexual and romantic tension.
As it happens, not soon after finishing up the 13 episodes of Kitchen Confidential, I saw Jake Kasdan’s The TV Set (2006). The film is about the complexities of television authorship, and what the intensely commercial process of selecting TV pilots can do to projects intended to tell very particular kinds of stories. During and after The TV Set, I kept coming back to Kitchen Confidential and imagining what might have happened to salt away the originality of that series’ premise and source material. With regards to Kasdan, here are some fragments of what might have been.
INT. – NS’s (NETWORK SUITS) OFFICES, ONE WEEK BEFORE THE PILOT SHOOT.
NS: We really love the show. We’re very excited to be involved with this project. The cast looks great and what a unique idea. We think that Bourdain’s book is just genius.
WP (WRITER-PRODUCER): Thanks. I’m excited, too.
NS: We do have a few concerns about some of the characters.
NS: Mostly, we think that the series needs a love interest. We think that you could have a real Sam-and-Diane, Dave-and-Maddie thing between Jack and Mimi.
WP: Hmmm. Well, yeah, I could do that, but those characters are really about the back and front of the house. I don’t know about resolving that tension through a love story. A one night stand, maybe. And, really, Mimi isn’t meant to be a lead. The show is ultimately about the kitchen.
NS: Sure. And it’s your show. We’re totally behind you. Just think about it. Bradley and Bonnie could be totally smoking together, and audiences love that. You could have a real star couple on your hands.
WP: Is that it?
NS: We were also wondering if the pastry chef, you know, Seth, has to be gay. Couldn’t he be straight, but “gay”? John Daley and Jaime King are so adorable. You could have a hilarious love triangle where the goofy newbie wins the hot hostess over the totally “gay” pastry chef.
WP: Ummmm … the thing is John is really supposed to be there for the audience. You know, he’s new to the whole chef thing, too. I’m not sure that a love triangle with Tanya and Seth is the best way to use that character. I guess I’m not all that committed to Seth’s being gay, but that’s what Nicholas has been working with. I’d have to talk to him.
NS: We’re sure he could do it. I mean, Nic’s a real pro.
WP: Plus, what I’m hearing you saying is that you want two romantic leads, and a love triangle going on? My vision is really for show that takes viewers into the kitchen. Part of that gets us into the private lives of the chefs, but if we make it about all these couples, I think we begin to turn the show into something else.
NS: Look, we’re really happy to be working with you, and we trust your judgment. We’re sure you can make it work. We just want to make sure you can bring in the audience you deserve.
EXT. – ON THE SET.
WP: So, I thought that went really well.
NS: Yeah. Absolutely. But …
WP: … yes?
NS: Well, we’re concerned that Jack is too extreme. We think that Jack is the kind of guy that women should want to be with and men should want to be. And Bradley is so charming. But with all the drug use and drinking and sex, he’s definitely going to turn off the women in the audience, maybe even some of the men, too.
WP: But we just shot the pilot to set up all of that. You know, chefs work in a creative, sensuous profession. Many of them are real experimenters. They work long hours. The fact is they aren’t like most people, and they don’t lead lives like most people. That’s what drew me to the book. And, yeah, Bourdain lets everyone know in his Preface that he’s settled down, but he’s also in the kitchen less. You want to jump to the end of the story. That’s not what the book is about.
NS: Sure. And we love the book, but, you know, we really think that Jack should be more accessible. Steven can still live hard – and we think Owain is just great – but Jack can’t turn off the audience.
WP: So, you want to reshoot the pilot?
NS: No. Take all the footage of Jack doing drugs, having sex in the kitchen and so on and make it into a flashback. Cut around the rest. You wouldn’t have to change much with the other characters. You’re using voiceover, right?
NS: Just redo that. Reframe the show. He’s reformed now. That’s a great story – redemption and all.
WP: Well …. Yeah. I suppose.
NS: Oh and we love the set up with Jack and Mimi and Pino – hilarious that Jack thinks Mimi’s sleeping with Pino even though she’s really his daughter. We’re so lucky to have Frank Langella.
INT. – NS’s OFFICES, THE DAY AFTER “FRENCH FIGHT”.
NS: Come in. Good to see you.
WP: Yeah, hi.
NS: We need to pull the plug. Last night’s numbers were not good. The show has no traction.
WP: Well … I mean, give us a chance to recover from the break for baseball.
NS: Yeah, look, the baseball isn’t the problem. The audience isn’t interested. We think that the John Larroquette episode was a big mistake. No one wants to watch someone who wants to die. It makes people think too much about their own lives.
WP: That wasn’t really the point. It isn’t that he wants to die, it’s that he is going to die and wants to die the way he lived. We’ve talked about this, the life and personality of a chef. I thought it fit well with Jack’s effort to reform, a real test of character, you know?
NS: Whatever. People aren’t tuning in. Quite frankly, we don’t think you gave enough to the Mimi and Jack thing. Having her sleep with the French guy … takes a lot of wind out of the will-they-or-won’t-they dynamic when something like that happens. And she was so unapologetic about it. And I’m not even going to mention how slow the Seth-Tanya-Jim thing is getting off of the ground.
WP: Yeah, but it’s going to heat up. And Becky is set to be introduced. There’s still time for the romantic leads, even if it hasn’t quite worked out for Mimi and Jack. Hey – what about Steven and Mimi?
NS: Sorry, WP, it’s just too late. The audience isn’t interested in the kitchen.
WP: But … we never really got to show them the kitchen.
NS: Look, get over it.
As far as I know, these conversations are entirely fictional. Indeed, the commentary tracks and short features included in the DVD set suggest that such conversations are unlikely to have happened at all. According to creator David Hemingson and others involved with the show, including star Bradley Cooper and producer-director Darren Star, everything about Kitchen Confidential was just “great.” No one seems to have been in the mood to talk about just why they wanted to make the show or what led to its demise.
So, maybe they did get over it, or maybe the vision was never there. The full run of 13 episodes reveals a series still struggling to find an identity or sense of purpose. While Bourdain’s book clearly did provide some inspiration, the forces of conventionality appear to have earned the upper hand in shaping the show’s trajectory. It maybe that the suits at Fox never gave Kitchen Confidential much of a chance, but, if the DVD release makes anything clear, it’s this: even if the series had been given every chance to find an audience, the harder fight would have been keeping it.