I luvs me some good train-wreck TV. You know exactly what I'm talking about: people in situations so painfully awkward/gruesome/embarrassing that you know you shouldn't be looking, but are irresistibly lured by the carnage.
Train-wreck TV of the culinary kind is particularly entertaining. I take sadistic pleasure in Gordon Ramsey's "Hell's Kitchen" and "Kitchen Nightmares" shows (that, and he's deadly gorgeous in his chef's whites ... sigh!) Watching wanna-be chefs or know-it-all restauranteurs getting raked over the grill for their stupidity is just plain awesome. And I'm sitting at home with my popcorn, screaming at the screen, "Well DUH, why would you do that in the first place?" (Like I know anything!)
Last week's "Nightmares" had Ramsey visiting Fiesta Sunrise, a Mexican joint outside of NYC, where cockroaches, week-old food and raw meat contamination were the norm. This was rounded out by four chefs who don't know how to cook and dining room décor that, and I quote, looked "like Tijuana threw up in here".
What boggled my mind was that the manager could walk around for this long (18 months) without realizing how dire the situation was. A customer could have been killed by food poisoning, from what I saw. GROSS. Ramsey brought out a bin of ancient baked beans just so customers could get an idea of the nastiness going on backstage. "You, there, don't even think about putting that in your mouth," Ramsey orders a diner, "Just put the bloody thing down." Seriously, let's not make a TV show about it, let's just get the health and safety inspector in to shut it down!
I just finished watching the last few episodes of my latest guilty pleasure, "The Restaurant Adventures of Caroline and Dave". It focuses on the birth and evolution of Zen Kitchen, an Ottawa vegan eatery that opened a little over a year ago in Chinatown. Mercifully, no hazardous cooking practices to be seen, just an entertaining glimpse at the personalities behind the swinging doors.
As a disclaimer, I would like to note that I have yet to eat at Zen, so I can't comment on the food. It looks good; I like the way Caroline presents her dishes, and I'm not one to shy away from trying new things. Planning on trundling over one night for a bite.
From the beginning, the main characters, Caroline Ishii and Dave Loan, have displayed all the naivete of a pair of boot camp noobs. Costs and construction schedules were grossly underestimated, unattended sub-contractors were overpriced and (egads!) behind on their work and the project manager, who didn't actually know how to project manage, was frequently seen in a pool of hysterical tears. On opening night, the menus weren't even written yet and the kitchen didn't have all the right ingredients.
Yet through it all, Caroline did her best to maintain the "zen" atmosphere. I admire the principle of her goal; in theory, it should work. Get the right people in the same room and it should run like clockwork, without the need of a hierarchy.
Yeah ... and in theory, Communism works, too. Sadly, "Where's the Zen?" became more of a punchline than a mission statement, as one crisis after another unfolded.
The biggest bone of contention in this stew of kitchen intrigue revolved around the relationship between Caroline, Dave and their sous chef, Kyle. This guy is someone who's worked for ages in the old-school style of kitchen, where you are told what to do, how and when to do it, and to which you answer, unequivocally, "YES, CHEF." There's a job to do, let's get it done, let's do it right, let's work as a team.
Caroline is the exact opposite. She flits through her shifts with a giddy, casual air, playing more the artiste at the pass than a disciplined head chef running a kitchen. She wants her staff to experience a warm-fuzzy workplace where nobody gets yelled at, everyone's your friend and great minds think alike.
The other staff looked up to Kyle as their fearless leader; they looked at Caroline wondering what she'd been smoking. Watching them bicker like Grade 9-year-olds in a home ec class made for a painful, albeit entertaining, experience. In the end, the two chefs just couldn't mesh, and in the interest of restoring the Zen, Kyle "moved on to another project" (read: got fired. Unjustly, as far as I'm concerned.)
Then again, this is TV. Heavily edited and carefully scripted TV that looks like real life, but so isn't. Get these people away from the cameras, and you'll likely meet up with entirely different personalities. I hope.
The rewarding part of the series is watching really passionate cooks doing what they do best. Heads bent in concentration, adding ingredients with pinched fingers and deftly tossing them about with the flick of a spatula. Moving in choreographed unison around a cramped kitchen, handling each plate as though it was a priceless work of art. Even Caroline on the line, which could have been a disaster, was a marvel to behold.
After Kyle's departure, it seemed like the film crew didn't have anything left to focus on, so the last two episodes were short and sloppy, a little too fuzzy-wuzzy and featuring much more of Dave than I really cared to see. The finale left the door of speculation wide open: would the restaurant survive? Would the Zen return? Would the staff pine after Kyle to the point of abandoning ship? Who knows. Only time will tell. But I don't think it'll make for great TV.