Romain (Hugo Becker) is in trouble. The 25 year-old locksmith is looking down the barrel of a lengthy prison sentence for fraud when he’s offered a deal: he’ll get parole, but only if he chooses to work in the kitchen run by a charming and mysterious gourmet chef known only as “Le Chef” (Clovis Cornillac). He jumps at the deal, but that’s where the real trouble starts. Working behind the scenes in a high class restaurant is no joke, and Romain is about to discover that his get-out-of-jail card may be a very mixed blessing.
Romain starts work at the Le Paris kitchen as a dishwasher, and it’s made very clear that he’s starting out right at the bottom. Chefs isn’t a series that glosses over the realities of working in a high-end kitchen; it’s an almost military environment with a strict hierarchy, endless working hours and an oppressive atmosphere. And that’s not counting the bullying and abuse. It’s even worse for women, as Charlene (Joyce Bibring) a young single mother and the one female member of the cooking “brigade” discovers as she struggles to make her way in a field dominated by men.
The one other female character in series one represents the other pressure constantly pushing down on restaurants: money. Despite Le Chef’s flair and fame, the series opens with Le Paris struggling to stay afloat. An investor is found, but the money comes with a price: Delphine (Anne Charrier) is appointed office manager, and she’s there to cut costs to the bone. Of course, this doesn’t sit well with Le Chef, but it doesn’t take long for their constant bickering to develop an undercurrent of sexual tension. After all, it gets pretty hot working in a professional kitchen.
That’s not the only surprising development over the course of the first six episodes. Romain might start out at the bottom but it turns out he has a knack for this cooking thing – so much so that soon it’s Le Chef that should be worried about his status in the kitchens. And then after the shock developments at the end of the first season, season 2 sees Chefs moving beyond the confines of the Le Paris kitchen. Over the course of the eight episodes we see cooking in prison, cooking in the countryside, cooking for a wealthy emir, cooking traditional Chinese cuisine and the challenges of quality cooking in an illegal gambling den. We also get to meet Le Chef’s mother (Myriam Boyer), who may or may not provide some much needed context for his fiery ways.
While there are plenty of topics that are surprising and new areas for television to explore, cooking is definitely not one of them. Food shows are everywhere on TV - there are entire channels dedicated to food culture. So with Chefs, creator and showrunner Arnaud Malherbe, together with writer Marion Festraets, knew they had to make sure they got every detail right. Otherwise an audience trained on decades of reality cooking programs and foodie travelogues would smell a fraud.
They started out by watching first class chefs like William Ledeuil, Pierre Gagnaire, and Guy Savoy at work. They collected real-life stories from Paris kitchens to sprinkle throughout the series, then hired chef David Toutain to put together many of the meals seen on screen and to train the actors in looking like they belonged in a three-star kitchen. Clearly the cast got that side of things right; Toutain even lent Becker his knife to use in the series.
While Chefs definitely doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of the world of high class cooking – seasoned professionals that have fallen on hard times and the way the top end of town is strangling the smaller bistros are just some of the topical issues the series addresses – there’s time for a little magic too. The cooking scenes often slide into an almost dreamlike state to underline just how magical the process of making a meal can be. Especially when your boss isn’t screaming at you.
And then there’s the food. Chefs may be a drama about a range of characters almost always butting heads, but those characters do make some amazing looking meals. Come for the drama, stay for the food porn: this is definitely not a series to be watched on an empty stomach.
Seasons 1+2 of Chefs is streaming at SBS On Demand now: