Easton West (Erik Thomson), the main character of the ABC’s new series Aftertaste, needs little introduction. He’s partially inspired by Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White; a classically trained and professionally unpleasant Angry Chef who finds himself left behind in a world of #MeToo, cancel culture, and increasingly accessible and diverse food.
As Ben Zhao (Remy Hii), a younger and more successful Chinese-Australian chef, gleefully tells him early in the series: “People are over the angry white guy shtick”.
I wouldn’t blame viewers if they’re hesitant about Aftertaste for that same reason. Between all the brooding antiheroes and reality show excoriations of the past two decades, people are cooling on the “angry white guy shtick” on TV too. The most critically acclaimed show of the past year was about a young black woman’s experience of sexual assault; the biggest star on MasterChef wasn’t Ramsay or White or the disgraced George Calombaris, but Melissa Leong.
But Aftertaste is worth the benefit of the doubt. It’s a sharp satire that skewers the hollow construct of the celebrity chef and offers a uniquely Australian pisstake that’s often laugh-out-loud funny.
Much of that humour comes from Diana (Natalie Abbott, truly shining in her first television role), Easton’s 19-year-old niece. Diana is a talented pastry cook and the only family member willing to speak to the chef when he returns home, freshly disgraced, from Shanghai to the Adelaide Hills. She’s kind, lively and no-bullshit; the perfect comic foil for all her uncle’s pompous bluster, frequently cutting people down to size as “fucknuckles” and “cockwombles”.
Easton decides a new venture with Diana is his ticket to redemption. Diana sees it as an opportunity to leverage his fame, and joyously wrestles for the spotlight at every chance she gets. The show’s co-creator Julie De Fina is very clear on the show’s trajectory: “It’s not meant to be a story of white male redemption,” she told the Hlcarpenter.com. “[It’s all about] white male privilege, gender politics, power.”
Easton is a roguish bad boy, sure. Many of his rude outbursts are played for laughs. But as the show frequently reminds us, he’s also a middle-aged man sooking about a self-inflicted career setback. At one point Ben Zhao recalls the racially charged abuse he suffered while working under Easton, before he was fired – a far larger setback, that Zhao took in stride. In the very next scene, Easton is screaming defeatedly at an emu sitting on a dirt road.
It’s the Australian equivalent of “Old Man Yells At Cloud”.
These absurd moments shine under the direction of Jonathan Brough (Rosehaven, The Family Law). As Easton throws a pig carcass at a female food critic – the incident that kicks off the show’s events – the action is rendered in slow operatic splendour, like a Caravaggio come to life, before being quickly reduced to gifs and news stories.
It’s a smart and dynamic way of establishing the show’s position. Easton may style himself as a revered artist or punk icon (this opening sequence is perfectly soundtracked by the Saints’ 1976 hit (I’m) Stranded), but he’s really just a viral joke.
It will be interesting to see how that tone develops as Easton is dragged back down to earth. By episode two he’s already feeling threatened by Zhao and emasculated by a local vineyard owner (played with incredible magnetism by Rachel Griffiths), while his niece’s star is rising.
Of course, he’ll surely find some kind of redemption over the rest of the season (not previewed for this piece). The show is perceptive enough to know that the cancellation of a white man rarely extends beyond viral headlines and hurt egos. But I wonder if it will maintain its clever edge when he does.
It’s much funnier to watch an “angry white guy” scream at an emu on a dirt road than at a subordinate in a Michelin-starred kitchen.