From Burnt to Aftertaste: why can't we get past the 'angry white male chef'?

The ABC’s new comedy may not be a redemptive tale – but surely it’s time we gave our food fictions a bit more diversity and hope?

Erik Thomson as chef Easton West in Aftertaste
Erik Thomson as chef Easton West in the new Australian series Aftertaste. Photograph: Ian Routledge
Erik Thomson as chef Easton West in the new Australian series Aftertaste. Photograph: Ian Routledge

Last modified on Mon 15 Feb 2021 21.30 EST

“People are over the angry white guy shtick.”

That’s a line from ABC’s Aftertaste, a comedy showing early promise. We may be over the “shtick” but it seems screenwriters and producers are not. Whether bit parts or leading characters, in stories about the hospitality scene we’re faced more often than not with endless variations of Gordon Ramsay. Women are underrepresented in kitchen tales, as are the minority groups who often form the backbone of the industry.

While the creators of Aftertaste say the show isn’t about “white male redemption”, perhaps this angry trope (redeemed or not) is best retired? Surely a more representative and hopeful fiction would be more palatable?

A short tour through the genre suggests we’ve a way to go. Consider Jon Favreau’s 2014 food truck redemption tale, Chef. His character, Carl Casper, takes up against a critic (another rich vein of lazy tropes) and loses – until we get to the redemption part, of course. It’s a high point in the loose chef genre and a film I go back to, but I’d question if we need more of the same.

Burnt, released in 2015, had all the right ingredients: the London restaurant scene as its backdrop, Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Omar Sy and Emma Thompson. But ultimately its script was sour. David Chang, a chef not without his own heated history, devoted a full podcast episode last year to boiling down his derision for Burnt.

Chang and co take aim at the supposed penance of bad boy chef Adam Jones (Cooper) – shucking a million oysters – and culinary minutiae like preparing escargot at home. But most damning is its take on kitchen culture. It is “framed on the bygone era that we really romanticised”, says Chang. “It’s obviously seen as toxic, all these things that are clearly wrong, but no one ever looked at it, and we’ve glorified it in this movie … This is so stupid.

As the credits roll on Burnt it seems like a clear case of too many chefs spoiling the broth: Ramsay and Marcus Wareing are both credited as consultants, as is Mario Batali, who divested his restaurant interests in 2019 after allegations of sexual harassment and assault (which he denies).

Bradley Cooper as Adam Jones in Burnt.
Bradley Cooper as Adam Jones in Burnt. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

Burnt wasn’t Bradley Cooper’s first offence. Remember Kitchen Confidential? Cooper plays Jack Bourdain. Leveraging Anthony Bourdain’s pageturner may have seemed like a no brainer but the TV series ran to just 13 episodes back in 2005. One criticism was its weakly constructed female characters, made secondary to the male lead and core supporting cast, but more striking for me is its overwhelmingly Caucasian cast, considering the real-life Bourdain hailed the Latino influence in US kitchen culture. “The Mexican, Dominican, and Salvadorian cooks I’ve worked with over the years make most CIA-educated [Culinary Institute of America] white boys look like clumsy, snivelling little punks,” Bourdain wrote.

Gentefied, the America Ferrera-produced Netflix dramedy, skewers the notion that dining stateside could operate without Latino labour, the appropriation that’s rife in the food world, and how food plays a part in urban gentrification. It does feature, albeit briefly, the angry white man, but he’s quickly dispatched. It’s sharp and thankfully renewed for a second season, but it seems to be the exception rather than the rule.

Bourdain didn’t invent the angry, dysfunctional chef but he did inadvertently popularise it as a badge of honour among legions of them – and we see it on screen. It’s a culture that didn’t sit well with Bourdain in his later years. In a 2017 commencement speech to graduates of the Culinary Institute of America, he reportedly said he had written Kitchen Confidential to “entertain a few line cooks” but it became a “meathead bible”. He recognised that women in the hospitality industry often dismissed it as “the bro bible”, saying: “If there’s a harasser in the kitchen who’s a jerk at work, chances are he’s got my book at his station, and I am going to have to live with that.”

It may be that Kitchen Confidential and its ilk have become an easy shorthand, and that anger is easier to play, and write, but there’s much more to portray in the realm of culinary fiction, like genuine joy in food, discovery, drive, inquisitiveness and achievement. As the industry is in a prolonged period of introspection and change, falling back on decades-old stereotypes will age badly.

I’m left thinking about my perfect on-screen chef. He’s not angry, white or a man, for that matter. He’s a rat. I ly dipped in to Ratatouille to refresh my memory but I found myself in for the long haul. I was struck by the themes, detail and the sheer joy of it all. Yes, there’s the conniving Skinner but there is, over all else, Remy’s tug of loyalty, his passion for food and Auguste Gusteau’s enduring motto: “Anyone can cook.”

Aftertaste is showing in Australia on ABC1 and iView

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