I admit I was one of the doubters -- no surprise there -- when I first heard that celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse had been cast as the lead in a television sitcom that would debut this fall. My concern didn't spring from the proposed plot (a gentle sendup of Lagasse's own Food TV Network show), or from the fact that the prepress was ripe with cruel puns, such as the Miami Herald's "Critics may be having the TV show for lunch" and the Sun-Sentinel's "Emeril is the greatest culinary disaster since someone left the cake out in the rain in MacArthur Park."
No, my worry was that the show would convince mainstream America of a bunch of gastronomically related falsehoods, including the one that Emeril himself is one of our most charismatic and talented chefs. Or that it would confirm old and tired clichés, such as the one that goes something like, all chefs are overweight because they have no self-discipline and are compulsive eaters. Personally I never found all those whams and bams and thank you ma'ams particularly inspiring. And, like the rest of us, chefs come in a variety of sizes and shapes. While most of them have some sort of obsession with food -- it's kind of a job requirement -- that doesn't mean they should be gobbling down Paxil. In fact off the top of my head, I can think of at least one chef I know who is on something of an even kilter.
Having watched the series debut Tuesday, September 25, I see that my worst fears are probably going to be realized, given that the plot of the first show centered around -- what else -- Emeril's inability to diet. However, I can't agree with Sun-Sentinel TV writer Tom Jicha that "as a comedy star, Emeril is a marvelous chef. Indeed, the only time he is at all convincing is when he is in his studio kitchen, whamming and powing his way to some delicious concoction." I actually found him to be a more-restrained actor than I expected, and I'll go so far as to say that he's better under someone else's direction than he is under his own. Some of the gags were actually funny, and I was intrigued with Lagasse's willingness to appear bald, half-naked (and those legs are nothing to look at), and with frosting on his not-exactly-classical nose.
I'd say Lagasse shows such an impressive ability to appear undignified that many of our locally famous chefs and restaurateurs might want to take a page from his cookbook and develop their own television projects. To that end I've designed concepts for some of Miami's most entertaining and energetic industry folk:
Allen Susser, Chef Allen's: Chef Allen's Neighborhood. This lovable and gentle chef dresses in apron and clogs at the start of every show, and leads children through 30 minutes of dumbed-down commercial kitchen wisdom. Kids, can you say, "The customer is always right"?
Michelle Bernstein, Azul: Soufflé Plié. Former ballet dancer Bernstein demonstrates exercise-dance routines that you can do while you're cooking, including how to use the oven handle as a barre and the five positions in which you can scramble eggs. Now you can have your workout and eat it, too.
Johnny Vinczencz, Astor Place: Urban Caribbean Cowboy. Johnny V stars in this made-for-TV movie, where instead of a mechanical bull he rides a bucking barstool. Whoo-ee!
Thomas Buckley, Nobu: This Old Hotel. In this Bob Vila-inspired series, Buckley travels from site to site, giving tips on how to be a chef for restaurants in hotels that are perpetually "under renovation" and "in development."
Mark Militello, Mark's South Beach: Gastronomically Incorrect. A caustic Militello invites four food journalists and critics each night to discuss a particular culinary hot topic. During the debates he interjects witty comments such as "You're wrong as usual" and "You should be working for the National Enquirer."
Willis Loughhead, Tantra: Temper Tantra. Loughhead runs this compassionate talk-show forum where executive chefs are instructed on how to release stress using primal-scream therapy.
Pascal Oudin, Pascal's on Ponce: The Pink Pen Strikes Again. Oudin plays the lead role of Health Inspector Clouseau, a bumbling detective who can't tell his E.coli from his staph infections. This comedy series is filled with pratfalls and gags, including exploding grease traps and roach infestations.
Norman Van Aken, Norman's: CSI: Chef Scene Investigation. Culinary ombudsman Van Aken checks into the kitchens of rival chefs to make sure they're not as good as he is. Yet.
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Robbin Haas, Baleen: The Weakest Drink. As the shrewd host of a new-era trivia game show where all the contestants are bartenders, Haas will have the opportunity to coin the catch phrase, "You've made the weakest drink. Goodbye."
Hedi Goldsmith, Nemo: Judge Hedi. Dessert diva Goldsmith takes a half-baked approach to crimes committed against pastry. Many sweets are sentenced to more oven time.
Alan Roth, Sean Saladino, Scott Fredel, and J.D. Harris, Rumi: The Rumi World. The reality show's twentysomething cast members not only have to cook and manage a zillion-dollar restaurant-cum-nightclub together, they have to know their metaphysical poetry. This is The Rumi World.
Jen Karetnick, New Times: I Work for Food. As a woman who gets back exponentially what she puts out, Karetnick is convincing in this miniseries as a writer down on her luck who is forced into selling her ass -- er, assets -- any way she can.