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Kitchen Confidential is a recipe for ensemble casting at its finest

Except next time, sexism on the side

Some TV shows never even make it past the first season. Maybe a series lacked the ratings to match its artistic accomplishments, or maybe it floundered its way into the network crosshairs, but it’s time to look at one-season series outside the immediate context of ratings and renewals. One-Season Wonders, Weirdos, And Wannabes considers the merits of these short-lived shows.

Let’s talk about Bradley Cooper. The past few years have been good to him. He’s a versatile comedic actor, one who spent the first half of this decade splitting his time between The Hangover franchise and more prestigious projects like Silver Linings Playbook and The Place Beyond The Pines. In 2014, he delighted audiences as a wise-cracking and occasionally adorable mutant raccoon in Guardians Of The Galaxy, and then he went on to earn his third Academy Award nomination as the tortured Chris Kyle in Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper. He has undeniable star power, and he’s continuing to be one of the most successful actors in Hollywood.

And now let’s talk about Bradley Cooper 10 years ago. In 2005, he had a short but growing resume. He had a small, memorable role in Wet Hot American Summer. He had played Jennifer Garner’s geeky best friend, Will Tippin, on the television show Alias for several years. The closest he’d come to a star turn was a supporting role in Wedding Crashers, in which he played Rachel McAdams’ jerk fiancé, Zachary “Sack” Lodge. So in the fall of 2005, when it seemed like there was nowhere for Cooper to go but up, he landed the lead role in a Fox sitcom called Kitchen Confidential, based on the Anthony Bourdain memoir of the same name. It premiered on September 19, 2005, to mostly positive reviews. Three episodes aired before it was bumped for the World Series. And then it was postponed. And then one more episode aired in early December. And then it was canceled.

While only four episodes of Kitchen Confidential made it to air, all 13 episodes of its first and only season are now available on Hulu. Like many gone-too-soon sitcoms, Kitchen Confidential took a bit of time to find its voice—an inconsistent, sometimes misogynistic, but also occasionally very funny voice.

Kitchen Confidential was, at its core, a comedy about the high jinks and misadventures of a ragtag group of cooks and waitstaff working at a restaurant in New York City. Cooper took the helm as the Kitchen Confidential author’s stand-in, Jack Bourdain. The fictionalized Bourdain—something of a hybrid between the actual chef and the show’s own creation—is a former bad boy, addict, and chef reassembling his life after hitting rock bottom. When given the opportunity to lead a team at a new restaurant called Nolita, Bourdain seeks out his former culinary friends and former enablers for help.

It’s certain that Kitchen Confidential wouldn’t have lasted four episodes without its talented supporting cast. The show’s pilot features a classic “getting the gang back together” montage of Bourdain seeking out all of his old pals, played by a who’s who of early 2000s television and film ensemble players: Nicholas Brendon, John Cho, and John Francis Daley all portray members of Bourdain’s team. Resident Brit Owain Yeoman comes onboard as Bourdain’s sous chef, with Jaime King and Bonnie Somerville playing hostess and floor manager, respectively (as well as the only two major female roles). Frank Langella came to round out the cast as Pino, the restaurant’s owner.

With a decade’s hindsight, it’s hard to imagine that any show with a cast this interesting could fail, but many of these actors had yet to establish themselves as household names. In turn, Kitchen Confidential worked with an uneven sense of charm. More often than not, the episodes consist of Bourdain’s team of boys lying, gambling, womanizing, and stealing, occasionally with the support of their reforming head chef. They harass the waitstaff. They harass the female customers at Nolita. They harass each other. They’re cads, but they’re lovable.

Of the four episodes that made it to air, the best is—of course—the fourth one, “French Fight,” featuring Cooper’s old Alias pal Michael Vartan as a French chef who steals one of Nolita’s signature dishes. What follows is a series of escalating pranks and manipulations, including each chef sleeping with the other restaurant’s most treasured waitress. Ultimately, the whole thing involves a lot of gimmicky French accents (wait, doesn’t Cooper speak French?), references to women’s bodies as properties belonging to restaurants, and male pride. And yet, Kitchen Confidential is still entertaining. A subplot revolving around pastry chef Seth’s relationship to his French counterpart—a spooky, basement-dwelling baker—is downright hilarious.

It’s worth noting that Kitchen Confidential has a gender problem, and a fairly serious one, too. It’s true that the food service industry is male dominated, but Kitchen Confidential’s portrayal of women in the business is just ridiculous. King’s character Tanya is a by-the-numbers dumb blonde. Those in the restaurant industry are not necessarily kindly disposed toward hostesses, with the easiest job going to the most beautiful person, but Tanya’s stupidity is exploited. Her inability to do anything right perpetuates a lazy trope, and it solicits more eye rolls than laughs.

As Mimi, Somerville is a little more complex. She’s the daughter of Pino and the restaurant’s floor manager, but again is pushed to the side. The boys in the kitchen mock and manipulate her, deeming her their enemy. The only major female character inducted into their fold is played by Erinn Hayes, who recurs as Bourdain’s culinary school rival, Becky. Joining the team when they’re in need of another member, Hayes is wonderful in Kitchen Confidential: whip smart, funny, tough as nails. But in Kitchen Confidential women are never just women: Becky is also sleeping with Bourdain.

Often, when sitcoms rely heavily on gender-based jokes (or anything that doesn’t make it feel like it’s punching up), it’s because there’s nothing behind the cheap humor. Those shows are empty, without heart or substance, without a cast that works well beyond its writing. Kitchen Confidential wasn’t that type of show. Beneath its sexism, it also works. It’s snappy and goofy, with an ensemble that supports each other just as much as they bicker.

Kitchen Confidential does improve over time. The jokes get quicker and funnier, the cast gels, and the storylines taking a more coherent shape. But it doesn’t hit any kind of stride, and perhaps this is why Kitchen Confidential doesn’t go down as one of the great gone-too-soon sitcoms of the mid-’00s. It didn’t know what show it wanted to be, and in turn, it floundered between two identities. At the end of the day, kitchens are fast-paced and all-consuming workplaces. Cooks and dishwashers and waitstaff form intense personal bonds, but it’s highly unlikely they’re all sleeping together or caught up in the petty sex dramas of each other’s lives. At its best, Kitchen Confidential focused on the workplace in its workplace comedy. Its notes on life in a kitchen—the way two cooks learn to maneuver around each other in the heat of the dinner rush, the way that produce vendors need to be kept in check, the way neighboring restaurants can go from friends to rivals at the drop of a hat—were its funniest and best moments. They provided insight into a world otherwise unseen outside of the Food Network.

And Cooper no doubt had the charm to carry this strange but endearing cast, but the show wanted him to be the sleazy, funny romantic lead instead of the sleazy, funny guy in charge. They didn’t want him to be a boss, they wanted him to be an everyman. But Cooper had already demonstrated he was beyond the role of an everyman. He was going to be a star, and this wasn’t quite the right vehicle. In addition, Kitchen Confidential’s cast would go on to do great things: Cho would have a successful film and television career, recently seen in the definitely gone-too-soon Selfie. John Francis Daley would act on Bones and write films like Horrible Bosses. Erinn Hayes would be a key part of Adult Swim’s Childrens Hospital. Their comedic talents were wasted on this particular vehicle, but it’s still fun to watch their characters bicker and scheme together.

Cooper would go on to have greater success on the big screen after this. Still, he always had the charm to be a likable hero from week to week. It’s a shame, though, that Kitchen Confidential never landed on a voice. Too few shows depict kitchens outside of reality television, and this one did a fairly accurate job of getting the anxiety of a Friday night and all the inner workings of a tight-knit group of cooks. But alas, Kitchen Confidential was pulled out of the oven a little too soon, left to abandon on the cooling rack.

One season wonder, weirdo, or wannabe? Wannabe, through and through.

Next time: Before Sarah Jessica Parker was Sex And The City’s fashionista, she was just an ’80s girl trying to fit in on Square Pegs.