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Chef Academy - "Coming to America"

I'm pretty sure Bravo's new show, Chef Academy, just blends elements of every other show they have on their network until it ends up with something that feels vaguely like a television show. There's one of the housewives from Real Housewives (OK, not really, but that's clearly the character model). There's a helpful, elfin, most likely gay man, like someone who might turn up on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. There's a cooking competition like on Top Chef. And there's a workplace drama where the experience of everyone working in the same space ends up driving everyone crazy like just about every other Bravo show. Bravo is a network that has built itself on a succession of increasingly awful reality shows, and Chef Academy sacrifices everything that could make it compelling in favor of pursuing that awfulness off a cliff.

I actually like the central premise of Chef Academy. Chef Jean Christophe Novelli has arrived on our shores from the United Kingdom, European accent that can't quite be pinned down intact, so thick that the show occasionally sees fit to give him subtitles. He's here with his pregnant fiancee and an assistant guy, and he has come to teach a few novice cooks how to be great chefs in the space of a few weeks because ain't that always the way of reality television? If the chefs fail one of the challenges three times, they'll be out of the academy, but other than that (supposedly), there aren't any other competitive aspects to the show. It's just about some novices becoming better at what they want to do.

Honestly, as someone who enjoys messing around in the kitchen, I brightened at the thought that Chef Academy might actually include a little in the way of instruction in how to be, well, a chef. I wouldn't go as far as the novice chef who said that chefs are the new rock stars, but wanting to be a chef is very obviously the new "Maybe I should just leave my job and open a coffee shop" for my generation, so any chance the TV can give to teach us how to do this crap is much appreciated. To be honest, Bravo's reigning Top Chef, one of the best reality shows ever on the dial, doesn't offer a lot in the way of good, old-fashioned cooking instruction (not that it needs to), so there's an opening for a show that combines something of the competitive spirit of that one with the how-to notion of the old Julia Child show.

So when Novelli pulled aside bespectacled, soon-to-be wife Carissa, who may be my new favorite reality TV character ever what with her mother-in-law impressions and the like, to show her how to crush garlic using her knife, it was the sort of thing you don't get too often from reality TV. It was the kind of value-add you want to see in your reality TV, akin to when Top Chef breaks down a particularly complex recipe or the footage of other countries seen on The Amazing Race. Novelli's instructions were clear, easily delivered and the sort of thing that any burgeoning chef could pull off in their own kitchen, even if he recited them all in less than 30 seconds. If the rest of the show were more like this, it might be the companion to Top Chef Bravo so obviously wants it to be (sort of Top Chef: Babies, I guess).

Like most of the Bravo workplace reality shows, Chef Academy is based around one compelling personality at its center that all of the other personalities revolve around. Novelli, as it turns out, is kind of a fun guy, even if the only credential the narrator breathlessly recites for him is the fact that he was deemed the World's Sexiest Chef. While he probably has other credentials and while he is fairly handsome, that the series was only interested in this aspect of his personality probably should have given me pause to start with. But Novelli is a neat presence to build a show around, whether he's providing education to the chefs or plucking a hair out of one of their dishes or waxing rhapsodic about Peter Falk, he's not your usual presence at the center of one of these shows, proving more laid back than angry about everything. It would be easy to fear he's going to be Gordon Ramsey, when, instead, he's kind of a lackadaisical type.

The other chefs all run the gamut of reality TV types, from the goofy and whimsical Carissa to the so laid back he seems like he might fall over (the show makes this joke, so it's fair game) Emmanuel to the never not tense Sarah. If you can think of a type that might turn up on a show like this, they're probably here. The breakout character, or at least the one positioned to be the breakout character, is probably Suzanne, whom the show never actually comes out and says is one of the Real Housewives of Orange County but might as well be with her space-y manner and ability to speak solely in catchphrases she seems to have learned from other reality shows. (Sample: "I don't know if you're aware of the people out there. They're not civilians. FYI. Film at 11." There are no ellipses in there because I did not cut anything from that quote.)

Suzanne ends up winning the first challenge, as it were, but it's this challenge that makes the show not quite work as well as it might. For a series that is supposedly not about competition, the chefs all constantly act as though they might be in competition, trying their darnedest to overly impress Novelli when they could probably just get by with showing him that they have the requisite skills. In addition, the lack of competition saps some of the drama from the show simply because the reality template Bravo has stuck the show in is the reality competition template. When Carissa gets a hair in her food and Novelli pulls it out, it's treated like the moment when she might get sent home, despite the fact that we very well know that can't happen.

So, sadly, Chef Academy falls apart at this point, when it might really turn into something interesting, with Novelli showing everyone involved how they could be better chefs. The first half of the episode -when Novelli is arriving in Los Angeles and talking about how much he likes Columbo while checking out his new digs - is the better half, but it's also the half that feels more like a cooking instruction show than anything else, with Novelli subjecting the chefs to a not ideal kitchen setup and offering them tidbits of instruction to get them through. But even that gets undercut by the fact that everything is timed. There's a good show in Chef Academy, about an expert giving his advice to a bunch of novices and the relationships that are built in that fashion, but it's been buried under the specter of another show that doesn't really need to be there.

Stray observations:

  • This season on Chef Academy, Suzanne is going to say a lot of wacky things! Won't you stick around and find out what they all are? No? Then we'll put all of them in the "this season on" package. No harm, no foul.