Not long ago the inside of a professional chef’s kitchen would have been a mysterious and unknown place, the gleaming work surfaces kept hidden from public view.
Now thanks to the gratuitous influx of reality cookery programmes, we see every glisten of sweat, hear every swear word and the masculine barks of “Yes, Chef!” We’re as comfortable with the set-up of a restaurant kitchen as we are with the inside of our own microwave, able to revel in the chaos and heat of a professional kitchen without doing any of the actual work. Which is why it was only a matter of time before a programme like Whites – a comedy set in the kitchen of declining and grumpy chef Roland White – came along.
Said grumpy chef is played by Alan Davies, sporting a little facial hair and attempting to act unlovable, which is a hard feat when it’s obvious all anyone ever wants to do is ruffle his ample head of curls. He rails against vegetarians, upsets his sous chef Bib (played with wonderful puppy-dog eyes by Darren Boyd), drinks whiskey and does unconvincing sexual tension with front of house manager Caroline (Katherine Parkinson from The IT Crowd). This is all very well and good, but you can’t help thinking that in the next scene Stephen Fry will poke his head round the corner, chuckle and give Davies a pat on the head.
The inevitability of setting a comedy in a restaurant kitchen is that it’s going to be extremely testosterone-orientated. The opening sequence sees Bib in alpha-male mode, shouting and roaring, knives chopping, fire burning, steam, well, steaming and underlings crushing and bashing with various phallic shaped objects. An overdose of masculinity is never a problem (just look at The Inbetweeners, for example) but when the female characters are underdeveloped and annoying, the show starts to descend into an all-male showcase, as is unfortunately so often the case in the world of comedy. Front of house manager Caroline has a few unconvincing exasperated jibes, the dopey waitress Kiki is a dumb blonde without being blonde and the hotel manager is posh and high-pitched.
The set-up does seem a little ‘70s sitcom’ at times – Roland is writing a book about “meat and memories”, the hotel manager’s friend is coming to dinner, she happens to be a publisher, she’s a vegetarian and of course, what larks, hilarity ensues! But although the jokes are simple and not particularly laugh out loud funny, a sense of quiet amiability is laced throughout Whites and it’s a not altogether unpleasant way to spend half an hour, if you like your comedy manly and meaty. No vegetarians allowed.
Originally published on The Yorker 30th September 2010