There is some alternate Earth, somewhere in the multi-verse, where Bradley Cooper has never made the leap from television to film, where Bradley Cooper has never been responsible for $2.4 billion at the box office, where Bradley Cooper has never been nominated for an Academy Award. This is an alternate universe where this fall’s “Burnt,” starring Bradley Cooper as a bad boy chef looking to make good, never gets made. But it’s also an alternate universe where the 2005 series “Kitchen Confidential,” starring Bradley Cooper as a bad boy chef looking to make good, lasted more than one season.
As soon as plans for “Burnt” (originally titled “Chef,” until the Weinstein Company noticed that another movie already had dibs) were announced, the “Kitchen Confidential” jokes started flying. Both “Burnt’s” Adam Jones and “Kitchen’s” Jack Bourdain are recovering addicts attempting to once again prove their brilliance after some spectacular flameouts. Both are inspired by existing chefs (Gordon Ramsey coached Cooper for “Burnt,” while Anthony Bourdain wrote the memoir that inspired “Kitchen”). Both chefs are given chances to prove their worth; both find themselves tangled up romantically with a tough-as-nails lady chef in their kitchen; both throw up in the alley behind the kitchen from stress; both are on a journey to find meaning to their lives beyond winning awards for their cuisine.
But when examined, there’s more to the comparison than just the broad outline of their subject matter. What’s fascinating about looking at “Kitchen Confidential” in this context isn’t just the way both projects have a metric ton of similarities, but the way they play out in their respective contexts.
“Kitchen Confidential” is certainly much broader than “Burnt” in terms of tone. Created by David Hemingson and executive produced by Darren Star, four of 13 episodes aired on Fox before falling too far down in the ratings (by 2005 standards, anyway — its final episode received “only” 3.38 million viewers). But it was relatively well-liked, and pushed a lot of boundaries for a single-camera network comedy made before 2010.
Certainly a fantastic cast helps: Frank Langella recurs as the imposing owner of Jack’s restaurant, and his fellow employees include John Chu, Bonnie Somerville, Nicholas Brendon, John Francis Daley and Jamie King. The chemistry between them all is solid, and the series let Jack and his fellow chefs get pretty damn raunchy, with a frank attitude towards sex and drugs that, rewatched today, keeps the series feeling fairly modern.
Meanwhile, “Burnt” was maybe, according to the earliest prognosticators, an Oscar contender this year — if only thanks to Cooper’s leading man turn. Directed by John Wells (whose last film, “August: Osage County,” failed to impress despite its own starry cast), the London-set film tracks Adam’s quest to earn a third Michelin star (a crazy big deal, if you’re not familiar with the culinary word).
“Burnt” has “Kitchen Confidential” beat when it comes to star power — Emma Thompson! Uma Thurman! Matthew Rhys! Sienna Miller! Alicia Viklander! — but as many critics have already written, there’s something facile and prepackaged about the action that keeps it from really achieving any transcendence. The dishes lovingly served by Adam and his chefs look beautiful, but it’s impossible to gauge how they might actually taste — they’re all presentation, no sense of flavor. It’s a problem which extends beyond the plate to the film itself.
What these universes have in common, of course, is plenty of Bradley Cooper doing chef things. As “Burnt” publicists would love to tell you, Cooper has no small measure of off-screen cooking experience and seems completely at home in the kitchen. (The film’s New York City press conference was even moderated by chef Mario Batali, presumably for added veracity.) The “Burnt” publicists probably don’t also mention those 13 episodes of “Kitchen Confidential” Cooper did, of course, but full advantage to “Burnt” for really capitalizing on Cooper’s relative fluency en francais in many scenes — the closest “Kitchen Confidential” gets to that is an episode where Cooper squares off against rival chef Michel (played by Cooper’s one-time “Alias” co-star Michael Vartan) and the two of them fling increasingly over-the-top French accents at each other.
On the flip side, it turns out that the struggle to keep living clean is a lot more interesting in a serialized context, especially when it’s not the sole focus of the narrative. To the credit of both “Burnt” and “Kitchen Confidential,” staying away from drugs and alcohol is taken seriously by its protagonists without overwhelming the narrative. But while “Burnt” treads a relatively predictable path on this subject matter, it’s “Kitchen Confidential” that has the unique perspective on sobriety.
As an ongoing struggle for a television, rather a tidily solved film subplot, making the center of a series an addict means that in many respects, the protagonist is his own antagonist. When played poorly, this can go sour fast, but in “Kitchen Confidential’s” case it leads to no shortage of interesting moments, including an episode guest-starring John Larroquette as Jack’s former mentor Chef Gerard. Gerard has decided to embrace his impending heart attack and basically eat himself to death; rather than be proud of Jack for rejecting his self-destructive ways, Gerard tries to tempt Jack back to excess.
Thematically, it’s an interesting spin that’s very relevant to any project that has food as a focus — where’s the line between discovering culinary bliss and overindulging? Is self-destruction necessary to create true culinary genius? It’s the sort of question that’s universal to any story of creativity, but “Burnt” basically dodges it, choosing instead to focus on reforming Adam from an arrogant sociopath to a man who appreciates his crew and his craft above his own ego. It’s the sort of story that fits into two hours more than neatly — but lacks the complexity that “Confidential” was striving for.
A recurring theme of “Burnt” is that Adam’s style is five years out of fashion within the London culinary scene — making the irony that “Kitchen Confidential” exists all the more stinging. But it’s not even that “Confidential” did it first. It’s that “Burnt” itself, as a film, is the sort of adult-aimed crowd-pleasing drama that doesn’t really get made anymore, because the audience for it is at home catching up on the golden age of television. Television like “Kitchen Confidential,” just ever so slightly ahead of its time.
“Burnt” is out in theaters tomorrow. “Kitchen Confidential” can be watched now on Hulu.
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