Critic's Notebook: Before Bradley Cooper Got 'Burnt,' He Cooked in 'Kitchen Confidential'

Long before he played a chef in 'Burnt,' Bradley Cooper played one on Fox's 'Kitchen Confidential,' which is available on Hulu — and worth a second look.
Courtesy of FOX

If you find yourself walking down the New York City street on the Fox Lot, be sure to stop by Nolita, once the hippest eatery in Manhattan, but now just a background curio rewarding eagle-eyed fans of the artificial Big Apple.

Dedicated foodies will remember that pan-foreign restauranteur Pino was on the verge of closing Nolita back in 2005, only to get an unexpected respite when he scooped former bad boy chef Jack Bourdain off the scrap pile of uninspired sobriety and a kitschy red sauce Italian joint. Bourdain and his team of culinary eccentrics earned rave reviews despite a series of wacky misadventures including a daring mid-dinner robbery, accidentally serving a severed thumb to a critic and an unfortunate weekend detour into the dark world of brunch. But then, Nolita abruptly closed and Jack Bourdain was never heard from again.

Billboards around LA suggest that Bourdain has now made a return to the kitchen, still a bit of a rule-breaking rogue, though this time the critics haven't been nearly as kind.

At least we'll always have Nolita.

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If early tracking is correct, the number of people planning to watch Bradley Cooper in Burnt this weekend is close to nil and if reviewers are correct, nobody will be missing much. The Hollywood Reporter's Jon Frosch called Burnt "half-baked" and his is far from the harshest reaction.



If Burnt vanishes after its release on Friday (October 30), perhaps its greatest achievement will be making at least a few viewers go, "Wait. Haven't we seen Bradley Cooper do this before?" So kudos to Burnt for serving as an expensive tin anniversary present for Kitchen Confidential.

By this time 10 seasons ago, Fox had already pulled Kitchen Confidential from its schedule, following a third episode that drew only 3.38 million viewers, a number higher than either Grandfathered or The Grinder, both picked up for full seasons, drew in their most recent episodes. After sitting out November Sweeps, Kitchen Confidential returned for one out-of-sequence airing in which Fox tried desperately to capitalize on the Alias reunion between Cooper and Michael Vartain, hilariously hammy as a French chef. It fizzled and Kitchen Confidential left the network's schedule for good, nine additional episodes in the can.

The instinct is to look at shows like Kitchen Confidential and say that they were ahead of their time. Based in the loosest possible way on Anthony Bourdain's raucous memoir, the series was buried in the middle of TV's ongoing food obsession, three years after NBC's Emeril tanked, but only months after Gordon Ramsay yelling at people for poorly prepared scallops became a Fox institution.

Kitchen Confidential was not, in fact, ahead of its time. While Fox could probably put it after a cycle of Hell's Kitchen and get slightly better numbers, the network could also just as easily put Kitchen Confidential on Tuesday night and get even lower ratings. But Kitchen Confidential was always, even at the time, a show that was in the wrong place, regardless of the time. Bourdain wrote an adult book about the swearing, sex, casual violence, sexism and disgusting food practices in nearly every kitchen in America and it went to a network where squirting blood from a severed digit was kosher, but swearing was a non-starter and screwing had to be boiled down to frequently repeated sequences of Jack and his paramour-of-the-week hurriedly rushing into a room as he tore off her shirt and the scene cut to black. Kitchen Confidential was a sanitized take on an unsanitized look at life behind-the-scenes in a restaurant and there will always be a lingering question of how the exact same writers, directors and stars could have handled this material on FX or, better yet, on HBO or Showtime. Kitchen Confidential really needed f-bombs, boobs and the kind of unblinking cooking candor that Burger King or Olive Garden ad buys would flee from.

A decade later, however, this safety scissors version of Kitchen Confidential still holds up amazingly well, the kind of comedy that would generate a torrent of Save Our Show blog posts if it launched and quickly was canned today.

Expecting it to have the darkness of Bourdain's book was folly, but Fox's Kitchen Confidential, developed by writer David Hemingson and produced and directed in early installments by Darren Star, is an immediately vivid and distinctive workplace comedy packed with believable kitchen politics and hierarchy, as well as more universal office bonhomie and collegial bickering. Its ensemble was heavily masculine, but it never wallowed in fratty hijinks and some of the female roles were standouts, especially when it came to guest stars. Today you can zip through the 13 episodes and there isn't a single momentum-slowing dud, nor is there a character or performance misguided enough to derail the show.

Long before he was Movie Star Bradley Cooper or Oscar Nominee Bradley Cooper or Why Does He Keep Popping Up on Limitless Bradley Cooper, Cooper was just a guy from TV who was funny in Wedding Crashers, but Hollywood hadn't exactly figured out how to use him. This should have offered a good template and, truthfully, the imaginary edgier cable version of the show probably would have solidified his image years before The Hangover. Although he was playing a tamped down version of Tony Bourdain's rock star persona, Cooper conveyed ample charm, all with an underlying self-destructive streak, as a chef prone to recipe stealing and anti-vegetarian ranting. He had terrific chemistry with a string of weekly guest lays, kept some unlikable behavior fairly likable and he could have really shined if things were allowed to go darker.

Cooper mostly anchors Kitchen Confidential so that the craziness can go on around him and the supporting cast is just top-notch, with a lot of the humor coming from unexpected sources. Owain Yeoman, usually cast as Welsh beefcake, has moments of blustery lunacy as sous chef Steven, playing well off of John Cho's more deadpan seafood expert and Nicholas Brendon's flamboyant pastry chef. John Francis Daley gave the best of his fully grown post-Freaks & Geeks performances as the often-picked-on newbie in the kitchen and, on the veteran side of the cast, Frank Langella is brings great menace as Pino, even if he changes accents with seemingly every episode.

The standout on the female side of the cast is Erinn Hayes, who is sexy, tough and really sharp as a chef who either wants to bed Jack or take his job. Jaime King gives real sweetness to her bubble-headed blonde hostess and Bonnie Somerville fought off an inconsistently written character to land some good episodes, at least relative to the string of instantly failed sitcoms on her resume.

Guest stars, all solid, include John Larroquette, Jordana Spiro, Morena Baccarin, Lindsay Price and a dancing bunny (plus actual bunnies, not in the same episode).

Although it was a single-cam comedy, Kitchen Confidential shot in Los Angeles and took no particular advantage of the format. Most of the show took place in the versatile kitchen set that made room for some mobility, but was never used for any Goodfellas-style ambitious one-shot navigation, because Kitchen Confidential just never aimed that high. The food is well displayed throughout, but it's not deliciously fetishized by our current Hannibal-ized standards.

Only four Kitchen Confidential episodes ever aired on Fox, but the entire run of the show has long been available online, finding a home on Hulu and six hours dedicated to watching or rewatching it are bound to be better than three or four hours going out to see Burnt, including parking, price and that annoying guy sitting next to you texting, "Why am I here?!?" the entire movie.

A word of caution: Somehow the episode order got shaken up. I blame Fox for airing the ninth episode fourth for the Vartan of it all. If you watch Kitchen Confidential episodes in the order they autoplay on Hulu, several of the relationships, especially the one with Cooper and Hayes, are rendered nonsensical. Even out of continuity, it's still probably better than Burnt. And keep an eye out for Nolita whenever a 20th Century Fox TV show goes to New York, but is too cheap to actually go to New York.

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