TV Review: Bravo’s ‘Chef Academy’

11.16.09 8 years ago 5 Comments


Despite being a hybrid of two genres Bravo does very well, the cable network’s new series “Chef Academy” is a disappointing Frankenstein’s monster of a show.
Although the new season of Food Network’s “Next Iron Chef” is making a compelling campaign for the genre’s summit,  Bravo’s competition cooking shows are the best in the business. “Top Chef” remains the industry’s gold standard and will likely take a place in my Top 10 for the year, while “Top Chef Masters” was an entertaining and worthy space-filler between “Top Chef” seasons. I’ll even watch the upcoming “Just Desserts,” from the “Top Chef” creative pipeline.
While I’m not a big fan personally, I know lots of people enjoy Bravo’s crazy-boss-and-put-upon-assistants shows. I’m talking about things like “Flipping Out” and “Millionaire Matchmaker” and several other past favorites, where we were treated to largely contrived, but allegedly real glimpses at eccentric professionals and their long-suffering underlings. 
“Chef Academy” tries to fuse the two genres, with very little success on either front.
[Review of “Chef Academy,” which premieres on Monday, Nov. 16, after the break…]
The star of “Chef Academy” is Jean Christophe Novelli. Yes, he’s a Michelin-starred chef and yes he runs restaurants around the world and yes he has a cooking academy in England, but in the first 30 seconds of the episode, we hear multiple times about Novelli’s crowning as World’s Sexiest Chef.
In what was probably a natural decision, Novelli decided the next frontier to cross was the United States, so he decided to come open an academy in Los Angeles. In what was probably a less natural decision, he decided to start this academy on the fly in a trendy Venice Beach pad, with the cooking area getting secondary priority to the swimming pool and home entertainment area. In what was probably the least natural decision, he filled the positions for his academy based on a reality TV auditioning process, very clearly filling his rolls based on the input of Bravo casting directors rather than any instructor-ly instincts of his own.
Novelli arrives in the United States accompanied by his pregnant girlfriend Michelle and assistant Steven Kitchen. Yes, his name is Steven Kitchen. And Novelli is assigned a personal assistant, Joel, whose major qualification is a former gig as Tori Spelling’s assistant and his utter lack of knowledge regarding food or whatever it is that the person he’s supposed to be assisting does for a living. 
Now there’s one approach to “Chef Academy” wherein we would actually spend time with Novelli, Michelle, Joel and Kitchen seeing the process of starting this academy. In that situation, presumably Novelli would have have an actual hand in choosing his working space, selecting his initial pupils and investing in advancing the reputation of his academy. That show might be entertaining on its own if Novelli kept his clearly unqualified Bravo-provided personal assistant and just yelled at him for an hour every week. 
Part of why Bravo’s other shows in that genre succeed is that they can concentrate on a small core, while taking a client-of-the-week episodic approach. With “Chef Academy,” screentime also has to be dedicated to the wacky students in Novelli’s first academy place. Early standouts include Kyle, a driven sous chef with more training than the other eight combined, Emmanuel, a laconic Frenchman with deadline difficulties, Carissa, who only wants to learn to cook well for her future husband, and Suzanne, a real housewife from Orange County.
In order to give screentime to all of these character, “Chef Academy” has a superfluous and derivative competition element. Novelli throws out all legitimacy for his academy on Day One, when he puts the cheftestants on the clock to make their signature dishes.
“Signature dish? This isn’t ‘Top Chef.’ I don’t have a signature dish,” observes Tracie, a 45-year-old television producer.
I don’t blame her incredulity. 
Novelli then critiques and scores the signature dishes. Contestants who fail three challenges get eliminated. Those who don’t get eliminated, remain the competition for the chance to win… A diploma from Novelli’s cooking academy. Woo! If that’s not anti-climactic enough, the challenge has a winner who receives… Absolutely nothing. But apparently you couldn’t have a show where we just watch The World’s Sexiest Chef teaching people to cook without grafting a competition element onto it.
While the show’s structure flaws are myriad, what really crushes “Chef Academy” is the fact that Jean Christophe Novelli may be good looking, but he isn’t actually all that interesting. He’s just another TV chef with a thick accent and not-so-creative insults for food he dubs inedible. That’s not enough. How much better with “Chef Academy” work if this academy were run by Fabio and Stefan from “Top Chef”? Infinitely. They don’t have the Michelin stars and they don’t have the New York Times stamp-of-sexiness-approval, but they have personalities. The only notable thing about Novelli is his inexplicably dated set of pop culture references. The only celebrity he wants to meet is Columbo and he does an awful Peter Falk impression. He later compares a contestant to Samantha from “Bewitched.” He isn’t charming or funny and it’s a bit sad that the signature dish he showcases for his pupils is a style-over-substance dessert with a caramel bird’s next. 
With another strong season of “Top Chef” coming to an end, Bravo is obviously hoping that viewers turn to “Chef Academy” as a between-cycles proxy. If the premiere is any indication, this is a strategy that probably won’t succeed. 
“Chef Academy” premieres at 11 p.m. on Monday (Nov. 16) night on Bravo.

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