The Cooks: articles

group photo

The Cooks crew, clockwise from back left: Kate Atkinson, Leon Ford, Emma Lung, Tony Schmitz, Rhondda Findleton, Nicholas Brown and Bojana Novakovic.

The cooks’ tale

Love and lust are on the menu in Channel Ten’s new kitchen drama. By Debi Enker.

The smell is delicious. Plates piled with plump poussin and slabs of salmon are being delivered to tables at the stylishly modern R&R restaurant. The air is rich with the aroma of rosemary and garlic.

It’s unusual for a TV studio to smell this good. And this isn’t the kind of place one would normally expect to see parmesan-topped pasta or pretty pink squares of sugar-dusted Turkish Delight.

It’s a crowded corner on the ground floor of an old, multi-storey wool-storage building, sitting on an unremarkable street in the light-industrial Sydney suburb of Rosebery.

But through the efforts of food consultant Alex Herbert, a chef from the highly regarded Longrain restaurant, the prop food here is good enough to eat.

These extremely photogenic dishes haven’t been slyly styled for the cameras using all manner of inedible products. This is the real thing, down to the last pillow of gnocchi and sprig of salad.

Even the extras playing the waiters at R&R have had restaurant experience, which, producer Penny Chapman notes with a smile, wasn’t a hard ask when they were casting among under-employed actors.

Moreover, members of the core cast of The Cooks spent time in an intensive culinary “boot camp” with Herbert.

In the four weeks before production began on the series last year, they learned how to function in a commercial kitchen to a level that would look credible on screen.

At the end of the crash course, the actors cooked a meal for the producers, directors, writers and crew that was pronounced by Chapman to be “sensational”.

The attention lavished on food preparation and the importance attributed to authenticity are signs of just how seriously this show takes its tucker.

Food, and the creative souls who aspire to make it brilliantly, are at the warm heart of The Cooks, a 13-part series made for Network Ten that is, in part, about a pair of rival restaurants.

On one side of the inner-city street is R&R, run by Rita (Rhondda Findleton) and Ruth (Kate Atkinson) with assistance from Carmelita (Emma Lung).

On the other, in the shell of an Italian restaurant formerly owned by Roberto Francobelli (Colin Friels), will soon rise Snatch+Grab, a new-look competitor run by Roberto’s son, Gabe (Toby Schmitz), his pal Sachin (Nicholas Brown), and their appropriately nicknamed kitchen hand, Dishpig (Leon Ford).

Chapman says that The Cooks is about “food, sex and love”.

An award-winner with a swag of impressive credits (including Brides of Christ, The Track and The Road from Coorain), she exudes enthusiasm about the series, which represents one of the year’s very few fresh forays into the sadly shrinking sphere of local drama.

“It’s ostensibly about food, but it’s really about love,” she explains. “It’s all about what we do to the people that we love, how we treat them, how we injure them, how we nurture them, how we break their hearts, how we betray them. All of the characters are engaged in giving the gift of food. They’re all doing something which is really beautiful and pleasurable and pleasure-giving.

“But they’re caught on the same treadmill that we all are: how do you find somebody to love you, how do you treat somebody you love, how do you deal with somebody who loves you when you don’t love them? All the simple but complex things in life that we all yearn to get right. And within that, while it’s about very pleasurable things, it’s also about extremely bad behaviour.”

Eschewing the diplomacy that comes naturally to a producer and using an actor’s skill of cutting to the core, Findleton (Grass Roots), who plays the celebrity chef Rita, says that The Cooks is about “cooking and f-king”.

There’s certainly a lot of sex and sensuality among the saucepans: dangerous liaisons on kitchen benches, saucy banter, ill-considered drunken couplings. Eggs are lovingly rolled between careful fingers. Even the act of getting someone to sample a new dish is made to look erotic.

Brendan Maher (The Road from Coorain, After the Deluge), director of episodes two and six, notes the “big, luscious close-ups of food. There’s a loving, almost erotic quality in the shots of the preparation of the food. The lighting is stepped up a bit from reality as well; everything is heightened. There’s a beautiful, rich colour palette: deep blacks, beautiful luscious reds, golds and green, colours of nature.”

But this drama, which is now so immersed in the sensual, wasn’t always so spicy. In its original conception, this was a family show, a much more wholesome affair designed for a 7.30pm timeslot.

Chapman and creator-writer Sue Smith initially went to Ten with an idea for a drama with a food theme. Smith had been inspired by an article she’d read in a Qantas in-flight magazine about young Australians travelling to Asia on a cooking-school exchange program.

After discussions with Chapman—the pair had previously worked together on a number of productions, including Coorain, Brides of Christ and The Leaving of Liverpool—the concept was refined: no Asian component, as it would be financially and logistically prohibitive; not cooking schools but rival restaurants; and a kind of Romeo-and-Juliet romance between feuding eateries.

Ten gave the green light for a telemovie that could grow into a series designed for an evening timeslot. The result was Temptation, starring Friels and many of the current cast of The Cooks, which screened in August 2003.

But by the time Ten got Temptation, it had reconsidered its requirements and wanted a more adult show to screen in a later slot.

Smith and Chapman went back to work with the new brief. “Once we got into it, we fell in love with it because it meant that we could make it much more real,” Chapman recalls.

“We could reflect what goes on in kitchens after they’re closed. We could introduce a few more younger characters and we could go bolder.”

Sex was now on the menu. The Cooks could get down and dirty, delving into the stuff a family-oriented show couldn’t touch: the wild ways of a workforce that functions under pressure into the night and then plays hard while the rest of the city sleeps.

Now there could be a certain relish in the maverick restaurant sub-culture, a world of bad behaviour and good gnocchi. The flavour could be more roguish Anthony Bourdain than raffish Jamie Oliver.

“Everything about it works better because we’re able to approach it with more honesty,” says Smith. “The series is less sweet than the telemovie: the telemovie was very romantic. The series is funnier and a bit edgier, and has a lot more sweat and adrenalin.”

By the time the writer and producer returned to Ten, recalls Chapman, the pitch had become “Five cooks, a feral dishwasher, a schizophrenic maitresse d’ and a cowboy who grows good shit.”

The Cooks has an eye-candy cast and it creates a community of characters with a distinctly cosmopolitan flavour: dinky-die Aussie Ruth, Italian stallion Gabe, temperate Indian Sachin, his tempestuous Argentinian girlfriend, Carmelita.

Friels’ character, the patriarch running a traditional trattoria, was dispatched on an extended overseas trip, although the mysterious woman from his past who turned up in Temptation, Rita, stayed on. As The Cooks opens, the restaurant she started with Ruth is celebrating its first anniversary.

At the heart of the drama are Ruth and Gabe, former cooking-school classmates, almost-lovers. They’re the couple oozing URST: meant for each other but constantly wrenched apart. “Gabe and Ruth are in love, but they’re in competition,” Chapman explains.

“In a perfect world, they would’ve set up in business together. He would’ve been the genius in the kitchen and she would have run the business and made them a fortune. They’re clearly meant for each other and beautifully balanced. They would be the team from heaven, if there was ever an opportunity for them to work together, but there never will be. In this world, they’re often at each other’s throats.”

With obvious affection, Smith describes Ruth as “incredibly sophisticated in one way and totally naive in another”.

As to casting, Chapman recalls that, “before we realised that Kate might be available, we had trouble finding Ruth. We wanted somebody who was going to be feisty, a bit of the feeling of the girl next door, but also sexy. Tomboyish but independent, nuggety. Because of that complexity, it took us quite a few rounds to find her.”

Rita was easier: “Once we lit on Rhondda, it wasn’t hard,” Chapman says.

“She tested and immediately we thought, ‘Absolutely, she’s got it.’ She’s sexy, she’s savvy, there’s a certain enigmatic quality about her. She brought something quite lustrous to Rita.”

In some ways, Chapman says, the casting of Toby Schmitz has subtly changed the character of Gabe. “He was written as a bit of a root rat, a beautiful Italian boy for whom life has always turned out pretty well,” says Chapman.

“A genius, a naughty boy. We were looking for somebody cheeky, sexy, a bit flamboyant. Then we saw Toby, and he wasn’t somebody we would’ve thought of immediately, but he brought a depth and an intelligence that enriched the character.”

Even with the shift designed to woo an older audience, Smith’s original intentions for the drama remained intact. The award-winning writer saw juicy dramatic potential in people who are involved in nurturing for a living but who make an awful mess of their own lives.

“Most series drama is about people who solve problems: nurses, doctors, lawyers, cops,” she observes.

“I wanted to make a show that’s not about people solving other people’s problems. I wanted to make a show about people whose profession it is to bring joy, to bring a sense of community, to fill a whole lot of those social gaps that are happening at a rate of knots in the world.”

Smith and the small team of writers “talked to chefs and people who have been involved in kitchens, so we got a bit of a sense of their lives. A lot of people who work in kitchens are incredibly self-destructive. There are huge booze and drug problems. Lots of marriages break up because they never have time together.”

The later timeslot has enabled the writers to tackle this side of the restaurant scene, and they have also laced food motifs into each episode.

The opener has eggs while others feature corn, bread, chocolate and nightshades. Both Maher and Findleton enthuse about the quality of the writing.

“I’m doing a Sue Smith script and an Andrew Kelly script and they are both beautiful,” says the director.

“Andrew has a fantastic sense of humour. You can be having a really good chuckle and then he’ll just kick the mat out from under you and you’ll have a really good cry. Sue’s work is like a deeply rich, emotional woven piece where all the things come together: the motif, the language, the visual style. And the character stuff is plotted beautifully.”

Findleton remarks that scripts this good are, regrettably, rare: “It’s such a joy to get a script where you go ‘Wow, that’s really exciting, I want to be involved with that.’ It’s a shame that you have to say that as an actor. It’s exciting too, because it’s different. It’s very fast, very funky, but you can’t just be fast and funky and hip and cool if you haven’t got the basic storyline. As much as it’s going to be funny, it’s also tender and true. The characters are really interesting and complex.”

If the enthusiasm of those involved was a signal of success, The Cooks would be heading for a coveted three-hat rating. But it’s been a dire period for local drama. The only other prime-time series to debut in 2004 was the ABC’s Fireflies and Ten has had The Cooks on a backburner through much of year, perhaps nervous since the lukewarm response to new episodes of The Secret Life of Us.

For Chapman, a seasoned producer and a former head of ABC Television, the show’s debut marks a nervous time.

“There’s an enormous amount riding on it for everybody concerned. And if you blow it, you really do have to pick yourself up off the floor and start again. It is a tough time for the television industry, it’s a tough time for the film industry. I’m terribly nervous because I know that this is a really good show. I’m so proud of it.”

Chapman is not the only one harbouring fervent hopes that The Cooks will tantalise the tastes of the viewing public.


Rita (Rhondda Findleton): Well-travelled celebrity chef whose forte is desserts. She has a tattoo of a chilli on her right wrist.

Gabe (Toby Schmitz): Italian son throwing off family traditions. A gifted and passionate chef and a single dad to Rosie (Sophia Irvine).

Ruth (Kate Atkinson): Tomboyish former cooking-school mate of Gabe’s. His temperamental opposite, business rival and great unresolved love.

Sachin (Nicholas Brown): Gabe’s best pal and kitchen 2IC at Snatch+Grab. Avoided deportation in the telemovie Temptation and remains the ardent lover of Carmelita.

Carmelita (Emma Lung): Third member of the R&R restaurant crew. A fiery personality who aspires to be “Dessert Bitch”.

Dishpig (Leon Ford): Clever, grotty, responsibility-resistant kitchen hand who works with Gabe and Sachin on the condition that he’s not elevated above his dishwashing station.

The Cooks premieres on Monday at 9.30pm on Channel Ten.

By Debi Enker
October 14, 2004
The Age