The Cooks: articles


Taste buddies: the main cast; and, below, Kate Atkinson as Ruth and Toby Schmitz as Gabe.

Lovin’ spoonful

Food, sex and romance are the main ingredients in Ten’s spicy new drama. Debi Enker reports.

Plates piled with poussin and salmon are delivered to tables at the stylishly modern R&R restaurant and the air is rich with rosemary and garlic. It’s unusual for a TV studio to smell this good. And this isn’t the kind of place you’d expect to see parmesan-topped pasta or pretty squares of sugar-dusted Turkish delight. It’s a crowded corner on the ground floor of an old wool-storage building in an unremarkable street in Rosebery.

However, food consultant Alex Herbert, a chef from Surry Hills restaurant Longrain, has made the prop food the real thing, down to the last pillow of gnocchi and sprig of salad. Even the extras playing waiters have restaurant experience, which, producer Penny Chapman notes with a smile, wasn’t a big ask when casting among under-employed actors. Moreover, members of the core cast of The Cooks attended an intensive culinary “boot camp” with Herbert. During the four weeks before production began last year, they learned to look like real workers in a commercial kitchen.

This attention to detail demonstrates how seriously this show takes its tucker. Food, and those who aspire to make it brilliantly, are at the heart of The Cooks, a 13-part series made for the Ten Network 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 side, in the shell of an Italian restaurant formerly owned by Roberto Francobelli (Colin Friels), will soon rise Snatch and Grab, a new-look competitor run by Roberto’s son, Gabe (Toby Schmitz), his pal Sachin (Nicholas Brown) and their kitchen hand, Dishpig (Leon Ford).

Chapman, whose credits include Brides of Christ and The Road From Coorain, says The Cooks is about “food, sex and love”. She is very enthusiastic about the series, which represents one of the year’s few forays into local drama.

“It’s ostensibly about food, but it’s really about love,” she says. “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 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 producer’s diplomacy and with an actor’s skill of cutting to the core, Findleton (Grass Roots) says The Cooks is about “cooking and f---ing”. 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 “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.”

However, The Cooks wasn’t always so spicy. The original concept was for a family show, a much more wholesome affair designed for a 7.30pm slot. 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 cookery-school exchange program. After discussions with Chapman the concept was refined: no Asian component, as it would be financially and logistically prohibitive; not cookery 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 cast of The Cooks, which screened in August last year. By the time Ten got Temptation, however, it had decided it 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.”

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 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 Anthony Bourdain than Jamie Oliver.

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

Atkinson and Schmitz

Even with the shift designed to woo an older audience, Smith’s original intentions remained intact. She saw 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 says. “I wanted to make a show that’s not about people solving other people’s problems.”

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.”

Both Maher and Findleton praise the quality of the writing. “It’s such a joy to get a script where you go, ‘Wow, that’s really exciting. I want to be involved with that,’ “ Findleton says. “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 three-hat rating, but it’s a dire period for local drama. The only other prime-time series to debut this year was the ABC’s Fireflies and Ten has had The Cooks on a backburner for much of year, perhaps nervous since the lukewarm response to new episodes of The Secret Life of Us.

The show’s debut marks a nervous time for Chapman. “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 TV 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.”

The Cooks begins on Ten on Monday at 9.30pm.

By Debi Enker
October 18, 2004
Sydney Morning Herald