TV Preview

Stuever TV Preview: Novelli, of Bravo's 'Chef Academy,' more yeller than teacher

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 16, 2009

Jean-Christophe Novelli has been called the sexiest chef in France, but over here, he's about as exciting as a lump of pastry dough.

On "Chef Academy," Bravo's new cooking competition, Novelli comes to America under the rickety pretense that he is going to open a fancy culinary school in Los Angeles, when really it's clear he's here to open a reality show and partake in the singed brutality brulee that so interests Americans in high-end cuisine.

He's heard we like to be yelled at while we cook badly -- that there's a big business in it for guys like him, in the manner of "Hell's Kitchen" and "Top Chef." The rules of culinary education in our country appear to have been written with European-style masochism in mind; if you don't get your derriere handed to you on a plate each week, then nothing tastes good.

But "Chef Academy," which premieres Monday night, is no "Top Chef." In the recent past, Bravo promoted the noble idea that a show about craftsmanship ("Project Runway," for example) ought to feature people with talent and skills to match their ambition. Instead this show features a hodgepodge of nine contestants; some of them have cooked professionally and some have only dreamed of cracking an egg. They each, however, seem fully dosed with the elixir of being filmed for TV.

In between his "Columbo" impressions (Peter Falk is "the biggest legend ever in American cinema," Novelli informs his hapless driver) and his half-baked snootiness, the sexiest chef tout l'monde actually seems a tiny bit likable. "On the end of the day," he says, messing up an American cliche, "it's about zee passion for cooking." (His words are subtitled so we can understand better.)

"Chef Academy" is larded with slipshod narrative-assembly techniques, in which Novelli poorly pretends to be hunting for a suitable space for his academy. VoilĂ , a three-level building in Venice Beach appears for him, with a tricked-out mega kitchen and a living space already furnished in high design. Eet's perfect, he says.

The students? Far from it. Once chosen, they will take a class from Novelli each week that is strictly pass/fail. Once they've failed three classes, they're out. I like that one of them, Kup, worked for the last nine years on a Navy submarine as the lone cook for a crew of 150. I find it oddly sad that another student, Carissa, has been browbeaten by her future mother-in-law to learn to cook -- lest she face the wrath of her starving, momma's-boy fiance.

Novelli auditions his students by having them cook an egg, in any style, in front of him. Then he tries a little stereotypical intimidation, less Gordon Ramsay and more Pepe Le Pew. "Quite frankly, he's a little frightening," observes Suzanne, an Orange County housewife who later tries to impress Novelli with Swedish pancakes. "I hope it's jet lag."

The whole show feels jet-lagged, and you can almost hear a director feeding Novelli his indignantly proud Francofied dialogue. "I want to zee the love zey have for cooking," he announces.

One rejected contestant, a bartender from Baltimore named Paul, says he wants to learn to cook because chefs "are the new rock stars."

"Paul, we are not here to make rock stars!" Novelli huffs.

Or TV stars, it would seem.

So what is cooking here? I don't smell anything.

Chef Academy (one hour) debuts Monday at 11 p.m. on Bravo.

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