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Sacha Baron Cohen’s punking of a food critic makes me gag — and not because of cannibalism

If you’re a food critic or writer, you have to cringe at the latest episode of Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Who Is America?,” in which Bill Jilla, international food and wine editor for Dinner Reviews magazine, raves about a prison-inspired tasting menu that would give the average diner dry heaves. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never heard of Jilla, because in the context of Cohen’s segment, he stands in for all of us who review or otherwise write about restaurants for a living.

Jilla’s cipher status, I suspect, was the very reason he was selected for the episode, in which Cohen is disguised as an ex-convict named Rick Sherman who opens a fine-dining restaurant after learning to cook behind bars. Had the producers picked someone with name recognition — or at least someone writing for a recognizable publication — it would have looked as if the Showtime series were singling out a particular person, much like it had already done with Dick Cheney, Roy Moore and others.

Instead, Jilla plays the EveryCritic — well, at least a white, middle-aged EveryCritic who looks like Steve Perry dressed in his dad’s suit jacket.

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It’s easy to dismiss Jilla as a tool or maybe even a participant who was in on the joke. Clearly, it would be easier to explain how an apparently professional food critic could be duped if we just assume he was a paid prop in Cohen’s satire. I suspect that, like me, most of my peers in the food writing community think they would never fall for the gag plates presented to Jilla during the segment, and they’re probably right.

With his chef’s whites, his prison tats and shaved head, Cohen may be in disguise, but he’s barely concealing his contempt for the critic at the table. You know, the one who has agreed to a private tasting, in front of cameras, with the potential for his 15 minutes of fame. The critic’s combination of ego, ambition and cluelessness is the subtext for practically every word that falls from his mouth during the segment.

Cohen/Sherman introduces each of the three courses with an accent that sounds like a cross between an English gentleman and Sylvester the Cat. The first plate is a “medley of baked beans on toast,” a riff on a pair of prison staples. “Incredible,” Jilla declares. “That was cheddar? Coming through with that crunch on the toast. Great combination.”

The second course, the fake chef says, was based on a “true story,” in which a fellow inmate smuggled veal via a condom concealed “in his buttocks.” Cohen/Sherman then serves Jilla braised veal — “anally aged for eight days” — in a strawberry prophylactic. There is a long pause before Jilla slices open the condom, as if he’s considering his options, like bolting for the nearest exit. But he’s on camera, with the potential to discover a brilliant new chef, so he soldiers on. “Mmmm, this is straight from the heart,” Jilla opines.

“Well, nearby,” Cohen/Sherman quips in return.

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The final course — once again, we’re told it was inspired by Cohen/Sherman’s time in prison — features a “filet of vegetarian-fed Chinese dissident with cauliflower puree.” It’s cannibalism on a plate, courtesy of an “ethical” Chinese program in which people donate their flesh upon death.  Jilla can barely bring himself to stab at the meat on his plate, but when he finally does take a bite, he’s surprised at what he tastes. “Mmmm, butter,” the critic says. “It’s melting on my palate. I do not even need to chew it.”

As a final act of humiliation, Cohen/Sherman asks Jilla to speak directly to the Lao family, whose son, in the extended farce of this skit, donated his flesh for the meal. “It’s truly an honor and pleasure,” the critic says, to have eaten a part of your son.

If Jilla is standing in for food critics, then Cohen represents those who despise them. They could be formally trained chefs, who resent the idea of ignorant critics passing judgment on their cuisine. They could be members of Yelp’s Elite Squad, who think they could do the job better than the professionals. Or they could be everyday diners, who find critics too elitist, too full of themselves and too out of touch with working-class budgets.

I’d guess Cohen was channeling the last one, which may be a stretch for a Cambridge-educated actor who has appeared in the Sunday Times’s list of the richest Britons. Regardless, you don’t have to be destitute to be a satirist, and Cohen has now officially lumped food critics into the category of powerful people who deserve ridicule and scorn. He wasn’t the first. Other projects have depicted food critics as blowhards willing to get personal in their reviews (Oliver Platt in “Chef”) or elitists who think they are the last word in cuisine (the funereal Anton Ego in “Ratatouille,” a critic who writes in a coffin-shaped room).

But at least Ego was allowed his redemption: It was that sublime moment when, after a single bite of ratatouille, the brutal Ego is transported back to his sun-dappled childhood, where life is still full of color and flavor and generosity of spirit. Jilla is allowed no such moment. He remains Cohen’s punching bag for the entire segment. Perhaps as a result, Jilla’s website, DinnerReviews.com, is down for the count, as if the critic is too embarrassed to face the public. (His LinkedIn profile remains active, however.)

Rape in the storage room. Groping at the bar. Why is the restaurant industry so terrible for women?

And what is the crime for which Jilla apparently feels the need to go into hiding? He had not broken any international treaties or committed any crimes. He gushed about some clearly repugnant dishes designed to prove that a food critic (and, by extension, all food critics) will praise questionable, overly conceptualized and maybe even immoral cuisine if he thinks it might reflect well on him. Cohen seems to think that Jilla and all food critics are, basically, the equivalent of Instagram influencers and two-bit hustlers, trying to scam free food while stealing some of a chef’s glory.

Jilla’s crime is one of ego — and lack of self-awareness. He possesses no clear BS detector, nor does he have a taste for the absurd. Most critics, I’d like to think, would have called Cohen’s bluff at least by the second course, as soon as the strawberry-condom sausage was placed before them. But you know what? Even if a critic sat through this entire charade, hoping this might be his big TV break, I can’t bring myself to condemn someone for ambition and gullibility.

After taking on much bigger subjects, Cohen is punching down with this segment. I don’t say that because critics don’t deserve critics. We do, and we have them. (Just read the comments of almost any review.) I say this because, in an era with real abuses of power, I look around at my peers and see mostly men and women striving to do good, honest and, sometimes, even groundbreaking work.

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