Last Night's TV: Michel Roux's Service/BBC2
May the Best House Win/ITV1
Thursday 13 January 2011
For a lot of people who work front of house in the catering industry there's a reason it's called "waiting". They're waiting for someone to offer them a better job, whether it's on stage or screen, or just somewhere where your income isn't subject to the capricious generosity of your customers. But for Michel Roux Jr, chef-patron of the Michelin-starred Le Gavroche, waiting on tables isn't an economic stop-gap on the way to celebrity, it's a route to fame in itself. The eight young trainees he'd assembled to take part in Michel Roux's Service, he told us, could be "stars of the future" and the trade they were being trained in a key to great privileges. "Wonderful locations, great experiences, beautiful palaces, that is what this career can give you," he assured them. At every one of which, you'll have the opportunity to be treated like dirt by merchant bankers, I muttered at home, finding it a little difficult to get into the spirit of the thing.
As Michel would see it my cynicism is an English vice. Whereas the French and the Italians take service seriously – and regard the profession with pride – the English tend to think it beneath them. The result is a dearth of homegrown waiting talent and also this new series, which you might describe as The Restaurant without the really interesting bits. If you can't stand the heat, somebody has thought to themselves, then you don't need to bother going in the kitchen at all. Just stay on the other side of the swing doors and worry about how to put the entrée on the table, and keep a track of the table numbers.
I'm far from convinced that there will be enough going on here to keep us interested, not least because the opportunities for catastrophe are dully predictable (customer has to wait for a dish, customer complains). But it isn't going to be for want of trying on the producers' part. Every cliché of the challenge format has been applied. "I am going to take you on a journey," Michel tells his novices at the beginning, and then at regular intervals he crops up in the back of a cab, supplying the mentors' frets these things employ as garnish: "I'm just beginning to realise the enormity of the challenge we've got ahead", "I think I've got a mountain to climb" etc etc. One assumes that – like sous-chefs doing their mise en place – they prepare a batch of these in advance and then sprinkle them in as required.
A top London maître d', Fred Sirieix, has been retained as head tutor and – after some elementary tuition in plate-balancing, arm-stretching and eye-contact – he threw his students in at the deep end, giving them the front-of-house job in a busy chain restaurant. Not all of them had fully absorbed his advice that they should familiarise themselves with the menu: "Can I offer you a glass of prosciutto with your meal?" said Nikita, whose background as a south London teenage mum had clearly not given her an extensive experience of the world's sparkling wines. And Ashley – whose only formal qualification is an Asbo – simply went Awol when the pressure got too much, and was eventually found behind the bar discussing the pizza oven with the chefs. But most of them coped reasonably well – the task of carrying things from one place to another and smiling when you got there turning out to be a touch less demanding than the format would like us to believe. I'm sure that in the long run it will be life-changing, pride-enhancing, career-boosting and many other things, but I doubt I'll be around to see it happen.
Format-fatigue is also conspicuously evident in May the Best House Win, a shameless Come Dine with Me clone that mystifyingly purges the set-up of nearly every element of tension and excitement. As in Come Dine with Me, there's a sarky voiceover, a system of reciprocal judging and a £1,000 prize. What there isn't is even a fraction of the opportunities for social backbiting and class warfare. What's at stake here is people's houses – or rather their interiors – which each contestant opens up to the others so they can nose around and pass comment. Nobody's immune to the pleasures of looking through other people's windows, of course, and in at least two cases there was enough eccentricity at hand to make the peering passably interesting.
We started with Jeff, a probation officer who'd gone for magpie chic: "I don't think I've gone out of my way to establish a look or a decor," he explained. "It's happened by accident." This was something of an understatement because Jeff's decorative touches included road-kill birds, which he'd had stuffed and mounted and a vintage condom machine he'd found by the side of the road. Above his bed, he had a lifesize rhino head, oddly mismatched with the teetering piles of CDs, books and stacks of folded laundry. Tony meanwhile lived in a tiny flat that he'd converted into a bleeping replica of a Star Trek interior, boarding up all of his windows for greater authenticity and maximum claustrophobia. To their credit – but not much to the programme's advantage – everyone was politely civil about what they encountered and the eventual winner – as will presumably quite often be the case – was the blandest and most luxuriously appointed property, a Country Life cliché enlivened (if that's the right word) by Britain's largest collection of brewing memorabilia. It says something about the dullness of the programme that this was a highlight.
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