You know in those chef beatdown shows where a very famous chef comes to reform a kitchen and fires someone on the spot while yelling things like, “Why isn’t there enough f—— pepper!?” Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be the guy on the other end of that, moping toward the exit?
Matt King was that guy.
He was a chef’s apprentice at a classy restaurant. Nobody ate and everybody yelled. The head chefs he knew were mostly lazy and entitled. He was even in a kitchen where a certifiably crazy cook pulled a knife on somebody else and it surprised no one.
He made a sitcom out of the whole thing called “Whites,” which premiered its first episode on Hulu today after spending a year on the BBC. He didn’t even change the name of the guy who pulled a knife on somebody.
King would be angry if we used anything that could be construed as a food pun like, say, this show “throws cold water on any traditional sitcom.”
But that’s why we like the show so much: It totally throws cold water on any traditional sitcoms, and we love that he hates jokes like that.
This interview had a false start. We called him when he was going to get some diapers for his kid. They had “run out of nappies.” We’ll pick it up from there.
Hulu: So you’re the primary diaper-changer of the house?
Matt King: I’m a big one for regular changing. I’ve tried to work out how many and I think I’ve changed over a half-thousand nappies in my life.
That’s interesting. There are some people who categorically do not change diapers.
I deal with it with my wife. I’ve seen a lot of shit in my time.
Are we talking about TV now?
No, no. Not yet.
Well, that’s part of what I wanted to talk to you about. All of the cooking shows on TV right now consist of a chef yelling at someone who is young and did something very minor wrong. Is that part of how this show came about?
Absolutely. I think we’ve gotten over the screaming part. That’s all there was for a while. It was just Gordon Ramsay screaming at people—four or five years of that. Then we got a bit bored of him. Now we seem to have turned our attentions to this chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who is this calm, country-fit, gardening-type. He’s received a massive reaction.
So you’re telling me we’re going to get past this?
Yes. There’s an end. Not for another two years, I’d say, but there’s an end.
So was “Whites” sort of a reaction to those kind of shows?
It kind of was. Initially, I had the idea about 12 years ago, when I first started out doing my apprenticeship as a chef. I used to be a chef at a Michelin Star kitchen when I as very young. This was back in 1990. I just thought I really want to write something kitschy about this. Then when the TV chefs sort of came along, I started writing it on my own, along with Ollie Langsley. This was four years ago. Then I took the idea to the Beeb (BBC) and they snatched it up.
Was any of this directly lifted from your experience itself?
The kitchen and the hotel itself are totally based on my apprenticeship. They’re very, very similar looking places. The kitchen on the show was kind of based on that kitchen. I took the BBC along to see the kitchen so that the set was based on that. As for the characters, they’re an amalgam of the different kinds of chefs I knew. The one thing that I took away is how lazy head chefs were. Maybe not in a small environment, where they still have to cook; to be around. But in the larger environments, they can kind of hide. The character Skoose—he’s based totally on a guy whose name is actually Skoose. He was this small man with a lot of anger issues, but he could turn that around and be a complete ass-licker when he needed to be.
Do you worry that this guy might seek you out? Especially if you didn’t change his name?
Well, we changed how it’s spelled. (Laughing.) He would’ve found me by now. I did see him pull a chef’s knife on someone. We had to temper him down from that. I haven’t heard from him, though. Maybe he didn’t recognize himself in himself.
Then there’s the character of Bib, a sous chef. He’s the voice of the everyman, in that he shouldn’t be working in a kitchen like that. He’s a little too sane to spend three years in that environment. I suppose that’s my place in it.
Really, from what it sounds like, it seems almost inevitable that this is the atmosphere you’re going to get if you put these kinds of personalities in a room full of knives and hot water.
Yes, I think so. In the early 90s—in a very good kitchen—largely, it was down to Michelin Stars. That was what it was all about. (Critically acclaimed restaurant) Harveys was becoming famous for their fiery chefs. It was seen as a bit rock ‘n’ roll to be completely out of control. That’s compounded by me going on coffee from six in the morning to 11 at night every night. People don’t eat. People pick all day long. There’s no routine. None of the basic human needs are met or provided. It’s just a lot of coffee and a lot of cigarettes.
How do you think this show will translate to an American audience? Do you worry about anything not working quite as well over here?
Not really. Ollie and I set out to write an American-style show. We’re big fans of stuff like “Entourage.” We didn’t want to write a British sitcom—just joke after joke. Whenever we wrote a joke, we would throw it out. We wanted the comedy in our show to come from characters. We like to liken to the situation on the show to a submarine: It’s below-ground. It’s very low-light. We wanted humanity to come through. We wanted these characters to create genuine friendships. It does happen in real life with relationships and friendships at work. There’s, actually, a real bromance going on in parts of this show. So we’re not worried at all. In fact, there’s been talk of an American version.
Do you think this show will work a lot better now than it would have five years ago? Like you were saying, people seem to be very used to “The Office” form of comedy now—where jokes come from knowing the characters instead of simply straight punchlines.
I think five years ago, we would’ve written a lot more jokes. Yeah, now, we just avoid it. In general, it’s been received incredibly well. People love their relationships. There’s only been a couple of people that say it needs a lot more jokes. But I think there are still people who are conditioned to think 30 minutes means sitcom and 60 minutes means drama. We set out to make a 28-minute-long comedy drama. I think there will be a lot more of that.
Know what I watched recently that I loved? “Men of a Certain Age.” I loved it. It was beautifully paced, beautifully written. Ray Romano was great—and I didn’t think that could happen. There are no jokes in it, but it’s very funny. You become close to the characters.
“Whites,” too, seems like a “voice-to-the-voiceless” kind of show. There are a lot of people right now taking service jobs and just learning of these kinds of people. Have you heard from these people?
Oh, we got a lot of mail and Tweets and Facebook messages from people that work in that industry. Mostly, they just want to say thank you for sharing what we do so that people are aware of it—for saying that we’re not just drones. They’re saying, “We’ve got lives and problems—and they’re funny, just like everyone else.”