‘Chef!’: The Perfectly Imperfect Marital Eroticism of Janice and Gareth

[caption id="attachment_18035" align="aligncenter" width="237"]Janice and Gareth's stressful ideal Janice and Gareth’s stressful ideal[/caption]

 

Written by Brigit McCone as part of our theme week on Black Families.

If I had to point to one screen marriage that shaped my childhood ideas about marriage’s potential as positive partnership and intense intimacy, it would be Janice and Gareth Blackstock on the first two seasons of the British sitcom Chef!. The original writer, Peter Tilbury (working from star Lenny Henry’s concept), left after two seasons, and the final season’s crude divorce drama only highlights what made Tilbury’s vision so brilliant. In the final season, Janice is not a fully rounded partner, but an obstacle and challenge for Gareth. Where her constructive criticism was a form of protective support, it is now scornful nagging and abandonment. Her desire for a child is now her main motivation and source of conflict with Gareth. The third season’s Janice is the irritating, castrating and baby-crazy screen wife that viewers have seen a thousand times before; the contrast illustrates everything that was subtle and human about Janice’s original characterization.

From a racial perspective, Chef! might be compared to The Cosby Show, as portraying an exceptionally talented, sophisticated, and wealthy Black family. But where the Huxtables effortlessly “have it all,” somehow combining two careers and a large family with inhumanly minimal friction, the Blackstocks acknowledge that their lifestyle demands real sacrifice. Janice had to leave a flourishing career in the city to accompany Gareth, after his promotion to head chef of a prestigious, rural restaurant; she is outspokenly frustrated and eager to work again. When the restaurant has financial problems, the couple must sacrifice their house and car to buy it, admitting that the resulting tension “feels like you’ve eaten a lorry-load of All-Bran.” They are childless, and the conflict between their workaholic careerism and their hopes for children is openly explored. Each has a defensive facade of toughness and hyper-competence, but their scenes together explore the toll that this facade takes and the vulnerability it conceals. The sitcom’s central comedy is the farcical exaggeration of Gareth’s intimidating facade – “totally driven. We’re talking severe personality disorder here” – and its contrast with his inner softness. The perfection of Janice and Gareth’s marriage is not based on a perfection of their lives or personalities, but on their shared concept of marriage as a space of solidarity that accepts flaws and conflict.

That model of acceptant marriage is the bedrock of the show. In the opening credits, the lyrics “I’m the best, so do not test, the top of my profession” play over a montage of Gareth’s hyper-competence – working out and preparing the immaculate tools of his culinary trade – broken only when he briefly strokes the glossy picture of Janice that hangs in his locker, as though for reassurance. This image of her face comes before Gareth’s own face, underlining her importance to the show. Janice’s character can be read as rewriting the Sapphire stereotype, exploring the loving foundations of constructive criticism and the emotional intimacy of openly expressed frustration. Gareth’s farcical posturing can equally be read as parodying hypermasculine models of Black manhood, as much as bad-tempered celebrity chefs, while his sensitivity and capacity for nurture is his character’s true strength. The show’s unusually erotic portrait of monogamous marriage compares with the marital eroticism of Beyoncé’s “Drunk in Love” which, along with the self-identified feminist’s proud adoption of Mrs. Carter as a title, radically rejects stereotypes of absent fathers in the Black community. John Legend’s “All of Me” video showcases similar aesthetics of marital eroticism, while that song’s description of loving “perfect imperfections” is a good summary of Janice and Gareth’s relationship. But reducing their relationship to a cultural trend of Black marital eroticism would be far too limiting: it is, quite simply, television’s most perfectly imperfect marriage.

[caption id="attachment_18036" align="aligncenter" width="227"]Living the rustic, bourgeois drea Living the rustic, bourgeois dream[/caption]

 

As well as the strain of hyper-competence, Chef! confronts the cultural tensions in narratives of Black exceptionalism, mainly through Everton, Gareth’s never-really-liked-you-anyway-probably-flush-your-head-down-the-toilet-as-soon-as-look-at-you old schoolmate, who shares Gareth’s working class, British Caribbean background. Though Janice and Gareth help Everton, by offering him an unpaid apprenticeship in Gareth’s kitchen, it is clear that this is owing to the restaurant’s desperate finances, with Gareth particularly reluctant to take Everton on. On the surface, Everton fills the familiar role of goofy sidekick. Actually, although his unfamiliarity with restaurant etiquette causes some farce, he is capable and acquires skills steadily as the series progresses. The comical embarrassment that Everton causes Gareth is less a reflection of his foolishness than of his culture.

Gareth squirms at Everton’s pride in Caribbean cooking, having fully internalized cultural messages about the superior prestige of French haute cuisine and frequently boasting of his two Michelin stars. He automatically assumes that Everton is a “dope-head” (the marijuana belongs to a white co-worker) and fiercely attacks him for it, separating himself from that cultural stereotype with a barked “I hate dope-heads!” Gareth’s intense rejection of his own culture is rooted in personal conflict with his parents. Again, this tension is expressed in culinary terms: his mother’s neglect is illustrated by her incompetence as a chef, or perhaps by Gareth’s bitterness over that incompetence, while his father abandons the family for a short-order cook. When asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, young Gareth answered “an orphan.” Janice becomes insecure when Gareth shows admiration for the cooking skills of pretty, blonde sous-chef Lucinda, though he is otherwise “Mr. Monogamy.” Dominant stereotypes of Black life – absent fathers, neglectful mothers and attraction to blondes – are all slyly embodied by the show’s cooking metaphors, giving complicated symbolic resonance to Gareth’s determination to master society’s most prestigious cuisine.

Gareth’s broadly accented Caribbean father is introduced in the first season’s “Rice and Peas” finale, goading Gareth into trying to cook Caribbean food. The master chef is humbled by being forced to learn from Everton, highlighting his detachment from his roots, while Everton reveals a genius for Caribbean cookery that rivals Gareth’s own skill at haute cuisine. By the end of the second season, Everton has become a confident chef who combines Caribbean influences and haute cuisine, unapologetically owning his cultural identity but refusing to be limited by it. However, this is only made possible by the opportunity the Blackstocks have given him; their strained and self-conscious hyper-competence is a necessary first step to wider cultural change. Through Gareth’s complex relationship with Everton, Chef! foregrounds the tensions of so-called “choc ice” (British for “oreo”) cultural positions, without simplistically condemning them. The show’s Wikipedia entry commends Chef! as “a landmark programme in the sense that Henry plays a character who just happens to be black; the fact of his blackness does not limit the narrative or the audience the series reaches.” This misses the point. Gareth does not “happen to be Black”; the pressure on him to conform to white culture, to avoid limiting his own narrative, mirrors the show’s own need to conform to that culture, to avoid limiting its audience. This conflict is slyly embodied in plausibly deniable food metaphor.

[caption id="attachment_18037" align="aligncenter" width="227"]Janice Blackstock: wet, snotty bawler Janice Blackstock: wet, snotty bawler[/caption]

 

Back to Janice. Janice is all kinds of awesome as a character. A brilliant businesswoman, she is practical in all the ways the flamboyant artist, Gareth, is not, but shares his preoccupation with status. Janice is hilariously open about her materialism, yet prepared to sacrifice everything for Gareth if absolutely, absolutely necessary. Both Janice and Gareth are self-conscious social performers, but the basis of their relationship is their shared recognition of that performance’s artificiality, by no more than a quirk of a smile or a raised eyebrow. Their affinity, beautifully shown in their common flaws as much as in their virtues, creates the deep understanding between them. Janice is strong, but this doesn’t prevent her from admitting weakness: “I’m going to be brave in a minute. But, just right now, I’m going to break down completely, OK? I don’t mean a dignified tear or a trembling lip, I’m talking wet, snotty bawling!” With a sharp-tongued wit of her own, Janice may often play the foil to Gareth’s shrieking manbaby, but she is allowed to be his equal in comedy as well as in business. Gareth is also allowed to be Janice’s equal in emotional vulnerability: “I’m not going to cry because I’m a big boy now, but if I wasn’t, or if I was a ‘New Man,’ we could be talking wet, snotty bawling here.”

The Blackstocks’ relationship is physically intimate; Janice’s frustration is a running gag as Gareth’s workload leaves him too tired for sex, but the couple’s sex life remains “well above average.” Indeed, jokes about Janice’s sexual frustration only highlight how much more sex she’s depicted getting than other sitcom wives. It is less spectacular intimacies, however, that make the relationship convincing: Lenny Henry and Caroline Lee Johnson capture the subtleties of body language that convey affection and mutual reassurance in long-term relationships. Secure in this foundation of bodily affection, the Blackstocks are free to argue and vent their frustrations openly. Much of their relationship’s conflict springs from Janice’s sense of being neglected by her workaholic husband; that is, it is fundamentally rooted in the pair’s deep love for each other. When the final season’s (male) writers attempted to create drama by escalating the couple’s rows into full-blown separation, they could do so only at the expense of Janice’s character, flattening her into unsympathetic coldness. While this season shows how important Janice is to Gareth, through his devastation when she leaves and his desperation to win her back, that demonstration was unnecessary. Chef! wasn’t another clichéd show about a man who doesn’t appreciate what he has until it’s gone. The co-dependence of Janice and Gareth was fundamental to all their interactions.

Such co-dependence may be criticized. Janice would struggle to pass a Bechdel test, as she relates so exclusively to Gareth, though I see this as reflecting her rural isolation and the sacrifices she has made for Gareth’s career. Janice regularly complains about her loneliness, career frustrations and feelings of neglect; the insufficiency of a life that revolves only around her husband is core to her role. Such a portrait, of female frustration with the confines of a dependent role, can be as valuable as portraits of ideal female solidarity and independence. Janice needs a sense of vocation, which she gains by managing Gareth’s restaurant. Janice also needs friends and interests beyond her husband, which is explicitly addressed in the Tilbury-scripted episode Private Lives. In the finale of Chef!, Gareth’s underlying issues, his cultural identity crisis, and neglect of his private life, are tackled as he must sacrifice a trip to Paris to fly instead to Jamaica with Janice and work on their relationship. But the (so very male) writers of the final season are mistaken to interpret Janice’s relationship as the source of her frustrations. It is Janice’s life that is constricting, as she shares Gareth’s conflict between her materialist ambition and her emotional needs. But her marriage is a model of mutual support and open communication.

This is classic “patriarchy hurts men, too”: if a woman is understood only in relation to men, this means her male partner must be unfairly burdened with sole responsibility for her entire psychological well-being. The fact that the (oh so painfully male) writers could see no solution to Janice’s problems but a choice between divorce or more sex, with a romantic holiday to Jamaica thrown in, points to deeper problems in our concept of relationships and female roles. A chance for Gareth and Janice to grow as individuals, within the supportive framework of a relationship that needed no repair, would have been the more perfect ending for this perfectly imperfect marriage.


Janice and Gareth: they’re the best, so do not test.

 


Brigit McCone has unrealistically gendered catering expectations, since her father was the chef at home. She writes short films, radio dramas and “The Erotic Adventures of Vivica” (as Voluptua von Temptitillatrix). Her hobbies include doodling and she now lives off baked potatoes.