In the very first episode of AMC’s Feed the Beast, a vengeful detective played by Michael Rispoli alludes to arguably the most shopworn metaphor in the history of literature: the white whale at the heart of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Here, the whale represents the man’s obsession with Patrick “The Tooth Fairy” Woichik (Michael Gladis), a Bronx-based mob boss with a penchant for pulling out people’s bicuspids, and it’s what brings him to hound Dion Patras (Jim Sturgess), a brilliant chef who’s fresh out of jail for arson and is now under Woichik’s thumb. But the whale metaphor also signals the boiling down of a novel rich in technical detail, one that conjures a deep love for the experience of worked on the high seas, to a simplistic tale of revenge.
Early on in the series, it’s revealed that Dion was once the chef at a thriving eatery where he worked with his best friend, genius sommelier Tommy Moran (David Schwimmer), but after Tommy’s wife was murdered, the volatile chef torched his restaurant and Tommy became an alcoholic and took a job as a wholesale wine salesman to support his son. The show’s thrust is their attempt at renewal by opening up a world-class Greek restaurant in the Bronx. There’s plenty of fancy, well-researched talk about ingredients, preparations, and pairings throughout, but none of it is complemented by an equally extreme sense of visual artifice that brings these characters’ knowledge of food to life. Dion may express tremendous passion when he talks about preparing a rack of lamb, but that passion is visually rendered with nothing more than a medium shot of him putting the meat in a hot pan with oil.
Feed the Beast eventually becomes a study of art’s integral relationship to crime and criminal behavior. Dion and Tommy’s restaurant is only made possible by the unlawful activities of Woichik; Dion’s prostitute-peddling uncle, Stavros (Demosthenes Chrysan); and Tommy’s shady, estranged father, Aidan (John Doman). Each of these characters’ criminal enterprises is depicted both vaguely and with an unconvincing cuteness that belies the violent nature of what these men do for a living. As creator Clyde Phillips and his writing team study the connection between the men and the restaurant, one can sense Phillips’s own cynicism toward his own art, as a long-term producer and writer for TV shows like Dexter, and the vast moral and ethical compromises that go into bringing one’s creation to fruition.
If Phillips had followed this inclination all the way to its angry end, Feed the Beast might have proven a refreshing expression of the frustration of artistic struggle. The lack of showmanship, of a single, evocative modicum of evidence to suggest that Phillips takes the same care in his work as Dion says he has for his, cuts his more personal impulses off. Despite Dion’s ignorant impulsiveness and criminal instinct, the effects of his actions are largely assuaged or severely diminished by a disregard for lasting consequences. Sure, The Tooth Fairy breaks Dion’s fingers, but he doesn’t kill him and the pain somehow doesn’t affect his cooking skills. And when Dion steals wine for the restaurant, Tommy’s worry over the guard who was severely injured in the heist is quickly dispelled by his own self-pity, stoked by Dion, and the series makes no point of highlighting how shitty and manipulative Dion’s acts were.
Feed the Beast ultimately becomes nothing much more than a paean to the myth of the wild, ingenious badass chef, and those cooler, wiser heads who both love them and are forced to pick up after them. Dion is the outlaw artist millions of readers imagined while they read Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, a book that, not unlike Moby-Dick, is often spoken about in general terms, usually only for their more digestible elements. Where Bourdain and Melville go to painstaking lengths to describe the addictions, hardships, and unending effort that went into the toils at the center of their tales, Feed the Beast only expresses a basic admiration for the process and love for the end product, which makes Phillips’s perspective feel more like that of a hungry customer than of a relentless artist in the kitchen.