Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A Rant: Treme Sucks

I gave Treme a shot for its first two seasons. This was mainly because I failed to believe, or wanted to believe, that the same group behind The Wire could be this awful at telling one of the easiest and most compelling stories of the young 21st Century. Early on Treme focused on telling the culinary side of the Katrina epic. Most importantly, telling it correctly. They even brought in Anthony Bourdain, to consult in order to make the restaurant and kitchen scenes authentic.

Unfortunately and infuriatingly, they got the post-Katrina culinary story as wrong as a well done steak. I stopped watching after episode 1 of Season 3 and here is why.

According to Treme, Janette Desautel owned a popular Uptown-ish restaurant prior to Katrina. After Katrina, her restaurant was able to re-open quickly and she soon had dining rooms full of New Orleans locals and world-class chefs. Then boom, she runs out of money and has to close.


If a restaurant was able to open fairly quickly after Katrina and you were a good enough chef to attract Colicchio and Chefs, you would not have ever closed due to lack of money. End of discussion. First of all, you would have been booked solid. Any no shows would promptly be replaced by people waiting in the bar. The citizenry of New Orleans took to open restaurants like a moth to flame. Mostly, this can be attributed to many people not having kitchens at home, so dining out became the default option.

Secondly, people were going out to chat with neighbors, learn about insurance hangups, socialize and drink. Guess what is one of the leading revenue and profit drivers of a restaurant? Ding, Ding, Ding, booze. So a restaurant may have been only able to serve meatloaf or chicken salad, but they would have sold say $50 of cocktails or wine per table. Expenses would have been lower as labor costs were limited by the simple unavailability of it. While Janette may not have been able to buy a Porsche, she would have been able to keep the lights on and the doors open.

Thirdly, the logical thing for chefs in New Orleans was to expand after Katrina. In all reality, Desautel would have had a second restaurant under construction and plans for a charcuterie line within one year after Katrina. Did anyone on Treme's much vaunted writing staff even pick up the phone and talk with a New Orleans chef?

After losing her restaurant, Desautel then exiles herself to New York. She throws a drink at Alan Richman, works for David Chang, and eventually feels the tug back to New Orleans. Make no mistake what the implication is here. It is not that she wanted to leave New Orleans; or start over. That happened and still happens with chefs, lawyers, plumbers, teachers, you name it. What Treme implies, with a heavy hand, is that Janette had to go to New York to be a better chef and businesswomen. That a chef in New Orleans just isn't skilled enough to be successful at running a "real" restaurant.

You see, she was just a hayseed. Just a Cajun-Creole girl who gosh darn it could cook well enough for New Orleans before Katrina, but not after. The Richman drink throwing scene was completely undone, by proving his point throughout the rest of Treme: that New Orleans isn't a good town for chefs or food. According to Treme, in order to be legitimized, Desautel needed the blessing of the New York Chef Mafia. She needed to learn about hydrocolloids or cooking with pork fat under the tutelage of the chefs Treme's writers think are important. This is such utter horseshit.

New York is an excellent restaurant town, to be sure. And there is always something to learn from others, but spare us the protective custodian of helpless New Orleans angle. We didn't need your blessing, and we certainly did not need you dumping the lower half of Williamsburg into the Bywater like a trash barge looking for a port.

You got the story wrong. You got it horribly wrong. Why don't you just shift it and put Desautels in a food truck slinging free range goat ramen in the parking lot of a Brooklyn haberdasher. Worse you already explored this exact "New York as the gateway to New Orleans" story with Delmond Lambreaux. On top of being incorrect, it is redundant. Your story of New Orleans' culinary reemergence after Katrina is about New York, not about anything that happened down here.

Before you jump down the comment throat and say, "Lighten up, its TV," that isn't the point. Reality TV is staged, sitcoms and dramas are written, Treme attempted to be some adaptation of what happened in New Orleans. The restaurant industry in New Orleans doesn't get enough credit for what it did after Katrina. It offered refuge, sustenance, and socialization when they could have tucked and ran or hid behind their aprons. Instead of heading to New York or Atlanta or Houston, the chefs, cooks, waiters, and bartenders of New Orleans returned and rebuilt. For that they deserve our gratitude and an honest assessment of their story. Treme failed to do so.


Kim Ranjbar said...

Although I do still enjoy watching Treme (as depressing as it can be), I have to agree. I HATE portrayal of New York "saving" the restaurant scene in New Orleans.

Bradley Warshauer said...

I have my own Treme rant, but I gotta admit, this one is way more succint and obvious than mine. You nailed it. Wow.

Michelle Belcheff said...

Thank you! I said the exact same thing. I don't see how they could have gotten that aspect so wrong. I'm trying to stick with the show, but it's not easy when you have to read a newspaper column the next day to understand what happened. And I'm a native, I don't know how anyone who is not from here would keep watching.

Todd said...

I've only seen season 1, which was ridiculously wrong about the post-K restaurant scene.

This excerpt from Dave Walker's interview shows how little research Bourdain did about New Orleans (and I generally like and admire the guy):

ere’s an edited email Q&A with Bourdain:

Q: Did you get to eat at Uglesich’s before it closed?

A: No, unfortunately.

It takes a central role in the Emeril sequence. The sequence speaks for itself, but what was it about the place that would’ve informed the point Emeril is making to Janette?

I think that it was a beloved institution, run by dedicated owners, a small independent. Who did everything right. But ultimately that wasn't enough. It's closed.

bloggle said...

Well said.

Although I never thought of the New York inferiority complex angle, I have long thought the show to be a caricature of itself, a show that plays off more like a minstrel act than a dramatic showcase of a watershed moment (no pun intended) for a grand old American city.

David Simon's approach to put it all in a blender and see what comes out plays out as pandering and phony, which is a shame because there was a powerful potential there to celebrate New Orleans. Instead we get The Wire's Cousin Oliver.

Lorin said...

Don't get me started...but remember this: they are making television, not writing an historical account. Frankly, I think the pandering and butt-kissing that goes on between the celebrichefs, both on Treme and in the world outside the show, is mighty cheeky. Chang and Bourdain in Treme, David Simon writing for Lucky Peach and now Bourdain with a new show that is all about Chang... Sheesh.

Anonymous said...

I think it's better to look at Jeannette as a representative of the whole Katrina diaspora than as a chef in particular.

It's not that New Orleans' culinary scene is inferior or subservient to New York - it's that Katrina displaced people around the country who returned with new ideas and perspectives, and less of an insular or exceptionalist mindset. Nobody is disputing that New Orleanians can be incredibly creative or talented. But good ideas can come from anywhere, which means there are probably more good ideas outside NOLA in the rest of the world than there are inside the city.

Anonymous said...

The show does suck but for almost none of the reasons you write in this post. How the hell do you know what would have happened to her restaurant post katrina? There were many restaurants that failed to open and a few that opened and closed right away a la Deshautel's (filmed at Patois). There are definitely things about this show that are inaccurate and hokey but it's not a historical film nor a documentary so I'd say get over it. the show won't last much longer and the fact that Bourdain is a writer but oh say Susan Spicer is not (even though she is a consultant) says everything about the way this show departs from accuracy at times.

Rene said...

2nd to last Anon,

That theme that you reference is powerful and substantial. But as I mentioned is a theme already explored in Treme via Delmond Lambreaux.

Last Anon,

I dont know what would have happened to a fictional restaurant. I do know what happened to plenty of restaurants run by chefs of the ilk Janette is based on. And none of them, after serving Colicchio, Ripert, Chang, and Dufrene closed and moved to New York.

Anonymous said...

treme is like a postcard -- pretty to look at but completely flat.

yes, I've also wondered how the creator of The Wire could create something so lackluster. but then I realized -- he's a tourist. just a tourist. it's a jazz fester's take on New Orleans...mentions everything he's been told to see. thinks he knows the "real deal". but at the end of the day he gets back on his plane (with a muffuletta from Central Grocery) and flies home, high on another visit in his fantasy city. long live the fest. where's my chair!?

Anonymous said...

So glad someone from here finally said this out loud. Every time I watch Treme I ask myself two things: Why does nothing ever seem to happen on this show? And, why, when something happens, does it feel like such bullshit?

Also, why are people giving Simon & Co. a total pass on the weird semi-fictional, semi-historic narrative arcs they've chosen? A REAL person became the voice of the city and then tragically killed himself. A REAL person uncovered the Henry Glover case through fastidious investigation. A REAL group of chefs fought tooth and nail to retain their businesses and stay in the city. And yet Treme feels compelled to make up an altered, and less compelling, history. I'm pretty sure "The Newsroom" got skewered in the press for this. The only reason I can think of why Treme has escaped this scrutiny is because people have stopped watching.

Fat Harry said...

Treme is the most boring show ever. That is all.

Anonymous said...

Remember, these Treme themes and scripts are developed and written with the input of locals and that is the hardest part to stomach. In this regard, the problems with Treme that you highlight reflect the city's deeply rooted inferiority complex.
I'm not letting David Simon off the hook, he is the Norman Lear of the new millenium. But, the locals who contribute to the show have essentially been "captured", to use a regulatory term, by Simon et al- paid to advance absurd naratives that appeal to the show's creators. It should make The Wire fans wonder just how much they really learned about Baltimore, as well. Anyhoo, I came for the Turkey recipe, but I couldn't resist jumping in after reading of your vexation re NYC/Brooklyn and egregious dumping of hipsters into the Bywater. Its like an inked up, pork pie hatted Mariel Boat lift over there. Keep up the good work

Anonymous said...

i think you make a valid point, although i do enjoy the show.....yes there are "technical issues" not the least of which the bullshit restaurant scenes that do not reflect real kitchen life.....however my main question is:albeit way off topic- how in the hell has there been 10 seasons of Top Chef and nary a season in NOLA....go figure

nice blog by the way

Anonymous said...

disagree with your analysis of the show and think maybe you have an inferiority complex--lots of people do when it comes to New York City. The character of Desautel had a lot more going on than just her restaurant issues and maybe just needed a break--housing issues, BF issues, etc. the show doesn't indicate NYC has "saved" the NOLA restaurant scene by my read of it. Also, we all got hipster influxes to deal with if we live anywhere remotely cool with available low-cost real estate. Bitching about hipsters is pretty much phoning it in at this point. Signed, someone who loves your city but lives in Philly. (otherwise known as "the sixth borough" which makes me want to shoot myself in the face)

Blackened Out said...

Philly anon,

But you see the hipsters we took in all have promised to save us from ourselves. It is beyond generic hipster bashing (which I agree with).

Anonymous said...

The hipsters in New Orleans are a little different from the ones elsewhere. They try way too hard to go native and it can be really hard to take. Theatre majors who'd never seen a football game started claiming to be die-hard Saints fans after Katrina, for example. Treme is a show by and for that crowd. The writers are trying so hard to prove their local bona fides and it makes for preposterous dialogue and storylines. Twice I've been caught in a bar when this show was on. The crowd was exactly what one would expect and the place erupted with cheers when the pandering really got heavy. Treme is for college-eduated whites who say "yeah you right."

Anonymous said...

"how in the hell has there been 10 seasons of Top Chef and nary a season in NOLA..."

AGREED! wtf. they did one segment at a ridiculous faux-masquerade ball.

"The writers are trying so hard to prove their local bona fides"

this. thats exactly it. and because these writers got to hang out on zulu they make corrupt villains into folk heroes.

"Treme is for college-eduated whites who say 'yeah you right.'"

...yar. like that super-douchey DJ on wwoz who insists on parroting it every 15 seconds. get real.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Treme is nearly unwatchable.
BUT. Have any of you logged serious time in the restaurant industry. I have served Colichio and Ripert at two different restaurants. Despite celebrity customers and rave reviews, both establishments were shuttered within months.
This is far more the norm than the exception.
By reducing a restaurant's viability to who the guests are, and how much they are drinking is a disservice to the service industry.
Borderline ignorant.
Sadly, you are affirming the preposterous stereotype of food bloggers put forth by Treme.

Anonymous said...

New York influences, young transplant residents, a tv show that tries earnestly (an albeit fails in some regards) to capture with some accuracy the great qualities of the city, and a growing interest from world renown chefs are all a net positive for the city and - have helped make the city "cool" again. Pork pie hats and fixie bike irritate me as well, but most of these "hipsters" are young educated folks that apparently really like the city and want to contribute to making it a better place - and most end up shaving the ironic mustache and joining the mainstream when they hit 30 anyway. I am sure the hipsters have equal disdain for the entrenched uptown Jesuit/LSU Grad/Perlis wearing set. The great thing about the city is that everyone can come together over drinks, music, and good conversation.

Rene said...

Working backwards.


I am sure most people hate the Jesuit/LSU/Perlis crowd. They arent depicted in Treme so perhaps they must not exist.

Yes, I worked in restaurants in Colorado and Gulf Shores moons ago; along with other food service tangential jobs elsewhere. My point wasn't that a Top Chef showing up is enough for a restaurant to stay open. It was that if Colicchio and Co. would have showed up at an open restaurant in New Orleans post Katrina and loved the chef's food, that restaurant would have had about a 99.9999% chance of being open a few weeks later.

I can't be the only person who views the post-Katrina restaurant revitalization as the greatest thing to occur in the Katrina saga, can I? If it wasn't for restaurants and chefs and cooks reopening, New Orleans would be a Disney themed wasteland right now. The fact that Treme has missed this vital story is what has me most upset. It paints the New Orleans restaurant industry as a helpless, downtrodden pitiful victim. When in fact, it was an upstanding and prideful showcase of how special people can be.

No, need to clarify the booze comment, it is a valuable and necessary contributing revenue to a restaurant's P&L sheet.

I'll gladly accept your ignorant label as only a fool believes himself wise.

Anonymous said...

So Bourdain apparently took exception to this post: http://gawker.com/5961929/?post=54464224

Here's his comment in case you don't want to click through:

"The blogger there wonders how a 40 seat restaurant that looks full could POSSIBLY go out of business. (like a a million ways). He also feels that the plot presents New York as "saving" New Orleans dining.Both assumptions are ridiculous. It was a weird, xenophobic, defensive piece"

morsels said...

As a restaurateur after the storm I will say that post Katrina if you were open you were slammed but you were also living in the hell that was post-katrina new orleans. It was too much for me. That is precisely why i checked out at that point while others prospered and continue to flourish. It was about survival. Everyone WAS drinking like a fish (including me) and all people wanted was for it to be exactly like it was before the storm. With no staff and rising costs that was kind of an impossibility. Insurance, food and labor costs went sky high overnight and nobody wanted to pay more. It was a zero sum game
I agree that Treme has completely lost steam. The music is limping along and so are the plots. I will say, however, that the restaurant plot does ring true for me. Jeanette Desautel is now screwed. She is a prisoner of crawfish ravioli and the Uptown crowd where everybody acts like a big deal. Her partner doesn't care about making money but only wants to screw the staff, entertain his friends and be a big swinging d**k. Much rings true there.
David Simon should have quit after season two when he was ahead. Season three has just been completely dull and has basically featured all the local stuff that wasn't good enough to make it into the first two seasons. All of season three has with the exception of the Mardi Gras episode (written in part by Chris Rose) it is a yawner. Bourdain has become a parody of himself at this point but I give him credit for working it every which way he can.

Anonymous said...

If I hear one more song about how wonderful and resilient New Orleans is or look at Davis' idiot face, I'm gonna smash my brand new LED HDTV. That's how much I hate Treme. Davis is an asshole.

Anonymous said...

I love New Orleans and loved Treme for most of the first two seasons, but the show completely jumped the shark when Jeanette moved to NYC. Her plot line and the ensuing restaurant scenes and celebrity chef cameos were painfully on-the-nose and just plain dull. I don't think Treme sucks in its totality, but Season 3 sure did (to my great disappointment as a viewer)

Love the blog, btw.

Jordan said...

I'm pretty sure it was Tennessee Williams who said everywhere else is cleveland.

But well said in the post.

Anonymous said...

I don't completely agree. The story of Keannette is actually a story of all New Orleanisns. First she didn't get her insurance money which is what caused her to close. I am a business owner, and even though I had customers, I would have had to close my doors if I didn't get my insurance money. Not having income for a month is a big issue for her suppliers were in the same boat and couldn't float her for thirty days. Secondly, the fact she left and came back was the feeling many people had who left (even those who may have taken a better job in Houston prior to Katrina). They say you can take the person out of New Orleans, but you can't take the New Orleans out of the person. Many people who leave come bsck because they are homesick. This is what the writers were trying to portray via Jeannette.

brsmorse said...

I dont agree with your reasoning behind Janette leaving for New York in the first place. I think you're missing some of the crucial human element that people were going through at the time, ie... exhaustion, lack of living amendments, insurance and housing issues, a sense of complete emotional inundation.

Dont get me wrong, I like your analysis and respect its insight. I just feel it may not such a negative connotation, ie...New Orleans chefs are looked down on and have to school in NY.

anyway...as a chef myself, I can understand the need to step out of a toxic situation/cycle, get some fresh inspiration, work with some avant garde chefs (Chang) and then reevaluate when time seems fit.