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Don't Be The Belgian Chef a Tale of a Plunge Into the Abyss

Aug 17, 2007
At the top of the kitchen career chain lies the Executive Chef position. The executive chef is the general of the kitchen troops, overseeing and deploying the kitchen staff in it's day-to-day operations. Not all chefs aspire to this position, as the executive chef doesn't actually have time to cook. And since the position is one of management rather than engaging in the culinary arts, the position of executive chef is one that you only have when your operation is so big that you really need one!

Others see the executive chef career as the opportunity to apply their skills to a greater canvas. Free from stirring the sauce or arranging the rosettes, the executive chef gets to be the brains of the kitchen and plan the meals as a chess player plans an attack.

Chefs, being an artistic profession, may have some temperament issues to go alongside their talent. With one chef, this is unnoticeable, but with a staff of twenty chefs with a leadership hierarchy, the personal differences tend to come out. The executive chef will have to manage around any conflicts that develop, and more importantly not be a source of conflict themselves. Just how out of control can a chef's behavior get? Here we will take a look at one career which highlights the answer to just that question:

"The Belgian Chef" was a televised cooking show that ran for three and a half seasons on cable channels in New England, from the Fall of 1994 through March of 1996. This was well before the days of the Food Network.

Chef Henry Perlingine hosted the show, flamboyantly preparing Belgian and Alsatian specialty dishes along with occasional French items. Each week, he'd have a guest on the show. When the show was in it's first seasons, the guests booked by the studio were the typical culinary crowd you would expect: restaurateurs and other chefs, some quite famous in their own right. After a time, some narrow-gauge local celebrities were also making guest appearances. As time passed and the show caught on with a regular audience, he began to land nationally-known entertainers and media personalities.

Perlingine's manner was often confrontational, mimicking the Avant-Garde theater of the 1960s. It was clear to everyone that he was doing this with an ironic sense of humor, and guests were more than happy to go along with the joke. He infused each show with a charismatic dose of personality, and each episode got higher ratings than the last.

He had a drinking problem as well, and was saddled with a mercurial temperament, both of which were not so close to the surface in the first season. By the end of the second season, however, he had begun to drift off into rambling and incoherent diatribes on-camera, sometimes completely losing track of the thread of the show. His behavior was increasingly irrational throughout the second season, culminating at the end of the season's last episode when he struck guest-star Dinah Shore with a mallet.

This behavior gave rise to concern in the producers. It seemed their star was getting a little too deeply into his television persona. Perlingine's management prevailed on him to spend most of the summer of 1995 in a rehab program, and in September he returned to the show apparently refreshed and considerably mellower, ready again to be everybody's favorite kitchen wizard.

For shame, it was not to last. In the third episode of the third season, he threw an iron pan of coquilles St. Jacques at guest Morton Downey Jr. Now, if you remember Morton Downey Jr., you'd be a little suspicious as to why the famously abrasive television personality was cast as a guest with this chef who already was known to snap in the first place. You don't have to be crazy or drunk to want to brain Downey with a pan of seafood. As if this weren't enough, Perlingine then sat down and proceeded to consume a bottle of Burgundy while reading a speech addressed to his estranged wife, Esmeralda, all while on the air. The coquilles never even got finished.

Subsequent episodes saw an increasing decline in Perlingine's mental state. He frequently insulted and threatened guests, and on several occasions he struck them. He would drink during the show, and by the end of an episode he was often so tipsy as to be unable to find the stove. But the ratings soared. Perlingine was billed as "the Howard Stern of Gallic cuisine", and outside the studio the scalpers demanded hundreds of dollars for good seats on days when an unusually resilient or fleet-footed guest was scheduled to appear with their troublesome host. By this time Perlingine had become dependent on injected methamphetamine. Blinded by the ratings, the producers actually persuaded Perlingine's management to keep him out of rehab. This was before things like the Jerry Springer show were known to television, and producers were just waking up to the morbid fascination television audiences had for psychological instability.

Thus passed the winter with few further outbursts, and then, on Thursday, March 3, 1996, the unstable universe of the cooking show at last collapsed. Actress Vanessa Redgrave appeared as that day's guest on the show. For the first quarter of an hour, Perlingine was oddly quiet, and then with shaking hands he extracted a revolver from his toque. Redgrave fled the stage screaming, while Perlingine avidly gave chase. For forty-five minutes, while the cameras rolled and a terrified gaffer attempted without success to complete Perlingine's abandoned souffle, Perlingine stalked Redgrave through the set and the backstage area, and show staff was alarmed to hear him start firing shots! At one point he pursued Redgrave through the audience, firing shots over the mostly abandoned seats. At last as the credits rolled, the police arrived. Perlingine was cornered on the scaffolding above the stage and fatally shot. The show was cancelled immediately, and has not been released into syndication.

So, what can we learn from the fate of Henry Perlingine? If you're a good enough cook, you can be let out on quite long a leash before anybody's had enough of you. But your job as an executive chef is to stop things before they get that far.
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Freelance writer for over eleven years.

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