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1 October 2023

BBC’s Boiling Point knows the terror of the kitchen

This sequel to the Stephen Graham movie, a cooking ur-text, is tense and highly theatrical.

By Rachel Cooke

I’m not sure about the decision to spin a series out of Boiling Point, the 2021 one-take film about a famous chef starring Stephen Graham. It may be that you can have too much of a good thing, or it may be that I’m suffering from some kind of nervous condition. But either way, the first two episodes stressed me out to a quite incredible degree. Thirty minutes in, and I was positively twitching. In the days since, I’ve been nervous around knives, whisks, frying pans and boiled beetroot. Say the words “hollandaise sauce” and my heart starts to beat frantically, like a wooden spoon against the sides of a copper bowl. To watch any more, I’m going to need a support animal, and a magnum of something very expensive.

Boiling Point – the movie, not this series – is an ur-text: the Kitchen Originator. Pre-dating both The Bear, Disney’s hit series about a hip, young chef, and The Menu, a film in which Ralph Fiennes also slips unsettlingly into some whites, Graham played Andy, a chef on the edge. The action takes place over a single night, at the end of which something bad happened to this genius-tyrant. Was he dead or alive?

Thanks to the BBC’s new series, we know now that Andy survived a heart attack, from which he’s recuperating at home with only a few cans of beer for company. But this also means that Graham is no longer centre stage. Does the series want for his particular coiled energy? Perhaps. Then again, it’s brilliant to have a woman running the show, and his old colleague and friend, Carly, is so convincingly played by Vinette Robinson.

Carly has her own place now, Point North, and several of Andy’s old team are working there with her: the fiery Freeman (Ray Panthaki), the drolly French Camille (Izuka Hoyle), the kind and maternal Emily (Hannah Walters). But things are tricky. The restaurant needs investment, her business partner is cutting corners – frozen fish! – and the new commis, Johnny (Stephen Odubola), having lied about his experience, is forced to secretly google even basic recipes on his mobile.

[See also: Breeders review: A reminder that we need more family dramas]

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Carly may want to run her kitchen differently – less shouting, no bullying, a semi-democracy – but she’s exhausted and worried, and her mother keeps phoning her for no reason at all in the middle of service.

The pleasures of Boiling Point are all highly theatrical: the precision of the cast’s movement in an enclosed space; the interplay between front of house and kitchen, the former acting almost as a chorus; the extreme sense of timing; the feeling of a curtain about to go up as diners (the audience) arrive and orders are placed.

I love all these things, and they are so well orchestrated by both the series’ writer, James Cummings, and its director, Philip Barantini. It’s a high-wire act, and we’re always waiting for someone to fall, which is one of several reasons why it’s so anxiety-inducing.

Cooking, even in a professional kitchen, is strangely personal and intimate, and Cummings seems to understand this, too: when a diner doesn’t eat Carly’s new fallow deer dish, she can’t help herself. The apron comes off. Out she goes into the amphitheatre of the dining room, radiating heat and indignation. I also like seeing the chefs at home: making toast, eating their microwave meals. One moment, you’re placing a nasturtium leaf on a plate with a pair of tweezers; the next, you’re piercing the plastic sleeve of a ready-made shepherd’s pie with a fork.

But Boiling Point is, nevertheless, exhausting to watch, and I wonder if there’s sufficient plot – yes, I’m bringing this up, like some disobedient customer asking for salt – to make people stick with it over four episodes (it’s all on iPlayer, if you’ve the appetite). If we think of suspense as a form of hunger – that feeling of wanting more – I’d say that Boiling Point is more suppressant than stimulant. In the second episode, another terrible thing happens, and as movingly as it’s done, it feels a bit desperate: as if Cummings knows already that a few sauces splitting at the wrong moment aren’t quite drama enough to sustain a series. An hour of this is plenty; two leaves you with an unpleasantly brimful feeling. Where, you wonder, is the Gaviscon? Should I go out for a run?

Boiling Point
BBC, 1 October, 9pm

[See also: The dramas exposing the horror of restaurant kitchens]

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This article appears in the 04 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Labour in Power