Executive Producer, AMC’s Feed the Beast
Clyde Phillips is the executive producer of AMC’s Feed the Beast, the story of a coke addicted Chef and an alcoholic Sommelier opening a high-end Greek restaurant in the Bronx. The show stars David Schwimmer and Jim Sturgess, however Phillips is the architect behind the project, having adapted it from a Danish television show called Bankerot. Phillips has worked previously on a multitude of projects, most notably Nurse Jackie and Dexter. This may be his darkest and most complex show to date, as it follows the two broken men on their difficult and often illegal journey into the underbelly of the New York restaurant scene, where the stakes are high and the Polish Mafia is out to collect on their debts. We spoke with the Boston native about the setting of the show, where the inspiration for the dishes comes from, and what went into getting the actors ready to run a restaurant.
What made you decide Feed The Beast was a show you wanted to do?
While I was still shooting Nurse Jackie my agents sent me the first two episodes of the Danish series Bankerot. I watched them late at night and I loved the show. The thing that attracted me the most about the show is the characters. They’re so flawed and that makes them interesting. As a writer I don’t want to write about normal people and as an audience I don’t think you want to see normal people. They’re deeply flawed and that’s what makes it attractive to write.
Was the show a difficult pitch to make?
This is probably the easiest show I’ve had to pitch. After watching all sixteen episodes of the Danish version I worked out what the American version would be and formed a concise and artful pitch. After a short bidding war AMC took it off the table by offering me a straight to series commitment. It is extremely uncommon and happens maybe two or three times a year. I was lucky enough this time around to have it happen to me.
What was your childhood like and how did that connect you to doing this show?
My background has two significant parts that created a perfect storm for this series. My father was a butcher who made 125 dollars a week. I worked for him from age ten on. I was always cold and wet and always around meat, so I had an understanding of what it takes to get food to the table. In the opening credits you will see a sub-story going on with that process, where we see a little lamb in a field that ends up as a lamb chop in a restaurant.
The other part of my background is that my father was a small time crook and gambling addict who was always in trouble. If you think of the movie Rocky, in the opening there is he is an enforcer beating up someone in a shipyard for the forty dollars he owes. The guy getting beaten up would be my father.
With those two parts of my background being what they are, this show was screaming my name. I was riveted watching it at midnight after a fourteen hour day on set for Nurse Jackie.
Where does the inspiration for the dishes and the wine come from?
Here’s the thing. I am a total non-foodie. I eat health bars for lunch. My wife is the best cook in the world and a total carnivore but I am not that way. For the show we would look up Greek recipes online and pick ones out. Then we would send over the recipes we came up with to our food expert and food stylist Susan Spungen and she would come up with the menu.
After that we would take the menu to our sommelier consultant, Josh Nadel, and he came up with the wine pairings. Between him and Susan everything gets researched and is authentic in the show.
Did Jim Sturgess and David Schwimmer have previous experience with wine and food?
Schwimmer is a bit of a wine buff and Josh Nadel is a friend of his. He brought Josh to us, who is a sommelier and wine consultant to some of the best restaurants in New York. Also, I had dinner with David recently and he ordered wine and went through the whole routine, same as in the show, so he could choose the right wine to go with dinner. He is pretty serious about it.
When I hired Jim it was over Skype and he was in England. We made a deal with him right away and five days later he was in cooking school. He did cooking school, meat-cutting school and cutlery school. He showed up the first day of work with bandages on his fingers.
All the other actors we have as line cooks we also send to cooking school so they are comfortable handling raw meat, using knives and being around high heat. Whenever we do cooking scenes the actor is really doing the cooking.
Can you walk us through the process for the dishes that appear on the show?
We do have a prep kitchen behind the stage kitchen where food is prepped by Susan and her crew and then brought to our guys to handle. Some things have to be done in the back because we can’t spend an hour and forty-five minutes on set making a roast. Then the finishing cooking touches are done by the actors on set. Susan also styles the dish before we shoot it because a big part of it is how it looks.
Where did the idea for the coke addicted chef and the alcoholic sommelier come from?
They came over from the Danish series, but again that is what appealed to me was the broken, messed up characters. It isn’t just alcoholism for the sommelier. He’s also grieving the death of his wife and trying to raise a son. Its also not just about a drug addiction for Dion, the Chef. He has debts to the mob and other issues.
Is there a connection in the show between the violence of the mob and the violence of butchery and meat cutting?
Yes, but its not intended to be in your face. It is nuanced, like when David Schwimmer is walking through the sides of beef hanging from the ceiling. That is a pretty powerful image without it being direct and in your face.
Did you shoot on site for scenes in meat and produce markets?
We shot at a meat distribution warehouse in Brooklyn. I have to tell you, shooting there was like stepping back in time to my childhood. Just smelling it and seeing the guys in their stained white coats and everything was surreal.
We added the fish, the poultry, the flowers and the spices to the shoot at the warehouse. It markets to some of the finest restaurants in New York.
Why set the show in a restaurant in the Bronx?
The Bronx is really the last frontier of New York City. It seems like once a week in the New York Times there is an article about another industry going into the Bronx. There’s two sides to gentrification. There is the money and the jobs pouring in but also the effect it has on neighborhoods, schools and the ecosystems of the borough. We explore both sides of it.
Does the show feel current with what is going on in the Bronx right now?
All of it is going on right now. The first big restaurants are opening there. They are building in old warehouses and factories that have been abandoned. We fashioned the restaurant in the show after an old piano factory because in our research we learned that a lot of the pianos made in the US were from the Bronx.
From producing this show and having characters who run a restaurant, what do you believe it takes to have a successful restaurant in New York City?
Chefs are like artists. They take great pride in saying they own a restaurant. They all have passion and obsession that drives them, but there is also the need to sustain yourself. If you borrow a lot of money you had better be really good at what you’re doing otherwise you’re going to be in trouble.