Before there was Harvey Weinstein, there was Chef Jeff.
Jeff Pastore is not a real person, which is why you didn’t read about his sexual harassment scandal in the headlines or see him named in any #MeToo tweets. The fictional celebrity chef made his debut on Master of None last season as a man famous for a career spent travelling the world in search of his next great meal à la Anthony Bourdain. Played by Bobby Cannavale, Jeff is loud, lively, and just bursting with machismo—and, a whole six months after Master of None’s second season dropped on Netflix, he’s suddenly relevant again.
When we first meet Jeff, it’s at a dinner meeting with Aziz Ansari’s Dev, who hosts one of Jeff’s many competitive cooking shows, Clash of the Cupcakes. The two hit it off right away thanks to a shared love of food and Jeff’s aggressive brand of friendliness, and for Dev, that new friendship comes with professional perks: Sick of cupcake-related antics, he eventually pitches a new show co-hosted by him and Jeff called Best Food Friends. Jeff loves it and greenlights it.
For a moment, it seems like Dev, who has spent the series struggling to make it as an actor, has found his big break, a chance to be successful doing something that he loves with someone he admires—that is, until the very last episode of the season, “Buona Notte.” Jeff is accused of sexual harassment by multiple women, and it all comes crashing down—not just on him, but on Dev, too.
Season 2 of Master of None debuted well before the Harvey Weinstein allegations opened the floodgates on stories of sexual misconduct in Hollywood, but there was at least one major harassment story already in the news when Ansari and co-creator Alan Yang wrote the episode. Ansari and told Vulture that he had the ouster of Roger Ailes from Fox News in mind while writing the role:
I think it was around the time Roger Ailes was getting all these reports filed against him, and the same way it happened for Bill O’Reilly, so it was like, “Okay, what if this is one of those types of guys and we just get the audience to love him? And then pull the rug out from under them at the end and reveal that he’s actually not a good dude?”
On the surface, Jeff is just what Ansari wanted him to be: a likable, larger-than-life kind of guy. He throws fancy dinner parties attended by the likes of John Legend. He’s a family man (or at least, he’d have us think so, the way he talks about spending time with his wife and kids). And most importantly, he takes a shine to Dev, who we’re rooting for. But there’s also something menacing about Cannavale’s performance, and the script offers plenty of hints that something is off about him, as when, during his first dinner with Dev, Jeff expresses his love for al pastor in terms of his erection. That kind of outrageous comment could be brushed aside as one of Jeff’s eccentricities, but, in a later episode, Jeff ogles Dev’s Clash of the Cupcakes makeup artist, Lisa (Ilfenesh Hadera), and wants to know why Dev hasn’t asked her out. By the time Dev and Jeff start filming BFFs, we’re already waiting for the other shoe to drop.
And drop it does. Lisa suddenly transfers to a different show, and when Dev learns from his friend Benjamin (H. Jon Benjamin) that Chef Jeff has a reputation for being “a little bit of a creep,” he puts two and two together.
“What am I gonna do?” asks Dev. “I gotta work with this guy.”
“I dunno, man. That’s a tough problem,” says Benjamin. “I’m glad I don’t have to deal with it.”
All of this falls into a pattern that is, by now, completely familiar. Jeff’s behavior, like Harvey Weinstein’s alleged behavior, is a Hollywood “open secret,” something everyone but Dev seems to know about already. It’s implied that women have been warning each other about Jeff quietly for some time—Benjamin knows about the behavior because Jeff “crossed the line” with a female friend of his wife—a less formal whisper network than the “Shitty Media Men” spreadsheet that circulated in October but one that’s in the same spirit. Lisa tells Dev that she reported Jeff to someone on set only to have her concerns brushed off on the grounds that Jeff is just “a flirty, touchy-feely guy,” a boys-will-be-boys reminder that human resources on film sets can seem like they’re there to protect the company, not the employees.
All this seems eerily prescient for our current moment, especially considering what happens next. Lisa’s observation that Jeff is probably doing “fucked-up shit” to other women proves right: She doesn’t have the star power of an Ashley Judd or a Gwyneth Patrow, but she writes a blog post about Jeff’s behavior, and it gains traction, #MeToo before there was the hashtag, with other women also accusing the famous chef of harassment.
The timing couldn’t be worse for Dev, who is literally minutes away from promoting BFFs with Jeff on Raven-Symoné’s new talk show when the news breaks. While Dev’s agent (Danielle Brooks) is disgusted by the allegations against Jeff, she tells Dev to go ahead and “make that money.” The accusations hang over the appearance, especially when Raven, who has not yet heard the news, asks over freshly made paella whether Jeff and Dev are actually best friends in real life.
“Absolutely,” says Jeff.
“That’s just kind of the title of the show,” Dev says, visibly uncomfortable. “We’re just coworkers.”
Everyone laughs this off, but it gets worse when Raven next shows off the giant Times Square billboard for BFFs, which shows a giddy Dev with his arm around Jeff. They take a short break, and when they return, Raven announces that 14 women have now come forward to accuse Jeff of “sexually inappropriate conduct.” Dev, flustered, misspeaks and says he “condones” Jeff’s behavior, burning any possible goodwill that could have come from the appearance.
In that way, Ansari and Yang manage to show another side to the scandal, from the point of view of a serial harasser’s colleagues. Dev isn’t guilty, but he also isn’t entirely blameless; he sincerely didn’t know about Jeff’s harassment until shortly before the news broke, but he did know before the Raven Live taping, and he chose to appear with Jeff anyway. Dev didn’t knowingly enable Jeff’s behavior, but as Jeff’s protégé, he benefitted from the same power that let Jeff take advantage of women who were less powerful than he was, and he suffered the consequences of not bowing out as soon as he realized what was going on.
I’ve thought about this episode a lot over the past few weeks, particularly in light of the revelations about Louis C.K., the latest and most “Chef Jeff” of the men who have been accused, not because their personalities or misconduct are the same, but because C.K., like Jeff, was likable, something we can’t really say of Weinstein or many of the others. “Buona Notte” seems informed by Ansari and Yang’s knowledge of how the industry works as well their awareness of how harassment can affect women, a topic that Ansari has covered in his standup and on Master of None before. But they’re more focused on Dev’s perspective and how the fallout can have a ripple effect: As we’ve seen over the past few weeks with accusations against directors, producers, and other prominent figures in the entertainment industry, one man’s predatory behavior can disrupt his entire professional circle. Jeff’s cost Dev his dream; in the real world, actress Jen Richards, to pick just one example, lost out on a groundbreaking role when TBS suspended production on Louis C.K.’s Cops.
C.K. is also probably the “Chef Jeff” with the strongest connection to Ansari, given that he guest-starred on Parks and Rec and because Ansari is managed by C.K.’s ex-manager Dave Becky, who has apologized for not taking C.K.’s sexual misconduct seriously enough. Marlow Stern writes in the Daily Beast about asking different comedians about Louis C.K. over the years, only to have them decline to comment—including Ansari, which seems at odds with his feminist persona. That was in fall 2015, and Ansari hasn’t commented publically since the New York Times story that laid out C.K.’s behavior in detail. When he does, hopefully he learns something from Dev and won’t accidentally “condone” it, too.