In a nutshell: What could be an overdone, clichéd rom-com storyline is kept refreshingly straightforward in this slice-of-life drama. Comedy and romance are the natural byproducts of two passionate, driven cooks (one an acclaimed chef, the other an aspiring rookie) mixing it up at a high-end Italian restaurant in Seoul. The low-key plot serves as base to highlight the engaging characters — a well balanced blend that serves up a satisfyingly undramatic drama. (Extra bonus: the lovely, lovely food shots.)
The Plot: A new head chef is hired at the best Italian restaurant in town. He’s a local-boy made good and a prodigy and a misogynist. His very first move is to fire all the female cooks because of his hard and fast rule: “There are no women in my kitchen!” But the youngest cook has just moved up to the cooking-line and will not easily let go of her hard-earned position.
The inevitableness of their clashing, their attraction, the character-shifts to come are easily predicted by anyone who’s ever watched a rom-com. What Pasta does is take the focus off the plot and put it on the characters. Instead of dressing up a familiar meal with unnecessary frills and frivolities it concentrates on giving us the best ingredients and letting them shine. Yes, the arrogant chef will be won over by the whimsical rookie — but why this chef and this rookie?
The Rookie and the Chef: Gong Hyo-jin plays Seo Yoo-kyung — the youngest member of the kitchen-staff. If you haven’t had the pleasure of watching Gong Hyo-jin act then you’re in for a treat. She has a wonderful naturalness to her delivery that makes it almost feel like you’re watching a documentary — that she’s not playing the character but is the character, that she’s not reading lines but just saying what needs saying.
Which means her Yoo-kyung feels like a real person. Which means that the decisions Yoo-kyung makes, which in turn create the plot, feel inevitable. Of course her drive to prove her cooking worth and learn from the best means she won’t walk away from the place best suited to teach her. And of course, when she finds herself attracted to the head chef, her earthy type of innocence means she’s not going to hide it.
That combination of innocence and ambition, naiveté and passion absolutely fascinates head chef, Choi Hyun-wook (Lee Sun-gyun). And, despite himself, he finds himself in the awkward position of needing to walk waay back from his opening statements. In many ways, Lee Sun-gyun’s job is to react to what Gong is giving him. He does it so well that his character’s attraction, and growing admiration, felt just as inevitable as Yoo-kyung’s choices. (There were times I thought Chef Choi’s reactions to his young cook might have actually been actor Lee’s reactions to his co-star — his delight and amusement at some of her responses felt that real.)
The Complications: Really, they’re kept at a minimum. There are second leads. But their roles stay fairly mellow. There’s very little jealousy, nothing that I’d say really counts as scheming, and certainly no histrionics.
There’s kitchen and restaurant politics of course. But it’s all in the range of believability. One character tries to be a conspiracy expert but he fails far more than he succeeds, usually to his own detriment. Which keeps his antics humorous and almost realistic (doesn’t every work environment have at least one drama-queen?) and very low scoring on the frustration-meter.
Because Chef Choi shook up the kitchen, there are schisms. The original kitchen staff take a strong dislike to the foreign-trained arrivals and the kitchen divides into teams (Italy versus Korea). But it’s all work driven and a natural fallout to choices Chef Choi made at the drama’s start. (For the same reason, I liked that the three female kitchen staff he’d fired remain in the story. Chef Choi begins the show as a misogynist but that’s not drawn as a good or charmingly roguish thing. It’s something he needs to change.)
By tying the plot complications to character choices, rather than outside forces, Pasta keeps the story moving but doesn’t allow it to ferment into overworked dramatics. It feels honest and earned and organic and keeps the focus on the characters.
In Conclusion: Pasta is easy to digest with it’s straightforwardness and lack of plot-twist fillers. It’s the rich, well-drawn characters and the flirty, frothy romance that delights. The simple joys of turning out a satisfying dish, the dedication needed to become a better chef, and Yoo-kyung’s obvious pleasure in learning from Hyun-wook (and his pleasure in her learning) are what makes this drama one to keep on hand for when you’re in the mood for a little comfort food.