The following contains spoilers for the first three episodes of Servant.
At first it seemed a little strange that Servant, Apple TV+’s first horror adjacent offering, would premiere on November 28, 2019 a.k.a. Thanksgiving Day. Apple TV+ itself launched with four original series on November 1 so a date closer to a seemingly more appropriate Halloween wasn’t out of the question.
For those who have seen the show’s first three episodes, however, that Thanksgiving release date is starting to make a lot more sense. Yes the M. Night Shyamalan-produced series about a creepy doll and an equally creepy nanny is technically horror. But it also happens to be essentially a straight-up cooking show.
One of Servant’s lead characters Sean Turner (Toby Kebbel) is a professional bon vivant chef. He comes up with decadent dishes for Philadelphia’s most elite appetites. In each of Servant’s first three episodes, Sean is cooking up something delicious. Episode 1 finds Sean preparing rabbit three ways, episode 2 introduces some seafood in the form of fish with star anise and mussels, and episode 3 presents the magnum opus: freshly skinned salt bake eel.
All the cooking and loving shots of delicious-looking food adds a strange and appealing edge to what could have been a straightforward horror TV series. It also provided an opportunity for one of its stars to get back in touch with his cooking heritage.
“My mother was a Cordon Bleu chef,” Toby Kebbel says. “She made (cooking) fun. It’s nice as a kid to learn those skills and it gets you involved. Of course you’re actually wasting her time and messing everything up. But, she’s a very forgiving person in that sense.”
Kebbel learned that his character was a chef from reading the pilot and was eager to play that aspect of the role The level of Sean’s culinary skill meant that Kebbel had to spend a lot of time training on set and off. Kebbel was set up with a kitchen in Philadelphia where he could drop in and practice on Saturdays. He was also with Philadelphia chef and restauranteur Drew DiTomo to hone his craft, and create actual ,edible dishes to appear on the show.
“We wanted the authenticity. I needed to be able to cook these dishes,” Kebbel says. “I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s actually the part that allowed me to relax, and it’s the part in Sean’s character that allows him to have control.”
Kebbel counts the first episode’s “rabbit three ways” as one of his favorite dishes, partly because of the narrative significance. When Dorothy Turner returns home from a long day at work, she crosses her fingers and hopes for fish, only to find that Sean has prepared rabbit, highlighting the disconnect within the Turner marriage.
Showrunner Tony Basgallop also didn’t have a recipe for rabbit three ways in the script, meaning that Kebbel and DiTomo got to exert some creativity in developing it.
“Drew and I figured it out, which was great fun actually And it kept me busy all the time, which I much prefer while I’m working,” he says.
Of course, the showstopping recipe of the series first three installments is undoubtedly the eel in episode three’s aptly named “Eel.”
In “Eel,” Sean and his young commis chef Toby prepare an eel to be salt-baked and the process is almost hilariously graphic and thorough. Sean bangs the eels head on the counter several times, nails said head to a cutting board, and then begins the process of flaying the eel while its heart still beats.
The process is understandably stressful to the viewer but also to the Turner’s nanny, Leanne (Nell Tiger Free). Leanne is intended to be among Servant’s horror or at least creepy elements, as a young girl of mysterious origins who enters the Turners home and is shockingly unbothered by the presence of a doll instead of a baby. But Leanne finds herself quite bothered by the eel display, as did actress Free.
“Eel day was pretty tricky for me,” Free says “I’m actually a vegetarian and I have been my whole life so all the different meats, haggis, and the various interesting foods was pretty tricky of me to tackle.”
Ultimately Free (who enjoyed vegetarian versions of meat dishes that Kebbel prepared for certain scenes) appreciates the importance of food in the series.
“Food itself plays such a big role in the show,” she says. “The things that Sean cooks reflects on his feeling in the day. It’s so cathartic for him. When Sean is angry or stressed out he doesn’t go for a walk or smoke a cigarette, he peels an onion or he dices up some vegetables.”
Food does indeed play a big role on Servant. At times it appears to be as big an element as creepy little Jericho himself. And the good news for bon vivants is that there is more food to come. One need only look at the upcoming episode titles to anticipate which dishes may be entering the Turner household. For now these first three episodes and the Thanksgiving release date serve as a reminder that dry turkey may be rough, but at least it’s not eel.