The Genius of TV Series 'Billions' Is in the Food
Some meals are more important than money.

The most intoxicating moment of food television this year, so far, has not surfaced in a food show. It appeared in an episode of Billions, the Showtime series about money and status and psychological manipulation.

In the scene Mike Wagner, known as Wags, a fiery wreck of capitalist appetite played by David Costabile, has a coveted seat at the counter at Sushi Nakazawa, the omakase sanctum in the West Village of Manhattan. This is a smart decision—on Wags' part and on the part of the creators of Billions. That Wags has chosen to throw his cash around at Sushi Nakazawa shows that the storytellers at Billions have, as you would expect, a nuanced understanding of power gestures in New York City in 2017, and the dialogue makes it clear that Wags cares about sushi, that he grasps the story of Sushi Nakazawa: He knows, for instance, that chef Daisuke Nakazawa had a tearful, tamago-making supporting role in the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

So when a loudmouth at the other end of the counter starts barking into a cellphone while waterboarding Chef Nakazawa's "already precisely sauced" nigiri in a bowl of soy sauce, the fish suffocated under strips of ginger, Wags loses his shit. It is a beautiful thing.

"Chill out, Mr. Miyagi," says a pal of the loudmouth.

"No," Wags responds. "I won't, you fucking heathens. This man is an artist. He had to spend 10 years learning how to make the tamago. The egg. The egg! Your expense accounts don't entitle you to fuck his art up the ass!"

Billions, in its first two seasons, has been rich with such scenes. Paul Giamatti's character (Chuck Rhoades) and Toby Leonard Moore's character (Bryan Connerty) have a verbal showdown at Keens, the primeval but perpetually cool chophouse on West 36th Street, over whether or not Connerty has betrayed Rhoades—and whether or not Connerty is going to break down and order the famous Keens mutton chop. In another episode, the testosterone-overflow hedge fund titan Bobby "Axe" Axelrod, inhabited by Damian Lewis, dines with a comrade at Momofuku Ko, in the East Village, where the two men get personal attention from chef David Chang. No stranger to testosterone himself, Chang warns them, "I'm going to carpet-bomb you guys with so much fucking food you'll be reeling."

"This man is an artist. He had to spend 10 years learning how to make the tamago."

Decades from now, someone will be able to revisit these scenes to get a glimpse of what the New York City restaurant world felt like at this moment in history. (I have to imagine that Carbone, Estela, and the third floor of the Spotted Pig are right around the corner for future seasons.) Regardless of how much bank they have, guys like Axe and Wags don't want to waste time at some white-tablecloth Périgueux-sauce Bonfire of the Vanitieschurch on the Upper East Side. They go downtown. They are aware of who the era-defining chefs are, and they treat them with a respect that they almost never offer to anyone else. "You can't just write these characters off as philistines," Brian Koppelman, one of the creators of Billions (with David Levien and Andrew Ross Sorkin), told me on the phone Thursday afternoon. "It's not the '80s. These are characters who would know which dried fruit is in the granola at Eleven Madison Park." (They would also know that the granola is bequeathed to you in a jar after you finish your repast at Eleven Madison Park, so that you can have it for breakfast.)


As became clear when we talked, Koppelman and Levien select these spots and these scenes with care. That makes sense; we're living through a time when where you choose to eat says as much about your identity (and your state of mind) as what you chose to listen to conveyed in previous decades. (Witness Chuck's gloppy, gorgeous heap of poutine from Mile End in one episode—fries and gravy, maybe the ultimate male statement of "at this particular moment, I decline to give two fucks.")

"Food and restaurants are a kind of currency," Koppelman told me, "and our show is interested in currency in all its forms." What's the thing more prized than money itself? Access—scoring a seat at the table whenever you want it, the "unspoken privilege," as Koppelman put it, of securing "a private audience with David Chang."

In that respect, Wags and Axe are not so different than the rest of us. Their obsession with cool chefs, hot restaurants, and best practices is one that many share. Levien and Koppelman are not hedge-fund monsters, of course, but they totally get this 21st-century, in-my-future-life-I-wanna-be-Anthony-Bourdain psychographic. As Koppelman told me, "We both believe there is a special ring of hell reserved for people who put ginger on their sushi."

From: Esquire

*This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.

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