Extra Crispy talks with showrunner and food obsessive Brian Koppelman
There's a blissful domestic scene during the first season of Billions in an episode entitled "The Good Life." A father in his late 40s, handsome and weekend casual in a T-shirt, shorts, and sneakers, mans the griddle in his spacious, sun-dappled kitchen. He's making breakfast for the family and as he plates French toast, he crows to his two young sons that the recipe he's using came from their grandmother. She was a waitress at the Empire Diner, but no slouch in the kitchen, so her dish was a signature item on the restaurant's menu. He's taken great pains to do her dish justice—used the correct amount of cinnamon, and even biked over to get the eggs from the farmer, himself. Another man carrying paper bags laden with produce enters the kitchen. He's clearly surprised to see someone occupying his post.
"Am I out of a job?" he asks.
The father quickly allays his fears. "Don't worry, Ryan. Breakfast is about all I can handle."
The family's personal chef immediately looks relieved. His employer does in fact have a lot on his plate, namely the sort of work that affords him household staff, the custom Passoni bike he rode over to the farm, and oh yeah—the farm itself. Self-made hedge fund titan Bobby Axelrod has cash to burn and an empire to steer, but he's still taken a moment to step away from it all and be a human, share a humble, home-cooked meal with his nearest and dearest. Even a billionaire needs to eat.
Billions food scenes like this are by no means accidental; every bite is a character beat, every restaurant choice a referendum on status and personal discernment. There has never been a TV show that so deeply explores food's social and emotional worth—especially in New York City—and that's entirely due to the passions of Billions showrunner and co-creator, Brian Koppelman, and his equally obsessive writing and production team.
"As people who are New Yorkers and who observe New Yorkers in these worlds of high finance and legal professions and the world of business in New York, we've noticed the way in which all of this stuff is some form of currency," Koppelman tells Extra Crispy. "Obviously our show is really concerned with currency in all of its forms."
The Showtime series centers around the tension between two men: the blue-collar-bred Axelrod (Damien Lewis), whose astonishing wealth came about as a result of being the only person at his hedge fund not killed on 9/11, and upper-crust intellectual Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York who not incorrectly suspects that Axelrod's business practices are often legally dubious. Rhoades' wife Wendy (Maggie Siff) works as the in-house psychiatrist and performance coach at Axe Capital, and effectively acts as Axelrod's emotional lodestar. Things get messy.
Both Axe and Chuck are men of tremendous ego and appetite, kept in check—just barely sometimes—by the force of their will. In one notable exchange, Rhoades bellows out to his office admin that he'd like to bring in a longtime acquaintance, Adam DeGiulio (Rob Morrow), for a breakfast meeting, only to be told that the judge and counselor to the United States Attorney General doesn't actually eat breakfast. When the meeting is finally booked, DeGiulio slurps on a plastic container full of a thick liquid, pointedly avoiding the fruit and pastry spread laid out in front of him. "I'll never know why everybody drinks that Star Wars shit," Rhoades says, danish in close reach.
"To optimize performance," DeGiulio sneers, later pointedly adding, "Enjoy your food."
And really, while he allows himself just a nibble of his breakfast in this particular company, there are few things Rhoades would rather do than enjoy his food.
"The show is aware of the power dynamics surrounding eating and restaurants and the way in which people conduct themselves at the table," Koppelman says. "In a later episode DeGiulio says he's not hydrating that day. The idea is that this guy is interested in issues of control and discipline and projecting, but who knows if that's true what he says? He wants to be perceived a certain way so he's going to act a certain way at mealtime in front of other people."
Alone is a different matter for the usually buttoned-up Rhoades. While he's a master at matching the venue and cuisine to the moment—a meal of funky mutton served in front of a tiger painting at the venerable Keens Steakhouse when he wishes to put the fear of God into a subordinate, a coq au vin feast from a favorite French chef as he attempts to rekindle his wife's affection (it works both times)—on very rare occasions, the prosecutor deems himself worthy of some selfish pleasure if he feels he's earned it.
In the particularly food-centric episode, "Currency," during which chef and Koppelman friend David Chang and his restaurant Momofuku Ko make a cameo (he tells Axe, “I’m going to carpet bomb you guys with so much fucking food you’ll be reeling.”), Rhodes stares hungrily at video footage of an Axelrod associate eating dinner at Michael White's Ai Fiori (as well as the sandwich the surveillance technician is eating). When he finally gathers enough information to make a bust, it's reward time—a sandwich and poutine, eaten at a table alone.
"David [Levien—the show's co-creator] and I love the moment in Brooklyn at Mile End," Koppelman says. "There's a moment where Chuck allows himself to give himself a gift and it's really very Billions-y that the gift is meat and poutine all together. That was an incredible actor's choice. Paul takes a piece of that smoked meat and eats the poutine with it. It was just a great sort of Chuck Rhoades giving into his appetites, and not in a self-hating way but actually with a sense of willfully giving into it. Almost joyously."
Though Axe could have access to any chef or experience he desired, and is clearly aware of the power destinations in town (breakfast at Maialino is not an amateur move), the Yonkers-born billionaire naturally gravitates toward either grilling at home, or patronizing the outer-borough and Westchester pubs, diners, and pizza joints of his youth. In particular, he favors Capparello’s Pizzeria: a haunt since childhood, his ersatz office, and a place in which in which he's got a partner stake. It's home to him—until he pulls a business move that alienates him from the other owner, Bruno, a man he'd long considered family.
Things aren't great shakes back at the homestead, either because he pulled a shady stunt there, too. In Season Two's penultimate episode, "Golden Frog Time," Axe walks in to find his wife Lara (Malin Akerman) sitting alone with an open bottle of wine and a couple of pizzas. He apologizes, she accepts, and he points at the pizzas.
"Those don't look like Bruno's," says Axe.
"Fuck Bruno," Lara replies. "Ryan made them in the wood-burning oven."
A light goes off in Axe's head. He walks across the room and returns with a tin. He slathers a massive gob of Petrossian caviar on a slice and hands it to Lara, then makes one for himself. They chew quietly for moment, remembering their first date, way back before either of them had much of anything.
"It still is better than anchovies," says Lara.
"That's for fucking sure," replies Axe.
The act is gross in its excess, glorious in its abandon. It gets straight to the heart of a couple of complicated characters trying to find their way back to one another via food, and it does that in a way that no other show could or would. It's a perfect bite of Billions.