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(21 May 2006)


HELL’S KITCHEN

Regular airtime: Mondays, 8pm ET (Fox)
Cast: Gordon Ramsay
by Roger Holland

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Under Fire


Ramsay is a wonderful chef, just a really second-rate human being.
—A.A. Gill (Sunday Times food critic)


Here’s what I suggest. Buy a restaurant, and put in one table. Anything more than that and you’re fucked.
—Gordon Ramsay



While Simon and Tyra get their share of attention, competitive reality shows are usually about the participants. As with everything else in his endlessly fascinating life, however, Hell’s Kitchen is all about Gordon Ramsay. So let’s take a walk on his wild side.


Ramsay was raised in a dysfunctional Scottish family. His father was an abusive drunk and PE teacher obsessed with seeing his children play professional football for his hometown club, the mighty Glasgow Rangers. While Gordon’s brother Ronnie ended up addicted to heroin, he proved a good enough footballer to sign for Rangers at the age of 17. Unfortunately, he suffered knee injuries, and was released by Rangers at the age of 19.


Who likes being told at 19 you’re not good enough? So I suppose when people say, “You’re so focused and driven now,” I could never afford to fail.
—Gordon Ramsay


When the Rangers offered to find him a place with a lower division side, his father said yes. But Ramsay said no. Instead, he took his mother’s advice and went to catering college. His father never forgave him and soon afterwards abandoned his family.


Following a couple of years at Marco Pierre White’s renowned South London restaurant, Harvey’s, Ramsay moved to Le Gavroche to work alongside the acclaimed Albert Roux. He then left London to spend three years continuing to learn in some of the best kitchens in France. In late 1993, at 26, he returned to the British capital to launch his own restaurant, Aubergine, winning two Michelin stars within three years of opening. However, after a serious falling out with his financial backers, he walked out and, three weeks later, opened a new restaurant entirely his own, in upmarket Chelsea. He called this venture Gordon Ramsay.


A year later, he opened a second, Pétrus, in the even more prestigious St. James’s district. Soon after came Amaryllis in Glasgow and a second Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s Hotel in Mayfair. As he has built an empire with his company, Gordon Ramsay Holdings, and cultivated protégés such as Marcus Wareing and Angela Hartnett, it’s clear Ramsay has had his anal-retentive perfectionist nose into every little nook and cranny of each of his restaurants, including those in Dubai and Tokyo. Later this year, Ramsay plans to open restaurants in New York, Los Angeles, and Florida.


Along with his nine books and regular column for the Times Saturday Magazine, Ramsay has also conquered TV. After two British fly-on-the-wall documentaries that revealed him to be a bad-tempered, foul-mouthed genius in the kitchen, in 2004 he starred in two British television series. The first was Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, in which he attempted to save failing restaurants, each over a two-week period. The second was the original Hell’s Kitchen, a London-based reality show that saw him training celebrities to be chefs.


Fox’s Hell’s Kitchen retains the original’s format, but replaces the slebs with “real people”. Season One saw tattooed punk chef Michael Wray turn down his advertised prize of a “million dollar” restaurant in return for the opportunity to learn from Ramsay in London. Wray is now back is Los Angeles and planning to open a restaurant in Las Vegas, reportedly backed by Gordon Ramsay Holdings. Season Two of Hell’s Kitchen is a last chef standing competition where the prize is a position as executive chef—with a financial interest—at the new Red Rock Resort Spa and Casino in Las Vegas.


This time around, it’s girls against boys, six of each. The Blue Team initially included Tom, ex-stockbroker and graduate of New York’s French Culinary Institute, who sweats profusely into his cooking; Giacomo, whose family runs a pizza restaurant in Dallas and whose poodle-rock hair will surely have to go; and Garrett, who learned everything he knows about cooking in the kitchen of the prison where he served time for passing stolen checks. With five years served, Garrett is probably the most experienced competitor in Hell’s Kitchen. He’s also the only one with a thousand yard stare and a shiv in his back pocket. The Red Team included Rachel, a personal chef from Dallas, who looks tough enough to take out Garrett in her sleep; garde manger (salad chef) Veronica; and sous chef Heather, who actually appears to know how to cook.


Just as it sounds, Hell’s Kitchen is boot camp with saucepans. Each day begins with Sergeant Major Ramsay setting the teams a morning challenge, cutting 10oz. steaks, for example. The victors get prizes, like a helicopter ride and lunch with Gordon for the winners in the Great Steak Challenge of 2006. The losing team gets extra kitchen duties. In the evenings, they compete while serving obnoxious, camera-hungry “paying customers,” cast by Fox and paid to play.


During this season’s two-hour premiere, one customer who was lucky enough to get his food complained to Ramsay that his pumpkin risotto didn’t have enough pumpkin. The well-heeled equivalent of the comedy contestants on Americyawn Idol, this chinless wonder knew exactly what Ramsay’s reaction would be. Of course, the customer could have some more pumpkin. Whole. And shoved right up… well, you get the point. Ramsay also took aim at the contestants. When the kitchen fell behind, he declared the restaurant closed for the night. He also fired Polly, middle-aged mother of six, who had no professional cooking experience.


The second hour offered a couple of unscripted, value-add moments. First, there was the trouble with Larry. Having partied in a hot tub with the girls when all right-thinking chefs were already in bed, he was awake again at 4:20am, wheezing and tingling, and on the phone to 911. When the teams rose to shine, they were surprised to learn that Larry has disappeared. The girls were worried. The boys couldn’t give a damn. Larry called from the hospital, saying the stress of the competition was too much for him. Score one for Gordon Ramsay. On second thought, make that two, because after just one day in Hell’s Kitchen, the contestants were already so tired that Larry could get carted off to hospital without anyone else even waking up. Way to go, Gordo.


Ramsay is Simon Cowell on angel dust, and it’s funny to watch him lose it with lesser mortals. But he can also be kind: lunching with the girls after they won the steak-cutting competition, Ramsay was charm itself, and naturally so. He wants his contestants to thrive in the heat of Hell’s Kitchen, just like he did when he turned his back on a second-rate career in professional football and found his way into Marco Pierre White’s South London kitchen. Unlike Donald Trump, who is about as natural as his hair and as unsuccessful as any man with a billionaire father could be, Ramsay started with nothing and has reached the very top of his profession, fired only by his passion for cooking and his passion for success.


Alternately warm and foul, Ramsay is equally driven in private life: he recently completed his seventh consecutive London Marathon and aims to finish 10 in 10 years. And he is as unforgiving with high profile food critics as he is with the contestants on Hell’s Kitchen: he once kicked the Sunday Times’ A.A. Gill out of his restaurant (along with his companion Joan Collins) because Gill had written a piece that focused on his football career and early life.


An accident during the season’s premiere exposed Ramsay’s softer side for all to see. When Heather burned herself badly, Ramsay leapt immediately into the breach, calming her down, preventing hyperventilation, keeping her hand in ice until she could be rushed to the emergency room. Before she left, Heather impressed Ramsay by taking the time to tell people she had extra quail in her oven and delegating her station. When she returned, Ramsay complimented her professionalism under… ahem… fire. He was less impressed with Garrett, who tried to play a strategic game when asked to select two candidates for firing. Ramsay rejected one of his selections straightaway, called out a third chef and fired him instead.


If you want to learn about cooking, you might give Hell’s Kitchen a miss. If you want to learn about the business of running a restaurant, you should probably check it out. But if you want to explore the complex character of one of the world’s most successful restaurateurs, then this show is essential viewing.


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