[31 March 2008]
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
A group of anxious patrons have formed a line outside one of the doors to a rather nondescript building in an industrial part of town. Some check their watches with the last rays of sunlight on this October evening.
To get this far, each had to pass several checkpoints, walk around parked delivery trucks and find their way to the door that sits only a few yards from a truck loaded with portable bathrooms.
You wouldn’t know it from the location, but just inside the door is a restaurant so hot you have to know somebody who knows somebody to get a reservation.
Welcome to “Hell’s Kitchen.”
The building houses the set used to shoot the Fox series. Over the last two weeks, Chef Gordon Ramsay, a man who can drop a souffle with a single look, has evaluated and eliminated a group of 12 chefs. The grand prize of surviving this hellish competition is a job as the executive chef for the new restaurant Ramsay will open in Los Angeles in June.
The first round of the competition can be seen at 9 p.m. EDT Tuesday on Fox. On this night, the group has been whittled down to the final three.
“I’m very excited about season four, more so than any other year before. When you look at the setup in terms of the level of professionalism, this year we’ve raised the bar. Looking for a chef personally is something I’ve stood by, got very nervous about. More importantly, I’d like to think that we have the most amazing - I hate that word `cast’ - I call them chefs,” Ramsay says in an interview a few months after the taping.
He had more than 22,000 applicants from which to select this year’s competitors.
Each episode features two cooking challenges. The second challenge is to cook for 125 invited patrons. That is why the crowd has formed.
Anticipation runs high. Ramsay has never hesitated to shut down food service if he feels the contestants are not hitting his standards. Many patrons at previous episode tapings have gone home without eating a single bite.
The doors open at 6:15 p.m., actually early for the hipper restaurants in the city. The first wave of patrons make their way down a red carpet, past the bar to the massive set. If it wasn’t for the banks of lights on the ceiling and the huge crane that holds a television camera, this could be a real restaurant.
It is designed so every patron can see the kitchen from their table. The first guests have yet to be seated but the three remaining chefs are frantically working. Ramsay watches every move with an unforgiving stare.
The walls of the kitchen are covered with two-way mirrors. This is how the 86 cameras can record every action. The tilt of the mirrors also give patrons a better view of what is happening.
Waiters weave their way around the camera crews prowling the restaurant to collect footage. It is nothing new to find a waiter in Hollywood who is an actor. In this case, the actor/waiters are playing the roles of waiters.
Suddenly, the room goes silent. That’s not a good sign. Silence is often followed by Ramsay shutting down service. Not tonight. Seconds later the clatter resumes.
The first orders are taken just before 6:30. The appetizers include pan-roasted scallops and smoked ham risotto. Entrees range from poached and roasted chicken with herb gnocchi to roasted filet of beef with truffled polenta. If the service goes without a flaw there are several desserts, including chocolate souffle with mint ice cream.
Ramsay’s voice can be heard over the noise of the arriving diners.
“I am waiting on two risotto,” he shouts.
All three chefs step up their pace. Ramsay has been hard on contestants in past seasons. More is on the line this round. Past winners have landed job at restaurants other than those started by Ramsay.
Contestants in each season have had varied levels of cooking experience. So going into the season, Ramsay knew a chef with little or no actual restaurant experience could win.
“I’d like to think `Hell’s Kitchen’ has become synonymous with giving anyone excited about food that level of opportunity. When you think about someone like Julia from the Waffle House, how that level of taste and that kind of control and what she perceived. There she is cooking sort of run-of-the-mill, sort of mainstream American cuisine, and then could compete with an executive chef,” Ramsay says. “Watching domestic, talented individuals, determined chefs that have the desire and want that chance to succeed, it’s far more exciting for me.”
All the chefs have to do is survive. A miscue has caught Ramsay’s attention. He shouts “Wake up! Yes?” He accents the rhetorical question by slamming a metal table.
The action is dramatic. Ramsay says it’s not just because of the cameras.
“You see 44 or 42 minutes of the edited version and I run service from 6 until 10, four hours, and cook for 120 guests. Of course it’s going to look like it’s combustive, tenacious and full of drama. But there’s no script. That’s why I fight every week that that restaurant opens, to make sure I run the restaurant and not a show,” Ramsay says. “If I was running a mediocre, run-of-the-mill, Caesar salad, flip-a-burger, of course there’s no heat.”
Ramsay was the brunt of plenty of verbal abuse as he learned his trade more than 20 years ago. Before the Scottish-born Ramsay turned to cooking, he was a professional soccer player for three years. It took five years of training and hard work before he became a head chef.
Since then Ramsay has gone on to star in numerous television shows in both Britain and the United States, written five books and launched numerous restaurants.
It is an hour into the service and many of the diners are getting their entrees.
Decorations on the table are clear glass cubes with the show’s logo etched in one side. There are no salt or pepper shakers. Ramsay’s rule is food should be properly seasoned when it leaves the kitchen.
The final patrons are seated. Because there are only three competitors left, the arrivals have been staggered. The last table to be seated gets their appetizers at 7:33 p.m.
Service is going so well Ramsay has not had to launch into one of his R-rated rants that have become so bleeping obvious in the series. Ramsay says despite what viewers have heard, he’s not a big fan of cursing.
“That may sound slightly bizarre, but trust me, it’s not my fault entirely. It’s the industry language and any chef would be a hypocrite if they didn’t admit to swearing in the kitchen,” Ramsay says. “It’s something I’m not proud of every time I get reminded of that by my mother.
“More importantly, I have four young children. My wife is a schoolteacher. I can switch it off. I have an outside life.”
Ramsay’s maitre d’, Jean Philippe, is making his way around the room. Those who have been at previous tapings see this as a good sign. It means the food service is moving smoothly.
Philippe chats with diners and even offers a restaurant tip. When you call to make a reservation for two, say there will be three in your party. That way you will get a bigger table.
From Phillipe’s friendly banter to the soft lighting, Ramsay’s approach to running a restaurant starts with good, simple food and continues through every small detail.
“Running a restaurant is something you have to be working at each and every day. It’s not a foregone conclusion that you’re a success. How many restaurants do we know across the world that customers visit once and once only? The second visit is far more important,” Ramsay says.
Things are going so smoothly, Ramsay leaves the kitchen area for six minutes. He returns with the same intense stare.
The first desserts reach the tables at 8:05 p.m. The activity in the kitchen is less frantic. The final orders have been filled and only a few stragglers are left at 9:45 p.m.
As soon as the last diner has left, Ramsay will evaluate the three finalists. One will be sent home. The other two will get on a plane with Ramsay early the next morning for a trip to New York.
There will be no rest for Ramsay once the winner of the fourth season is selected. Filming on the fifth season will start in a few days. That’s when a new group of contestants and more patrons will face their nights in “Hell’s Kitchen.”