[14 April 2009]
Being a relative neophyte in the world of celebrity chefs, I always thought of Gordon Ramsay as that crazy guy screaming through commercials for Hell’s Kitchen, his competition reality series that airs in on the Fox network in the United States.
Those 30-second, profanity-laced, sound bites – which often include shots of bug-ridden kitchens or disgustingly undercooked food—were enough to scare me away from any offering in the Ramsay reality empire.
Then the DVD for season one of Ramsay’s original series, the British version of Kitchen Nightmares, arrived in the mail. I expected that watching Ramsay use the previously mentioned level of class and charm to fix various restaurant disasters would be almost as bad as eating at the aforementioned establishments. Less than 20 minutes into the first episode, however, I found myself rooting for him.
It’s not that Ramsay is a teddy bear –not even close. But in this series he comes off as an actual human being, and that was surprise enough.
The premise of Kitchen Nightmares is pretty simple: Ramsay swoops in to save restaurants on the brink of disaster. Within a few minutes it’s pretty clear why most of these businesses are teetering on the edge.
As Ramsay’s almost soothing narration lets the audience in on his inner dialogue, the chef spends a few days being assaulted by incompetence.
There is plenty of profanity – but not a lot of the uncalled-for hissy-fits that Fox would have you believe are Ramsey’s only vocabulary, and only decibel level. There is a little plate throwing, but a family of ducks is the only potential victims.
Anyway, I kind of understand why Ramsay’s so moody after seeing how some of the real-life owners and chefs he visits operate their businesses.
In the first episode, a 21-year-old head chef sends Ramsay out to retch in an alley after feeding him a bad scallop. The poor sap can’t understand what’s wrong with the food – and he’s equally bewildered a few minutes later when Ramsay rummages through the restaurant’s Superfund site of a refrigerator.
Sure I felt a little bad for doe-eyed Tim as Ramsay described his shortcomings, making liberal use of the F-word. But the poor guy needs a reality check before he starts a salmonella outbreak.
Finally I understand that Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons aren’t being picky when they chastise a Top Chef for over-salting the food or slightly undercooking a steak – it’s all about business, and keeping customers coming in the door.
I also now have a better idea why experts say half of all new small businesses fail in the first year. Ramsay has faced plenty of criticism from some of the restaurant owners featured on Kitchen Nightmares, who claim that they were misrepresented on the show and put on the path to ruin by fixes suggested on the show.
I’m sure a fair amount of careful editing and reality TV fakery goes into making it seem like Ramsay took the restaurants from the brink of disaster to awesome success. Entrepreneurs having problems might be better served by hiring a professional consultant than appearing on a reality TV show. But I find it really hard to believe that some of the featured chefs and owners could fake being so clueless.
Reality shows fulfill viewers’ voyeuristic tendencies – if we can’t spy on our neighbors at least we can spy on someone’s neighbors. Restaurant or cooking-related shows come with the added benefit of feeding our suspicions about what’s really happening before the waiter at the local bistro emerges from the kitchen with dinner.
Unlike the real-life drama of a retail store or a modeling shoot, the answer actually has potentially life or death consequences. I still wish that Ramsay could be a little nicer to the aspiring chefs on his television shows. But if some swearing and grief from him is all that stands between me and a case of food poisoning, I say yell away.