Hell’s Kitchen

It’s no coincidence that advertisements for Hell’s Kitchen, which debuted last Monday, ran during the last episodes of American Idol. Both shows are premised on a quality lacking in an age of political correctness and positive criticism: brutal honesty. But while Simon Cowell dresses down his contestants with devastating courtesy, Gordon Ramsay, the Michelin-renowned chef and host of Hell’s Kitchen, throws social convention to the proverbial dogs. He brings no sense of irony to his verbal jabs, but instead a sailor’s vulgarity, screaming, cursing, and throwing food at his contestants for a solid hour, after which he personally sends one chef packing with crude regard.

Every reality show needs an ogre, and Ramsay’s antics make for a morbidly fascinating spectacle, but at the moment, that is the only reason to tune in. And it’s not enough. Some competitive reality shows, like The Apprentice, dress up such predation with promises of glamour, but Hell’s Kitchen starts with a demoralizing sequence ripped out of Full Metal Jacket. After asking the contestants to cook initial dishes in just 45 minutes, Ramsay uncovers the plates one by one, berating each contestant. The first dish is penne pasta, and, after calling forward the chef, Ramsay spits it out. He then proceeds to throw food off platters, in one instance, making a nasty crack about a chef’s children.

It’s tough love. Ramsay subscribes to a basic give ’em hell principle: the more unconscionable and trollish he is, the better his trainees will become. Every week, one chef is eliminated from Hell’s Kitchen, and, ideally, the last standing amateur chef will be improved enough to open his or her own dream restaurant, the reward for slogging through such a brutal ordeal. Engineered to create ratings-friendly conflict, the show provides little experience that is applicable to the “real world” it claims to mirror. Verbal abuse consistently takes precedence over equitable competition or practical restaurateur potential.

Take, for instance, the manner in which Ramsay contradicts himself, and the very purpose of the show, in a matter of minutes. Diners, whom the contestants cook and tend to, play a prominent role on this show, and their post-dining evaluations figure largely into Ramsay’s elimination process. “You need bloody good service to complement the food, and you need bloody good food to complement the service!” Ramsay barks to the hapless contestants. But when the contestants serve customers on the first day, he is the only one to lose his patience with a group of women who confront him when their food is late. After calling two of them “bimbos,” Ramsay tells them to go see their plastic surgeon, causing the women to storm out of the restaurant.

Although it makes for sensational television in a low sort of way, it also demonstrates Ramsay’s lack of respect for his own mandates. Ramsay’s coarseness complicates the customers’ ability to judge their dining experience and the contestants objectively. He adds chance to an evaluation process meant to measure steady improvement, which may result in a qualified contestant being eliminated.

But the show may not need Ramsay’s help in this department anyway. Hell’s Kitchen‘s rules are similarly contradictory to finding the most qualified candidate. The method of eliminating contestants is particularly illogical; after watching the Blue and Red teams perform and reading the customers’ evaluations, Ramsay picks a losing team and a star player from that team. That star player then names two people from his team, presumably the weakest two, one of whom Ramsay will eliminate from the game. This prompts comparison to The Apprentice, which relies on its Project Managers to choose the least “qualified,” but there is one crucial difference; on The Apprentice, the Project Manager is held accountable for the decision, and he or she can be fired for making choices based on personal politics rather than business. Hell’s Kitchen, by protecting the decision-maker from elimination, gives him or her power to target direct competition for elimination rather than the people who deserve to get the door.

Without even semi-intelligent competition to back him, Ramsay focuses his energies on the cameras, hamming up his cruelty. Although he states otherwise, Ramsay’s persona is a caricature of blunt honesty instead of the real McCoy. His verbal barbs are pointlessly hurtful rather than incisive, and his hypocrisy inspires no winking camaraderie with viewers. Like many experiences initially shocking, Hell’s Kitchen looks to be devolving into tedium.