Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares

Much More than Fine Dining

By: - Jan 15, 2008

Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares - Image 1 Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares - Image 2 Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares

          So, you enjoy cooking, entertaining and fantasize about opening your own restaurant. Simple advice. Don't.

          While adolescents of past generations aspired to be athletes, rock and rollers, or film stars the wish list has now expanded to include chefs. Consider Gordon Ramsay the potty mouthed task master, whose every other word on several enormously popular, fascinating, and entertaining television shows seems to be bleeped. But if you can read his lips Ramsay's tirades are laced with juicy expletives much of it with a distinctly British flavor. He was born in Scotland in 1966 and in close ups seems to have aged prematurely.

       One of his favorite terms is to urge young male cooks to show some "bollocks." They don't bother to bleep that stateside because most Americans aren't aware that it is a surrogate for testicles or manhood. Which, apparently, the young gentleman in question exhibits a lack thereof. Another favorite term is a penchant for calling chronic under achievers "Donkeys."

           Yes, the chef is nasty; but oddly glamorous and strangely humanistic. It is that soft side that takes some time to find and admire but ultimately is the endearing quality that keeps us coming back for more of  Chef Ramsay. He of the much coveted Michelin stars although he often reminds us that his first restaurant failed. It is precisely this lesson that he urges onto the aspiring chefs and restaurateurs who comprise the content of his several successful shows.

           We first got hooked a couple of years back by episodes of the reality show "Hell's Kitchen" on Fox. The concept was that a large group of twenty somethings, one or two fewer each week as they washed out, were competing for the grand prize of running their own Vegas restaurant as head chef. Through a steady dose of disasters and breakdowns they stumble on to the final pairing having endured unspeakable humiliations as well as moments of  exhilarating triumph. Ramsay often stages mini competitions of girls against the boys or the blue kitchen against the red kitchen. The winners get to join Ramsay for a fabulous adventure while the losers swab the kitchen, butcher meat, or clean fish.

           Some of the losers, usually in the opening rounds of Hell's Kitchen, are so obviously inept and pathetic that one assumes they are specifically chosen to self destruct and endure the rage of the chef. They are known to faint, slice off an extremity mid service, or just toss down the apron and storm off in tears. But this is rather standard fare for a reality show the only difference being that it is staged in a kitchen.

               By last season I was rather bored with the formula and becoming increasingly indifferent to the petulant chef. Just willing to toss him off as a self absorbed twit and call it a day. But once again I found myself sucked in and intrigued, this time, by another series on BBC "Kitchen Nightmares." With Tivo I have been able to program and save the almost daily episodes, many of which are repeated, and sort through to find new episodes. This series reveals an entirely other aspect of  Ramsay's talent and personality.

                  Rather than dealing with a gaggle of aspiring kids the idea is that each episode represents the time frame of one week in which Ramsay faces the challenge of turning around a failing business. The restaurants vary from simple country pubs, to attempts at fine dining, soul shacks, and ersatz ethnic. The owners are young and old, experienced and not. But the circumstance is always the same. The owners are facing enormous debts and are on the brink of failure.

               Each sequence starts with Ramsay in the dining room sampling the food which he generally finds to be crap for one reason or another. This is followed by a visit to the kitchen which is often cluttered and filthy. He stands by and observes an evening's service taking notes on what is causing problems; usually the arrogance or inexperience of the chefs with  overly complicated and ambitious menus. Often the food is so fussy in its ingredients and fancy sauces that it is too expensive to turn a profit or too demanding to cook and hence slow in getting to the dining room.

                  This is generally followed by a sit down and heart to heart with the stressed owners. Often there is as much psychology as business in these meetings. They often devolve into name calling and finger pointing. This confrontation is usually followed by a new plan. In some episodes Ramsay's associates are called in to make over the décor of the dining room or even to supply much needed equipment in the kitchen. Usually we see Ramsay and the staff cleaning the kitchen until it is "spotless." Fine food demands a pristine work place. There is always an overhaul of the menu with the familiar mantra of "fresh ingredients, local produce, and simple, delicious recipes."  Then Ramsay takes to the streets with clever promotions to the local customers designed to bring in a mob for the "relaunch." The idea is to see if the staff is up to the task of handling a busy service. Ramsay offers asides to the audience and his speculations as to whether the makeover will work. Often he is exasperated by the resistance to his changes.

                      For the final phase of the episodes he returns several months later to check on progress. In some instances the restaurant is thriving, in others, staff have been dismissed and replaced, or owners have slid back to their old habits.

                 The episodes are always fascinating particularly for their humanistic aspects of  people in trouble. Ramsay often appears to be as gifted a therapist and life coach as he is as culinary master. It makes for wonderful viewing and I try to see at least one episode on a daily basis. Sadly, I have just about run through the entire series and it may be some time before BBC puts up fresh material. Most of all, it is a show that Astrid and I both enjoy as we often have rather different taste when it comes to TV.

                 As one indication of Ramsay's celebrity status it was fun when he showed up in an episode of the brilliant comedy series on HBO 'The Extras.' He played his usual acerbic self. Overall, Chef Ramsay is one of the most complex and fascinating characters on the tube . Or is he just a sheep in wolf's clothing? Underneath all that foul mouthed nastiness he appears to be a rather decent bloke. But, shush, don't let on, or we will ruin the fun. Yes chef.