Why watch Gordon Ramsay?

For the past couple of months I have found myself unable to watch almost anything on my hundreds of worthless channels of cable television, including news and public affairs programming. The programs don’t engage and the advertisements feel like a physical assault. There are rare exceptions, such as an occasional academic panel or political event on C-SPAN, and one or two other anomalies, but otherwise it’s pretty unbearable. So I surprised myself a bit by making sure last Friday evening to watch the first episode of another series of the Fox “reality” program (“reality TV” being an obvious oxymoron) Kitchen Nightmares, a US version of the UK Channel 4 program, Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. Both series are based on a simple premise: the foulmouthed restaurateur has five days to try to turn around the fortunes of a failing restaurant.

I’d be the first to agree with anyone who suggested that there’s too much of Gordon Ramsay in our popular culture. He’s appeared in an amazing number of television programs, and to say the least they are a mixed bag. Two five-part UK documentaries kicked off the entire Ramsay TV cottage industry: Boiling Point and Beyond Boiling Point, both of which chronicled Ramsay’s efforts to achieve that most highly elusive of culinary prizes, a third Michelin star. They were interesting, but not fascinating. The UK F-Word series (they insist it stands for food, don’t you know) struggled to find any kind of meaningful identity for its first four seasons and really wasn’t worth watching, but the recently completed fifth season, which focused on promoting local restaurants battling the challenge of the global recession, was really quite excellent. The even more recently concluded three-part UK documentary of Ramsay’s tour of India, Gordon’s Great Escape, was also very interesting and entertaining (ant and ant egg chutney in Chhatisgarh, etc.).

Both the US and UK versions of the cooking competition Hell’s Kitchen are fundamentally stupid and silly, and they make up the bulk of his television presence (there have, of course, been occasional moments of real delight, such as Ramsay’s pitch-perfect retort to an irate customer who was childishly demanding more pumpkin in his risotto, “You want more pumpkin? Right, I’m going to get a pumpkin and shove it up your ass. Would you like it whole or diced?”) Worst of all have been the absolutely dreadful UK Cookalong Live programs, recently experimented with in the United States by Fox to cringe-inducing effect, especially his completely unconvincing effort to seem friendly and sweet. Ramsay’s recent romantic scandal, combined with a limited public appetite for his limitless wrath and extraordinary penchant for cursing, have gotten his UK producers to insist on a toned-down Ramsay, which more or less works (he basically has to behave the way he would around children, swearing only occasionally), but Fox went for a warm and cuddly Gordon in their dreadful cookalong experiment and it was both revolting and actually more frightening than the chef in the midst of his most hysterical raging (one of my dearest friends once told me that the reason I like watching him is that he behaves in restaurants the way I would like to, and I think that’s about right).

But the real reason to have ever paid attention to Ramsey as a worthy and compelling presence on television were the UK Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares turnaround programs. These one-hour British mini-documentaries are the only “reality television,” if they actually really belong to that genre at all, that I have ever found compelling or interesting. The program won widespread critical acclaim and several awards, and when you watch them it’s easy to see why. The problems they tackle range from mismanagement, incompetence in the kitchen, and inexperience at various levels, to unworkable business models, and various forms of mania. Ramsay has real insights and a no-nonsense, tough-love approach, but the whole program really works only for one reason: in spite of his abusive character, willingness to humiliate people who deserve it, and incessant swearing, it’s obvious that he genuinely, passionately cares about these restaurants, their survival, and the quality of the food they serve. We’ve seen Ramsay trying to fake things many times in the past, and he’s not that good at it. The passion and commitment that he pumps into these turnaround efforts are plainly genuine, and it’s so draining that he’s made it clear that he doesn’t want to continue doing it much longer (although he seems to be such a shameless publicity hound that he will probably never voluntarily walk away from television).

The Fox version, Kitchen Nightmares, unfortunately isn’t really comparable to the British series. While it’s questionable whether the UK series even belongs to the reality TV genre, the Fox show most certainly and unfortunately does. Predictably enough, it’s a dumbed-down version with numerous serious flaws: it’s very repetitive; overly-dramatic and silly; focuses on wild swings in emotion from despair and anger to joy and reconciliation rather than the food, the management system or the business model; Ramsay’s compelling voiceover narrations from the UK series are replaced by a generic and extremely uncompelling narration from a nameless announcer, etc. In addition, the UK program focused on lots of different problems: frequently, of course, the problem was dreadful food and/or pathetic mismanagement, but sometimes there were other issues. One focused on a Scottish restaurant, La Riviera, manned by first-rate French chefs producing really excellent but somewhat pompous food that was striving unsuccessfully, not to stay open (it was being backed by a doting millionaire), but to win a Michelin star. Another restaurant, Rococo, was failing because it’s talented and formerly Michelin starred chef-owner had lost both his star and his former restaurant, and was undergoing a crisis of confidence. Thus far, all the Fox programs have focused on the same fundamental problem: complete incompetence in the kitchen and absolutely dreadful food, almost always because people simply don’t know what they’re doing.

What really sets the UK series apart from its Fox spinoff is not only the real prospect for, but the repeated realization of, failure for Ramsay and the restaurants he is attempting to save. Given the way the industry works, it’s not in the least surprising that a great many, if not most, of the restaurants involved in both series have ultimately failed or changed hands (of the 22 restaurants visited in the UK series, only eight are still operational under the same owners). Anything that happens months after he leaves cannot be placed at Ramsay’s feet. However, what the UK series allows for but the Fox series does not is the prospect of failure then and there, failure that is as much Ramsay’s responsibility as it is the owners who cannot or will not heed his advice. Some of the most memorable UK episodes involved a total meltdown of the turnaround process at precisely the point in the program at which each and every Fox episode hits its maudlin crescendo. One immediately thinks of Sue Ray, the hapless owner of Bonaparte’s who, in desperation, tried to sue Ramsay, absurdly claiming he had planted rotten food in her kitchen. Or Francesco Mattioli, the mule-headed new owner of a former Michelin-starred Italian restaurant in the Welsh countryside called the Walnut Tree Inn, who simply could not admit that anything was going wrong as his business crumbled around him. Or Rachel McNally, the infuriating, spoiled-brat Scottish owner of a vegetarian restaurant in Paris, Piccolo Teatro, who simply walked away and shut down in the middle of the turnaround project.

Fox obviously believes that American audiences simply can’t handle the prospect of failure — that the only emotions they can respond to are those involving ultimate triumph and success. Of course for any regular viewer, it kicks the heels out of the whole process because we know for certain, given the track record thus far, that the network has no intention of either allowing Ramsay to fail, or airing it if he did. Not content with the image of him as a brilliant turnaround artist, they seem intent on casting him as some sort of superhero of the restaurant industry. In a couple of UK episodes, Channel 4 did help out some of the restaurants with new equipment and other limited investments, but the Fox episodes bestow entirely new restaurants, lavishly remodeled and reequipped, on their subjects, which, along with the Ramsay buzz and free publicity, virtually ensures at least a temporary reprieve from Chapter 11. Both the US and UK versions have involved return visits by Ramsay, with UK re-visits frequently going very badly, but Fox ones being invariably and entirely positive, consisting mostly of gushing praise for Ramsay from grateful owners. The UK series makes it clear that restaurants not only can, they often or maybe even usually will, fail, with or without Ramsay’s help. The Fox series seems to suggest that it’s a foregone conclusion that when mighty mouse comes to save the day, all will be well (there were not only no revisits to the many closed restaurants, there was no indication to viewers that they had closed).

Friday evening’s episode about the Hot Potato Café reflected all of the worst qualities of the Fox version, and these are not only annoying, they do make the program ultimately difficult to swallow. However, if one can make it past all the ridiculous sentimentality, histrionic hype, dreadful production, overall cheesiness and, most annoyingly, the fact that Fox rigs the game and stacks the deck to ensure no immediate meltdown in the turnaround process so that there will always be a “happy ending” at the end of the five days, in my view there’s still a program worth watching here. The problems are interesting and some of the solutions ingenious, but the main aspect that makes it compelling, in spite of every effort by Fox, is that Ramsay’s genuine and inexplicable passion and commitment to actually turning these restaurants around manages to come through quite clearly. He’s a very powerful personality and is so committed to his craft and trade that he actually seems really to care whether or not some little restaurant is serving decent food and is going to survive. That came through again on Friday night, in spite of everything, and it salvaged an otherwise wretched mess (the program, and possibly even the restaurant as well).

Also on clear display was one of Ramsay’s best qualities: his compassion and affection for young, inexperienced but determined cooks. The cook (we cannot call her chef) at the Hot Potato Café is the 21-year-old niece of the owners, completely untrained, totally out of her depth, and not interested really in cooking at all but just helping out her family. Honing in on her grit and determination as the one thing in the restaurant he could actually work with, Ramsay built the turnaround around an effort to develop her skills and bring out her talent (looks like she definitely has some). He’s done this several times before, especially in the UK programs, mentoring a 17-year-old pot washer who suddenly found himself effectively running the vegetable station, and offering a job in one of his London restaurants to the talented young chef of Piccolo Teatro who suddenly found herself unemployed in Paris through no fault of her own.

There is no doubt that Ramsay is, as his reputation would suggest, fearsomely harsh, but his meritocracy doesn’t seem to involve any obvious biases (race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. seem to mean nothing to him, and the only thing that counts is what’s on the plate) except for age: he clearly prefers young chefs and would-be chefs, possibly because they have fewer bad habits and can be more easily trained, but also possibly because they’re in less of a position to put up a fight. Whatever the reasons are, it’s an endearing and admirable quality, and in spite of the bathos of the despair before and exultation after the turnaround from the owners, Ramsay’s bonding with and mentoring of this young woman managed to be genuinely touching.

I’ve written a lot of negative things above about the Fox Kitchen Nightmares series, and in reality I’m probably being altogether too kind to the program, which may be even worse than I’ve suggested. But it’s still the only regularly scheduled series that can get me to turn on my almost superfluous television set. It probably qualifies as something of a “guilty pleasure,” as, unlike with the British series, I can see that this is basically nonsense, I’m being had at a certain level, and the producers are trying to manipulate me and my emotions as if I had the mental capacity of a five-year-old. But somehow it still manages to seem to me to be compelling enough to watch. There is a broader question raised by all of this, which is how do we account for our enjoyment of and, more importantly, intellectual engagement with cultural artifacts that we know very well are, at a fundamental and/or formal level, “bad.” This is especially problematic with bad art (no one would possibly think that reality television is any kind of art form) and it’s a question I intend to investigate in another posting in the near future.