Gordon Ramsay's BBC show "Kitchen Nightmares" is a classic; permanent proof that Ramsay is one of the best chef-lebrities working and cooking on television. The UK version of "Kitchen Nightmares" might be old news, but it's good news to certain hack writers bedeviled with pestilence. So, if you're ever marooned on a couch because of the flu, re-watch any of the episodes of this show on BBC America On Demand. Ramsay is combustible, passionate, and a man clearly in control of his talents. He's the rare personality on air: a guy who obviously knows what he's doing, and is not afraid of showing that fact off. Rarely do we see experts on television who literally look like they can easily walk the talk.
Chef Ramsay is a pretty controversial figure. He's got a filthy mouth, but curse words are the poetry of the professional kitchen. This transgression should be forgiven. The past couple of years have been tough on the guy. His empire of upscale restaurants has had financial problems, calling his Midas touch into question. An affair surfaced, tarnishing his public image as a family man. To some, his hit FOX Show "Hell's Kitchen" is an obnoxious circus where cooks with cafeteria skills and Michelin star dreams emote, sweat, and bray like Ramsay's trademark insult. Donkeys! "Hell's Kitchen" is like a Bizarro-world version of Bravo's precious cooking competition "Top Chef." Whereas Bravo's hip, culinary Olympics features serious-minded kitchen warriors looking for a bragging rights and a fast break into a hyper-competitive industry, "Hell's Kitchen" presents a gaggle of wannabes, professional amateurs, and short-order cooks. Of course, one is becoming hilariously pretentious and self-important -- it's "Top Chef," not "Top Virtuoso Violinist," or "Top Neurosurgeon." "Hell's Kitchen" will always be about Ramsay losing his cool and bellowing at some incompetent reality television jester.
Ramsay's newest show, The "F" Word, is punch-drunk on its own hipness. It's an occasionally amusing, if smug, little affair. But I don't fault Ramsay -- his passion for cooking still comes through.
But then there's "Kitchen Nightmares." The BBC original, not the American remake.
The American version of Ramsay's show seems more about cheap dramatics and the restaurant makeover. This reflects American tastes, at least at the moment in time when that show was being filmed. We wanted to be given something, rather than earn it. So Ramsay was more of a foul-mouthed Scottish Fairy Godmother for the US incarnation of a show that was originally about a world class chef on a crusade. His mission was to preach the virtues of simple, not simplistic, food prepared with fresh, local ingredients and with passion. This philosophy can be applied to almost any vocation, as he reminds his charges that "overcomplicated" isn't another word for "sophistication."
If you've never seen the original "Kitchen Nightmares," do it. In each episode, Ramsay arrives at a restaurant on the verge of abject failure. Running a restaurant is not a job for the meek, faint-of-heart, or those with low metabolisms. It's a risky venture; just ask anyone who has ever started a restaurant. The pubs, eateries, and fine dining establishments featured in Ramsay's show are all asking for help, and so Ramsay rolls in. He critiques the food, which is usually less than spectacular. In some cases, the food looks like horror movie special effects. A cleanliness check frequently reveals roaches, rotting food, and gunk caking places that gunk shouldn't cake. Ramsay tears the restaurant down, and then rebuilds it and the staff. Introduces a new menu. Renovates old fashioned décor. Makes sure there's a hierarchy in place that helps the business runs efficiently. Generally, there's a happy ending.
But the trick that Ramsay pulls is the way he gleefully deflates egos. He does it to fun effect in the American "Kitchen Nightmares," but I don't get the feeling he spends as much time with the US kitchens as he does with the UK ones. His bluster and swagger comes off as the pinnacle of arrogant behavior. And it is. Oh, the sweet irony. The man has earned the right to preen. The best part of this show is the way he, from his lofty perch of accomplishments, prods, mocks, and confronts failing chefs and owners and forces them to turn their pride inside out. To look at pride as a reward, not an entitlement. Watching Ramsay break down, the rebuild such a collection of egos is compelling television. "Kitchen Nightmares" is a celebration of a job done well, not to mention humbly.
"Kitchen Nightmares" is fantastic cooking show, be you in the pink of health, drugged-out, or battling the plague in your Snuggie.