Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Emerging From Hell - A Chef

Every so often you know what is going to happen on a TV show. It's not just mysteries where you know whodunnit fifty minutes before the detective, or bad comedies where you can write out exactly what's going to happen from the summary some guide, or even without it. No, it sometimes even happens on reality shows. Not as often but it does happen. For example I knew at the end of the second episode of this season's Hell's Kitchen that Heather was going to win the thing. If you will recall that was the episode where she burned her hand and as she was being treated she was shouting out instructions and information to the members of her team. At that instant you knew that she was hungry for this job and that she had what it took to run a kitchen. And as more and of the other competitors were eliminated she started showing up as the class of the group. When it came down to Virginia versus Heather, well Gordon Ramsay should have just given Heather the keys to the restaurant as soon as K-Greasy's stupid face was out the door. But then they wouldn't have their "exciting" finale".

Not that Virginia was without skills of course. According to Ramsay she had an amazing palate that was an absolutely miraculous gift (and if she wants to keep that gift she should immediately stop smoking through whatever means possible, because nothing dulls your taste buds like smoking - apparently Ramsay doesn't smoke and all of his London restaurants are non-smoking). The trouble is, as anyone who has seen the previous episodes of the show could tell you, she is absolutely hopeless when it comes to actually cooking or running the line. She has other weaknesses too as we shall see. Heather, on the other hand, has a rather undistinguished palate - she's also a smoker and I suspect that Ramsay would tell her (as he told a female celebrity cook on the British version of Hell's Kitchen) that she had a palate like a cows backside because of it. But she has energy and passion which is what counts.

The season finale of Hell's Kitchen began with a recap of all the previous episodes and the departures of previous chefs culminating with Keith - or as he prefers "K-Grease" - telling Ramsay that he had a "bleep" (apparently he said "a hard-on") for Virginia. This was followed by a visit from some "special guests"; Heather's mom and dad and Virginia's mom and husband. Much weeping and celebrating occurred before they left. The next morning was taken up with a press conference culminating with a curtain dropping down the middle of the "restaurant" (which is of course actually a studio set up as a restaurant). Each chef would have half the restaurant and a pair of designers to create a space to reflect her vision. Heather wanted something youthful and family oriented while Virginia wanted something mature and upscale (with a water wall).

Of course having chefs hanging around while their restaurant is being remodelled is not a good idea, particularly when the remodelling has to be accomplished in under two days, so Gordon whisked his smoky kitchen divas off to Las Vegas by limo. This was actually for the final challenge. Vegas is going to be their market after all so he wanted to see how their signature dishes would go down there. The test bed was the Green Valley Ranch Resort and Casino, which (surprise) is owned by the same company that owns the Red Rock Resort and Casino where the winner's restaurant will be located. Each woman had to produce portions of their "signature dish" for twenty people apparently selected at random. Virginia did a Poached Chicken Rouladen with Prosciutto in a Beurre Blanc sauce, while Heather made a Chilean Sea Bass on Pureed Cauliflower. Of the twenty people who tasted both ten liked the chicken and ten liked the fish. A twenty first person was selected and he liked the chicken (me, I'd have picked the fish; the chicken seemed rather ordinary). This meant that Virginia won the challenge, but what that meant would only become apparent when the got back to the restaurant.

The morning after they returned from Vegas they got a new surprise - six previously eliminated cooks from Hell's Kitchen arrived bearing food. They were to be the staff for the kitchens along with Ramsay's two sous chefs, Scott and Mary Ann. The previous day's competition had been to decide who would get first pick, and Virginia had won it. She immediately proceeded to squander it. Her picks were Keith, Tom and Giacomo. The latter two had been eliminated early in the competition and Tom in particular had shown little or no ability. Heather had Rachel (her closest friend during the show), Sara (her bitterest enemy but one of the best cooks) and Garret. During the time spent briefing their brigades, Virginia made the comment that she had deliberately picked the weakest cooks (aside from Keith) because if she could get quality results out of them it would show that she deserved to win! This irritated the men and Keith told Virginia that he wasn't cooking unless there was a little something in it for him and his boys if she won - say $1,000 each. Virginia was disgusted but agreed. If I had any doubt that Heather would win before they were erased with Virginia's selection of assistants and her giving in on the demands for a bribe.

Finally it was time to open, but not before Ramsay had critiqued the menus and the restaurant design. He basically liked both designs but he wondered a bit about some "graffiti walls" that had been set up in Heather's restaurant. He like the way that Virginia's restaurant was lit in a way that would flatter female patrons. Then it was time to cook. Right off the bat Heather was assertive with her crew - a mini Ramsay demanding times for things and getting dishes to the hot plate fast. After some troubles with appetizers being sent back Heather's side seemed to be working like a well oiled machine, albeit one prodded, cajoled and yelled at by Heather. Virginia's side on the other hand was not working well together. Orders were piling up because she insisted that she be the only one handling plating, and communications between her brigade wasn't good. Tom in particular was uncooperative, saying in private that he didn't like being bossed around by women. At one point Tom cut his finger while slicing servings of Snapper and had to go "backstage" to have it looked at - he was hustled back to the kitchen by Ramsay calling him a "drama queen". When a serving of fish is returned for being too oily - Virginia had decided to increase the pace of service by allowing dishes to be sent out without checking them thoroughly - she found that she didn't have any fish to make a replacement meal. Eventually the customer who sent the dish back decided just to go on to desert.

And then it was over. A special guest was revealed to the two chefs, the president of the Red Rocks Casino Resort, who had sampled dishes from each of the chefs and complimented both women on some of their dishes. It was left to Ramsay to make the final decision though, aided by customer response cards. He claimed that the customer responses had given a slight edge to one cook, and of course that this was the hardest decision he'd had to make. The two women were taken to an upstairs area in front of two doors. Each was given a key to the specific doors and was told that the winner had the key that would open her door. From inside the restaurant we saw the door open and the winner was.... Heather (but of course I gave that away at the start of this post).

Gordon Ramsay explained his decision by saying that he liked Heather's determination and the way that she handled her kitchen. It was a case of stating the obvious. It was really obvious from the start that Heather was the superior candidate, the best of what really was a fairly bad lot of would be restauranteurs. There were perhaps four chefs who really deserved to be on the show and I'm not sure that Virginia was one of them despite her amazing palate. When it came to working on the line and producing during service her performance could best be described as weak and sometimes pitiful. If she was having trouble working on the line what hope did she have running the line. Virginia's management skills were also questionable. She deliberately picked two of the worst cooks available to work for her on the grounds that if she could get them to perform it would show that she deserved the restaurant but then didn't make them work to any sort of effective level. For me the amazing part isn't that Ramsay picked Heather but that he actually thought it was a difficult decision. Of all people Ramsay should know that a chef can't run a restaurant based solely on a superior palate - or even superior dishes - alone. A top chef needs to be able to command his or her staff, to demand a high standard of performance and get it. Those are the qualities that Heather exhibited throughout the series and that Virginia never did learn even though she was on the receiving end of it for every service from Ramsay himself. Hell's Kitchen will be returning next summer. I can't help but hope that more of the contestants then will possess the sort of qualities that made Heather stand out from the beginning.

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