Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Hell's Kitchen - The Apprentice For Chefs

There is one thing that makes Hell's Kitchen worth watching and that is Gordon Ramsay. The format is very much taken from The Apprentice. You have two teams of people all competing to become the one winner. In this case the prize is their own dream restaurant. There are challenges to face and at the end of each episode one team wins and one team loses. The best person on the losing team gets to pick two of their teammates for the boss to send home. We have seen the format before, and heaven knows we'll see it on several other shows this season. What makes this show worth giving a second look to is Ramsay.

Gordon Ramsay is a culinary superstar. His British restaurants have a total of seven Michelin stars, he has been the subject of two documentaries - Boiling Point and Beyond Boiling Point - on Britain's Channel 4 in which his yelling and swearing at his kitchen staff were revealed. He has also hosted his own Channel 4 series called Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares in which he showed up to try to turn failing restaurants into successes, all while yelling and swearing at staff. Reportedly he has banned his four children from watching him on TV so that they don't pick up his "colourful" language. He's also written a number of books on cooking. It's a long way from his beginnings. Born in one of the rougher parts of Glasgow, Ramsay was signed at 15 to a football (soccer) contract with Rangers. His career was cut short by a major knee injury at 18 and he studied cooking in Britain and in France. In 1998 at age 32 he opened his own restaurant, Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road in London. His empire, with partner Marcus Wareing and protege Angela Hartnett now includes seven restaurants in and around London including the Savoy Grill. Hell's Kitchen in Los Angeles is (supposedly) his attempt to crack the American market. That's where the show is set.

In addition to Ramsay the staff are his Maitre d' Jean Philippe, and his two sous chefs Scott and Mary Ann. While Jean Philippe deals with the customers, Scott and Mary Ann are there to advise the contestants but not to participate in the cooking. The contestants are a diverse lot. They include four professional chefs and a culinary student, and seven non-experts, people who like to cook. As soon as they arrive at the restaurant, before they're even introduced to Ramsay they are told that they have 45 minutes to prepare their signature dishes. That's how they will introduce themselves to Gordon Ramsay. It is not a pleasant experience. The first dish he tries is immediately spat out. He describes it as "dog *bleep*" with not only his word but his mouth obscured so as not to offend the sensibilities of lip readers. Then the teams are split into a red team and a blue team and sent to their respective dormitories to settle in. It won't last.

The teams are about to face their first acid test. They have to master five appetizers, five entrees and five deserts. Oh yes, and the restaurant is opening tonight! Each team has its own complete kitchen and it's own half or the restaurant to serve. And this is where Hell's Kitchen veers away from the model of The Apprentice. While "The Donald" usually shows up only to give his little wannabes their assignments then disappears until it's time to find out who won the task and later to do the firing, Ramsay is there all the time and it is a real pressure cooker. It is his reputation at stake and nothing goes out without it meeting his standards. Who be unto anyone who doesn't meet his standards. Or anyone who gets in his way for that matter. In one case a pair of customers who have been waiting an hour for their food come to Ramsay to complain. He drops a rather choice obscenity at them and tells the staff not to talk to "these bimbos". Shortly after, when their friends come up to say that Ramsay has hurt the feelings of one of the women he instructs Jean-Philippe to take these ladies back "to plastic surgery." But it's the apprentice chefs who bear the brunt of Ramsay's ire. When one makes risotto so sticky that he can turn the plate on its side and not have anything slide off he chucks plate and all into the trash. One has his plated lamb chop pushed into his jacket. Finally, after two hours of not being served some of the guests start to leave. Soon after Ramsay closes the kitchen down and tell Jean-Phillipe to ask the patrons who are still there to leave.

In the postmortem, he tells the tams that their section will be judged by customer reaction cards. They aren't pretty and as Ramsay tells the teams it isn't so much that the Blue Team won, rather they did less horribly than the Red Team. Finding one of the Red Team - the risotto lady - whose food was actually edible after the first error to be the least bad on the team he gives her 30 minutes to select two team members for Ramsay to consider firing. The one that he does fire - a woman desert chef who hadn't really pitched in to work with her team - is sent packing, her chef's jacket impaled on a meat hook.

Hell's Kitchen is so *bleep*ing derivative of The Apprentice that it could actually be sued for plagiarism if others hadn't already done the same schtick, and would certainly be unwatchable if it weren't for Gordon Ramsay. One contestant compares Ramsay to Simon Cowell from American Idol. It's a comparison that is about as apt as comparing Rhode Island with Texas. Ramsay and Cowell are both Brits who can be insulting, like Rhode Island and Texas are both states. That's where the comparison ends. Ramsay is driven into rages. He is a perfectionist with his people and there is a quintessential reason for it: it is HIS reputation that is on the line; HIS name is on the restaurant, no one else's, certainly not the 12 - now 11 - wannabe chefs. Simon Cowell doesn't have that. In reality Donald Trump doesn't have that; the people if Trump's apprentices screw up a task it isn't going to make Turmp look any worse to the people he sends them out to. But if the food at Ramsay's restaurant isn't good, it is Ramsay who is going to be hurt. I have to give this show a mild recommendation simply because of Gordon Ramsay's rage and passion.

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