Tuesday, June 13, 2006

He's Ba-ack

I don't care what anyone says, Gordon Ramsay provides an evening of good entertainment...so long as you don't work for him and don't try to complain restaurant. But if you're sitting at home eating something that at his most generous Ramsay wouldn't consider a meal, it can be good clean fun to watch Gordon tear someone a new one, whether it's on his British show Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares or on his American show Hell's Kitchen. I first reviewed Hell's Kitchen last year and I have to confess I became a fan, not because of the competitive aspect, which is little more than a clone of The Apprentice but because of Gordon Ramsay and what he brings to the formula.

Ramsay's strength as entertainment is his personality. Outside of a kitchen he seems to be a reasonably sane person - has a nice wife and kids - but inside a kitchen he's a foul mouthed tyrant. It's not an act, as a host of people will testify including Joan Collins who was personally tossed out of one of Ramsay's restaurants. On Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, which airs uncensored on The Food Network here in Canada, he's cruel in an effort to save restaurants that he thinks have potential to become better than the sad establishments they've become, and probably to instill a bit of pride into the people who work in the kitchens of these places. It doesn't always work. In an episode I saw on Sunday night Ramsay managed to return a restaurant's menu to sanity, get the chef to cook with real food instead of prepackaged crap and actually bring customers back, and the owners still had their business taken back by the brewery that had loaned them money to operate the establishment. In Hell's Kitchen Ramsay is taking a batch of people who claim to be able to cook and have some degree of culinary expertise and make them fit to run a major restaurant. Last season the reward for withstanding days of Ramsay's abuse and learning from him in the process was a restaurant of the winner's own. This season it is management and partial profit participation in a restaurant that will be part of the Red Rocks Casino Resort and Spa complex near Las Vegas. Ramsay is brutal but given the stakes these people are playing for it's cruelty to be kind.

Monday night's two hour debut - really two back to back episodes - introduced us to Ramsay's new batch of innocents, all of whom seem to think that he's not that tough, although none of them compared him to Simon Cowell this year; Cowell's a spayed pussycat compared to Ramsay. They're about to have a rude awakening which starts when Gordon has them prepare their "signature" dishes. With one or two exceptions he finds the dishes at best overspiced and at worst thoroughly disgusting. One woman's Plantain soup was described as looking like "baby's vomit", while another cook tried to slip by something she called "Undone Focaccia Bread" with a dipping sauce - Ramsay said he'd rather put a piece of poodle *bleep* in his mouth than that - and he was right, it looked depressingly close to what he said it was.

The first episode only had one challenge to it, to feed a full restaurant only 24 hours after opening. The twelve contestants were split into Red and Blue teams but this time the split was made on gender lines. The six men - Tom, a former stock broker; Giacomo, a pizza maker; Garrett, a guy who learned to cook while doing time in prison; Gabe, a marketing executive; Larry, an executive chef and fishmonger; Keith, a chef and bartender - became the Blue team. The women's Red Team consisted of Polly, a caterer; Virginia, a salad chef; Rachel, a personal chef; Sara, a deli manager; Heather, a sous chef; and Maribel, a cafeteria chef. Clearly most of these people were chosen for their back stories rather than real cooking ability. That becomes apparent with the first service, where things are a shambles. One person on each team is assigned to be a "donkey", getting things for the other chefs and cleaning up. Things got so bad in the women's kitchen that when an appetizer finally did make it out - after Heather (who had taken on the role of donkey) replaced Polly - Sara let out a cheer which immediately earned her Ramsay's ire. In the end the women lost and it was left to Heather to make choices for elimination. She picked Polly and Virginia and Ramsay decided that Polly had to go.

In the second episode of the night things fell a bit more into their normal pattern. Ramsay started with a bit of a lesson - he had the apprentices sorry the cooks empty out the dumpsters outside the restaurant and open the bags to show them just how much food they'd wasted in the previous episode. Wasted food doesn't bring in profits but if you're going to live up to Ramsay's standards you either waste food or you get it right the first time. After that he set the teams an assignment. They had to cut perfect 10 ounce Sirloin Steaks out of a piece of beef. The team with the highest number of steaks would win a reward. The five women cut 12 steaks that measured up to Ramsay's standards while the men cut 11 - and it would have been worse if Tom hadn't managed to cut five of them himself. The women won and the men had to prepare all of the steaks for the next night's service while the women went to dinner with Ramsay at a restaurant that serves wild game. Things got worse for the men when Larry seemed to suffer a heart attack (although in fact it was a severe anxiety attack) which took him off the show entirely. In the night's service the women's team continued to be on a roll, getting a number of entrees out, while the men had trouble because side dishes for the main course weren't being completed. Then disaster struck the women as Heather burned her hand and had to go to the hospital. Before she left though she impressed Ramsay by continuing to control the women's kitchen and letting them know what to do. Suddenly a favourite has emerged.

In the previous paragraph I used (and struck through) the word "apprentices." It was quite deliberate. This show is essentially a remake of The Apprentice but if they'd left it as just a clone of the earlier show, it wouldn't have been a summer hit last year and it wouldn't have been renewed this year. As I said when the show originally appeared "There is one thing that makes Hell's Kitchen worth watching and that is Gordon Ramsay." It still holds true. Ramsay is abrasive and abusive, and a harsh task master, but when it comes to what he does he is the best there is which is why he can get away with being abrasive and abusive. I don't know that you can really say that he's entertaining to watch in a conventional manner but there is something about watching him get angry because people aren't doing the job that they've been given properly, or even competently, that is almost admirable in an odd way. Sure he's a perfectionist, but he is operating in an industry where if you don't live up to standards in terms of the quality of your product you not only lose a sale you can very quickly lose your reputation and then your livelihood. Those restaurants that Ramsay visits in Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares are places where the business is declining because reputation has slipped because the proprietors and chefs and the servers don't live up to any sort of standard or expectation. Of course Hell's Kitchen isn't a real restaurant; it's a converted TV studio, the waiters are for the most part aspiring actors and the customers are solicited in the newspapers and paid to come eat there, but the principal remains the same. Ramsay may seem extreme - although from comments that I've read, he's not atypical of really successful restaurateurs - but I have suspicion that the survivor of the Hell's Kitchen process will walk out a better chef as a result, and I wouldn't be surprised if he or she is as abrasive and abusive of the people working under them as Ramsay is. It's the way of their world.

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