Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Get The Hell Out Of The Kitchen

Like a lot of people, I have come to a conclusion about this season of Hell’s Kitchen, which entered its final phase – probably spread over a couple of episodes – last Monday. And that conclusion is that neither of these people should be entrusted with their own restaurant at place as classy as Las Vegas’s Green Valley Ranch. Actually, none of the contestants this year should have been despite one of the contestants having a raw talent that might have made her a winner.

(Not that they’ll actually get their own restaurant of course. Heather West
, who won last season, actually received a job at a level "suitable to her experience" at Green Valley Ranch's sister resort Red Rocks. This was determined to be senior chef under Executive Chef Renato DePirro at the already established Terra Rosa, rather than being executive chef at a restaurant built to her own specifications. Season One winner, Michael Wray, was offered his own restaurant, but this was apparently superceded by an offer by Gordon Ramsay to work for a year in one of his London restaurants. Wray accepted but then his wife refused to go. After this, according to Wray, he was given "a chunk of cash and US$75,000 in restaurant equipment" for winning. Hardly the prize promised.)

Not that this season hasn't been entertaining. In fact the cast seems to have been selected for its entertainment quality, with culinary ability seeming to be a secondary concern. That's the only way that I can explain Aaron, the overweight retirement home chef, Eddie, the diminutive grill cook (he suffered for Kidney disease as a child which stunted his growth agave him an almost childlike appearance), or Bonnie, the bubbly blonde nanny/personal chef. There were also experienced cooks. If titles mean anything then Rock had the biggest – Executive Chef – and there were a couple of sous-chefs and line cooks. One of these was Jen, who when talking to the others later in the competition revealed that she had worked as a pastry chef in a number of restaurants including Morimoto in Philadelphia (the first American restaurant of Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto). And then there was Julia, the short order cook from Atlanta who worked in a Waffle House (apparently a southern chain of "low-rent roadside cafe[s] featuring waffles" – like IHOP only worse).

Entertainment-wise the show got off to a great start when candidate Aaron (the retirement home chef) broke into tears when Chef Ramsay mentioned his name. I didn't say "yelled at him," or "swore at him," I said mentioned his name. And this is a man in his forties! As someone (was it Jed Clampett) once said, there's something wrong with that boy. Then during service on that same night, Ramsay coined what would be the tagline for this season – "Hell's Bitches." The Women's team spent so much time arguing that it was amazing that they got any food out. Even more amazing was that they relegated Julia to peeling potatoes or apples or something while three of them tried and failed to fry an egg properly. And then they had the utter gall to try to get her removed because she didn't have the "necessary" fine cuisine credentials. Their chemistry didn't get much better as the weeks went on either. A major problem was Melissa, who decided that the team needed a leader and that would be her. The only trouble was that not only wasn't she good at it, the quality of her performance as a chef went downhill rapidly. So did her appearance – her hair became wilder looking and there was a strange blemish on her chin that almost seemed to resemble a "soul patch" beard

Of course things weren't entirely rosy over on the men's side. Not only was Aaron a weeper, he was also not well. He fainted on a couple of occasions and on the last he hit his head and had to be removed from the show for serious health reasons. Meanwhile Rock emerged as a star. And Rock would tell you that Rock was a star because Rock started talking about Rock in the third person. It's a good thing that Rock emerged as a star even though he was never acknowledged as the leader (because for the most part the men rejected his leadership) because they tended to be a bunch without much in the way of personality let alone skills. With Aaron and Eddie gone they were a pretty dull bunch compared to the fiery and argumentative women.

Later episodes maintained the entertainment factor once the two teams merged into one. In a reward challenge to serve "trendsetters" (which Jen thought meant people like "Mariah, or the Rock", which she said would make her pee her pants!) which turned out to be 100 high school students, Julia won with a grilled chicken and cheese sandwich while the others were trying to adapt gourmet food for high school palates. The prize was a trip to the Green Valley ranch with Jen and Julia being confronted with a bidet – or as she insisted on calling it, a booty washer – for the first time in her life. In the same episode we saw Ramsay quite literally chasing Josh (the only other man left on the show) out of the kitchen and not quite out onto the street; cutlery – well okay, a spoon – was thrown. In the next episode, when they were down to three chefs Ramsay let them run the pass, but first gave them an opportunity for some assertiveness training, which consisted of each one yelling at Ramsay and him giving them tips on how to motivate by yelling. As it turned out blonde cheerful and slightly ditzy Bonnie nailed Ramsay on the first attempt, earning a "bloody hell" from him. This was in stark contrast to Rock, who had exhibited a fiery temper on several occasions – notably when with his team he was ordered to go through the restaurant's garbage to find recyclables – who turned positively meek when given the chance to yell at Ramsay.

So it's clear that Hell's Kitchen has been entertaining this year. The problem is that in a reality/competition where the grand prize is "a restaurant of your own" at the Green Valley Ranch resort, there wasn't one person I'd want cooking for me – well maybe Julia but even she had her inconsistent times. And really that's what it's all about – consistency. I'm not talking here about the woman who tried to serve rancid crab, or the one who pulled pasta out of the trash and tried to serve it on the grounds that the heat from cooking it again will kill the bacteria. That sort of thing happens every season on Hell's Kitchen and usually a one-time mistake – admittedly that's usually because Ramsay finds out about the perpetrator and runs them out of the restaurant on a rail but still it almost never happens a second time. Indeed, Bonnie threw out an entire tray of Monkfish before service because she believed them to be bad – Sous-Chef Marianne caught her and with Scott informed her that the Monkfish smelled like Monkfish. Admittedly she should have asked someone about it, but at least she was concerned about the possibility of sending out bad food. No, it's the little things that they apparently didn't think were important. It's the fact that over the course of the entire series they seemed thoroughly incapable of producing a consistently edible risotto. It's that they tried to cover up their mistakes, like scraping the burned pastry off a Beef Wellington on more than one occasion, or tried to make a Wellington looks as if it was at required level of doneness by putting it in a flash oven. Josh was run out of the restaurant for making too many risottos before they were ordered (none actually edible) and for trying to precook far too much spaghetti and making a mess of it. Most importantly it was the fact that they felt it was good enough to serve the public. This sense that something that doesn't measure up to standards is "good enough" is anathema to fine dining – and indeed should be to a chain like Waffle House. It is anathema to Ramsay. If you've ever seen his British series Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares – an American version of which will be appearing on FOX in the Fall – you will have observed Ramsay's mantra; consistent quality food served in a timely manner. All of the other problems that were seen on the show feed into this problem of consistency. The teams this season have been amazingly unable to communicate amongst themselves while doing service. Some of it was game-playing – the game being the show – by Rock that left Brad floundering while Rock and Josh looked on, but some of it was simple refusal to listen to what the others were saying that led to main courses and side dishes not being ready at the same time, which happened a lot with the women.

This season of Hell's Kitchen delivered on entertainment value, but I think it fell flat with regards to finding a chef worthy of the prize. I am not one of those people who complains because Hell's Kitchen isn't Top Chef; who wonder why they're always serving Beef Wellington and risotto. Top Chef is about finding the "best" chef from the pool of contestants. That show's challenges naturally require them to produce different, innovative dishes every week. Hell's Kitchen is about working in and eventually running a restaurant, and who ever heard of a restaurant that totally changed the menu every week? The qualities that Top Chef is trying to find are not necessarily the ones that are essential to running a great restaurant. But I'm not totally convinced that Rock and Bonnie have those qualities either. Certainly I don't feel it in the way I felt that Heather did last season when I knew she was going to win practically from the first service, and I don't feel it in the way that I did in Season One with both Ralph (the runner-up who later appeared on Iron Chef America) or Mike, who actually won. Either Bonnie or Rock is going to "win" a restaurant. They just shouldn't expect to see my name on the reservation list any time in the foreseeable future – or longer.

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