Saturday, December 29, 2012

Review: Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares [TV, UK]

Several weeks ago your humble blogger fell prey to some or other bacterial nastiness, so ill in fact that he couldn't read or write. Even his beloved music brought him no pleasure. In those sweaty, fevered hours I, your humble author, turned not only to television, but to reality programming.

Scoff. Guffaw if you must, but hear me. Indeed that I could, deprived of most of my critical faculties, still follow the show suggests the reality tv experience is more pacification than engagement or even diversion. Yet I count the experience as fortunate, having stumbled upon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares.

Famous most, perhaps, for dining entrepreneur and Master Chef Gordon Ramsay's spirited, confrontational, and profanity-laden criticism, Kitchen Nightmares follows the titular chef around Great Britain as he whips flagging restaurants into shape. The show's appeal is apparent: Ramsay is passionate, blunt, and brilliant. His precise, vivid descriptions are informative and his enthusiasm for good food and culinary excellence is inspiring. It's also easy to get hooked on his outrageous harangues against the know-it-alls who refuse to take professional advice even as their businesses fall apart around them. Surely, though, I gained something more from Kitchen Nightmares than the addition of shambolic to my vocabulary? Indeed I did.

The thread I found most noteworthy, and cautionary, ran through every episode, and it is the path which leads to failure. In all the failing businesses Gordon visited, the chefs had met that adversity which greets every endeavor, not with joy, creativity, renewed effort, or humility, but with stubbornness. They refused to admit and learn from their mistakes and as they muddled along and the business failed, they put less and less effort into it. Gradually, day-by-day, they became more and more miserable until the restaurant had become a burden they could not wait to put down. This downward spiral was surprisingly affecting to see and I think it will touch a nerve in anyone who has hit a rough patch in any endeavor. As such I  found myself rooting for the chefs, not only to rise out of their shame and despair but also to rediscover the love of their craft.

Most of the chefs passed through several phases of Ramsay-induced frustration. First, they grew indignant when he ruffled their pride with his criticism. Whose puddings are flat and whose dining room looks like a strip club. After a bit they relented and followed his recommendations. Then they began to resent the quantity of effortful work they needed to put in. Finally, most realized that, exhausted though they were, they were starting to care again. The customers began to come back and the chefs and owners began to take pride in their work and rediscover the joy they had known.

The cussing and shouting may make the commercials, but Ramsay is in fact encouraging and constructive. He doesn't try to commandeer the kitchen and in fact refuses to, but rather explains to everyone what his job is and how to do it, and then tries to inspire him to dig down and find the will to get it done. Ramsay teaches the kitchen teams that fun comes not from goofing off from the work, or goofing on it with indifference, but from taking delight in the experience with all its responsibilities and absurdities. He teaches them to trust one another and to refine their own skills and form their own characters so they can in turn be trusted. Ramsay clearly wants them to succeed because he enjoys and respects excellence and he wants everyone to be excellent. He also understands as a businessman the risks they took opening a restaurant. Overall, the show is a far cry from the foul-mouths and flying cutlery of the commercials.

What came across most, in fact, was not Gordon's ballsy style but his creativity and energy. Ramsay brings a youthful, joyful energy and a technical mastery which excite everyone around him. He enters these drab, depressed restaurants like a tempest, upturning the musty eateries with new decors, new advertising, better organization, and of course, new menus. Many of the restaurants in their downward slides had turned to unwrapping prepared foods and heating them in microwaves. Sure Ramsay was appalled at the poor quality and deceit, but he showed them how this shortcut had cut them off from the joys of cooking: experimenting with fresh ingredients, forging relationships with the local growers and sellers, and pleasing diners with something excellent you prepared yourself with care and your unique style. When the chefs realized Gordon held them as professionals to a high standard they were downright ashamed at their own carelessness and apathy. You could see in their faces the thought, "How did it, how did I get to this point?" Seeing them rise, rediscovering their passion and craft, and seeing everyone find his place in the restaurant surely is the true heart and appeal of the show.

Ramsay's intensity and passion even went so far as to make me a tad self-conscious. He didn't want the chefs to put a broccoli out of place on a single plate: maybe I need to step up the quality of my work. Are there days I just muddle through? Am I proud of the work I do? Am I giving them my best and what I've promised? Would my work hold up to the scrutiny of an expert? Do I talk myself into easy excuses, do I take shortcuts? Do I admit my mistakes and learn from them?

Reflective questions from an entertaining show.

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