This is the most heartfelt post I’m going to make all year.

This is not just about strong feelings. This is about pain. Agony. An empathetic embarassment that has me squirming in my seat.

And it’s about triumphs. Joys. That sweet taste of success.

I’m gonna talk about one of my great loves; Television Cooking Challenges.

Specifically, WTF is up with Hell’s Kitchen?

Look, I have two favorite cooking challenge shows. Hell’s Kitchen and Top Chef.

Both shows have standout hosts. Both shows focus on fine dining. Both shows have a lineup of chefs competing against each other for the final prize. Both shows generally start by teaming up the chefs early on, and then once the lineup is whittled down, focusing more on individual effort. And both shows have minor challenges followed by a major challenge that results in feeding other people and having their final product be judged in terms of success or failure. 

And yet, you put these two shows up against each other, and they feel nothing whatsoever alike to me.

Let’s start with the biggest difference; the lineup of contestants.

I’m going to be brutally honest here. I have to be, because season after season, this drives me batshit.

There is, as far as I’m aware, no equal employment opportunity overseeing the selection of contestants. Right? The show producers have the power to choose whoever the hell they want to compete on their show. They can watch videos, read letters, do background checks, look at photos, read resumes, and then throw all that shit out the window and pick someone walking by on the street pushing a mop because they fill some special niche that they think will test well or whatever the bloody heck is going through their heads.

The contestants on these shows are not there because the show was forced to take them. These people are who the producers WANTED to take, their favorite choices out of all the options presented to them.

So, what the F&*( is up with the producers of Hell’s Kitchen?

Is this really working for them? Is this what Gordon Ramsey wants? Redneck and ghetto fine cuisine?

Look, I’m fine with the concept of taking skilled ‘real’ people and giving them a shot at their dream job. And I’ll tell you, it is apparent that when the contestants on Hell’s Kitchen are on that show, they are working, and cooking, their asses off. They are busting their asses to make it happen, and they are pushing that food out as best they can, to the best standards they can.

they’re just not at that skill set. They’re working their asses off desperately because they are so far out of their depth, and sinking fast. They’re fighting like hell to make it to that promised brass ring at the end.

But are you telling me that these people are the best qualified skilled chefs they have available to compete? REALLY?

Because I’ll tell you something, I flip on over to Bravo and check out tonight’s season premiere of Top Chef All Stars, and what I’m seeing there are real chefs, with real skills, real talent, real creativity and, if this is what’s holding you up, real tattoos and individualistic personality that show time after time that they can bring it, and I mean ALL of it, to the table.

In Hell’s Kitchen, I watch as the final five are trying to finish a dinner service, and the question isn’t “can they cook a scallop divinely”, the question is, “Will Ramsey catch the completely raw scallops that idiot sent to the pass before they reach the customers”.

I mean, are you serious? How can you watch these shows side by side and tell me that this is the best Hell’s Kitchen could come up with!

And if those aren’t the best… if they are intentionally picking trailer trash and Waffle House cooks for the show rather than the most skilled competitors available, then what is their actual goal here? What is the true focus of entertainment?

I watch Top Chef, and I marvel at the skill, the brilliance, the creativity and mastery of cooking I see in the chefs that compete. I admire Padme’s beauty, poise and gentle sense of humor. I enjoy every moment of Tom Collichio’s screen time, as he brings gravitas and a feeling of professionalism coupled with mild snarkiness to the kitchen.

And I cheer tonight as one of my favorite TV personalities, Anthony Bourdain, joins the judges table. Yes, even after his behavior tonight. He says it, and he means it at the time, even when he’s an asshole. I always admire honesty, even if he is crass. I have watched almost every episode of his show No Reservations, and I don’t give a damn about his politics, he’s my kind of person. And hey, anyone that has his attitude and also has the balls to hang with Ted Nugent on the Nuge’s ranch within range of Ted’s firearms, AND go ahead and shoot ‘em, is a badass. plus, did you see the episode where he let the cops tase him? That shit was hilarious.

I find myself really cheering for different chefs on Top Chef for the win, but in the end I respect each and every one of them.

And then there is Hell’s Kitchen.

I start watching each season for one reason and one reason only; to watch Gordon go off on idiots.

To date, he has not disappointed me.  Each season, sure enough, there are people there to give him a reason to go off. To get upset. To go on a frustrated rant about how awful, terrible or incompetent a service was.

I rarely find any contestant on Hell’s Kitchen that does not, at some point, have me glad to see them get an ass chewing.

I don’t watch Hell’s Kitchen to cheer on a talented chef. I don’t want ANY of them to win. I watch to see Gordon Ramsey rip someone a new asshole. Plain and simple.

Is that what the producers of Hell’s Kitchen are aiming for? Are they picking people that are almost, but not quite talented chefs intentionally because the point is to give Gordon people to yell at? To watch bickering and backstabbing and drunken jacuzzi scenes?

I mean, damn. Seriously. I love watching Gordon rip someone a new one, but how much better could the show be if we had some contestants on there that were excellent striving for greatness, rather than mediocre striving for acceptable?

I love Top Chef. Sometimes, it feels like, sure, there are some politics behind the scenes on who is or is not allowed to continue on, but it’s pretty tight. And everyone really brings their “A” game and kicks ass. I’ve never watched a Top Chef and thought that one of the competitors didn’t belong there. Those are some insanely talented chefs.

And watching them compete, I really do feel great for them when they succeed, and I do feel bad for them when a dish isn’t considered a success. I feel like I can own up to watching Top Chef with pride. It’s a great show.

Watching Hell’s Kitchen makes me feel like an illiterate redneck with a dirty secret, possibly involving siblings who are also bound by the laws of matrimony. All right, sure, I *am* a mostly illiterate redneck, but it’s still an embarassing guilty pleasure.

It’s the same pleasure I’d get from watching R. Lee Ermy have a TV show about bringing 16 morons to a fake boot camp, with the one person able to make it through to the end of training winning the chance to go to Iraq for a one year combat tour as a First Sergeant. 

No, seriously. I’d be cheering R. Lee on as he ripped the morons a new one, as one failed to complete a three mile run, or another couldn’t find the courage to do a slide for life, or failed to qualify at the rifle range, or couldn’t keep his left foot straight from his right. But in the back of my head would be the knowledge that no matter WHICH one of these idiots won the final prize, ain’t NONE of them going to be qualified to go to Iraq as a First Sergeant. Oh, HELL no. Why? Because no matter how much hard work and pure HEART the person has, they don’t have the actual training and skills, nor the experience to get the actual final job done!

And likewise, I just can’t see any of the people that compete on Hell’s Kitchen, no matter if they’re the one left standing at the end or not, being capable of handling taking over as the new Head Chef at the fancy fine dining restaurant that is each season’s prize.

I wish them well, but, hell, I wouldn’t eat there after seeing their performance. I have this thing where I don’t LIKE salmonella poisoning, thanks a whole bunch.

Is it just me? I mean, HOLY SHIT, I just watched the two shows back to back tonight, and I just have to wonder, really, is it just me? Am I delusional here?

It’s like the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes.  I’m watching these chefs compete and Gordon scream and yell, and I see the final episodes where a winner is selected and everyone is clapping and screaming and crying and cheering, and I’m all like, “But… they sucked! They can’t. cook. salmon! They sent raw chicken to the pass to serve to a customer. Raw f’ing chicken! Holy shit, are you people all crazy!?! That dude spent the whole time stabbing other people in the back and dividing the kitchen into a resentful hate filled mess! And now you’re putting HIM in charge of a real team? HOLY SHIT! How do you give that person the Head Chef job after seeing all of that! OMIGOD!!!”

And then the blog writer died from overuse of exclamation points.

Okay. I’m calm now.

Whew.

I’m glad I got that out of me. That’s been bugging me for a long friggin’ time.

Damn, this season of Top Chef is gonna be gooooooooood!

As Hank Williams once said, “All my rowdy friends are coming over tonight….”

26 Responses to “Buckle Up, Buttercup, It’s Gonna Be a Bumpy Ride”
  1. Paul says:

    Here in Oz cooking shows are dominated by Masterchef, which takes a very different approach to Ramsay, they keep it positive and build people up rather than tearing them down. It has been insanely popular here, impacting on what is gettiing sold in supermarkets. They recently ran a Junior Masterchef competition, and the kids on that were more talented than the twerps on Ramsay’s show. I guess Ramsay’s producers see idiots as more entertaining.

    If you like cooking shows, watch out for anything Heston Blumenthal does. I’m not sure if my wife would let me loose with that much liquid nitrogen.

    But watching cooking shows is just a sign of how tame we are.

    • bigbearbutt says:

      We had our first American Masterchef earlier this year, and yeah, it was very positive, very upbeat with a “Ramsey does American Idol” vibe. We watched it, I liked it, but at least it was honest going in… they were looking for amateur chefs, not pros. And they were STILL better, in my opinion, than some of the contestants on Hell’s Kitchen.

    • yunk says:

      Oh our favorite Anthony Bourdain line is from the Azores when he stands near the sulfur hot springs and says “Welcome to the Azores, our town smells like ass”

  2. Tsudrats says:

    I’m with you BBB … I don’t understand, other than some sadistic desire to make people feel useless why Hell’s Kitchen’s producers would format the show they way they do. I much prefer when tv in OZ gets back to shows such as Masterchef or even more traditionally formated cooking shows like Po’s Kitchen or The Cook and the Chef. At least you see things being made rather than people working their butts off in sheer terror. I’m glad you feel better for your ‘soap box’ moment too :)

  3. Lahamu says:

    I’ve never seen ‘Hell’s Kitchen’, but I have seen all of ‘Kitchen Nightmares’ and if it’s anything alike, it’s probably worth pointing out that it’s a capital mistake to think of the TV camera as a clear glass through which to look upon the events portrayed. Even if the show is a reality show. Scratch that. Especially if the show is a reality show. The manipulation goes well beyond just who is picked. There’s how the show is set up, shot and edited to consider. Skilled editing can easily manipulate appearances.

    Realizing my ignorance of the show could easily land my foot in my mouth, I watched part of the first episode of season 7. Was it manipulative? Just a little. (You’ll have to imagine my sarcastic tone.) I don’t think there was one shot that wasn’t being worked to push the drama and mood. It’s obviously been heavily edited into shape with all kinds of cutaways and cuts out of sequence. We keep getting shots of individuals apparently being interviewed, but when and by who? Just how heavily are these people being primed for these sound bites and just how much material is being sifted for them? That’s not even getting into the way the desired mood can be built and the participants encouraged to play into it. Or how obviously the show is built around Gordon and his personality. Or just how shameless the music is. To my eye, more than half of the finished product is being manufactured in post. Easily.

    I would not be surprised if contestants are picked for being of certain skill levels and character. But I’m willing to be that’s just the tip of the iceberg here. The whole show seems bent towards offering a particular experience and the sentiment that a film is a lie at 24 frames per second applies just as much to this as to any movie; except I imagine it’s 30FPS.

    This did get me curious enough to hit the Wikipedia and find out what happened to some of the winners. Some didn’t go far, but most seem to have done well enough. Certainly it’s not so bleak as the show would seem to suggest.

  4. Sythe says:

    Hi BBB,

    I have no idea whether you can get access to it over there but if you want Ramsey and good chefs his latest UK series Best Restaurant has plenty of both.

    It’s a completely different format, but the competitive aspect is there and the weekly competitors have already been chosen from 12000 restaurants nominated by the public.

    If you can get hold of it, by hook or by crook, I would highly recommend it.

    • bigbearbutt says:

      Hmm, I hadn’t heard of that one yet. Bloody hell, how many shows does Ramsey HAVE, anyway?

      • Druz says:

        A lot probably. Have you seen Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares on BBC America? Wow, all I have to say is that those people have to be desperate for the help/attention to endure being yelled at like that.

      • Grimdark says:

        I was going to suggest Best Restaurant. It’s definitely one of the more bearable options, as the participants display some actual skill at their profession.

        Ramsey has probably a few too many shows. Usually he makes a show in the UK, and then keeps the same format and does a USA version. Generally I’ve found the USA versions to be a lot more sensationalist and aggresive than the UK versions. If you take an episode of Kitchen Nightmares and compare it to KN USA, although the gist is the same (Your kitchen is sh*t! You’re sh*t! How are you so sh*t!?), the presentation of the episode, and the behaviour of the contestants / participants is usually fairly different.

        Especially, when you look at the first series of Kitchen Nightmares, he went to a few restaurants that either already had Michelin stars, or were heavily persuing them. Compare this to last USA version I watched, which had some nutcase italian woman from florida either screaming or crying whenever she was on screen.

  5. Clapus says:

    I just wonder why Top Chef always has to have the Gay drama undercurrent? As far as Hell’s Kitchen I am sure there will be a roadkill challenge soon.
    Love them both.

  6. Beerbear says:

    I haven’t turned on my TV since April/May. Okay, I’m not in the US, but TV here is just as stupid as over there.

    If you think American Idol, or stuff like that, is bad… wait till you see the German copies. They are WORSE.

    So I stick to watching Burn Notice, The Walking Dead (after reading the entire comic in a day) and *Bleep* My Dad Says (yay Shatner!) and whatever interests me in the current drama season in Japan.

  7. Jon says:

    ” if they are intentionally picking trailer trash and Waffle House cooks for the show rather than the most skilled competitors available, then what is their actual goal here? What is the true focus of entertainment?

    “I start watching each season for one reason and one reason only; to watch Gordon go off on idiots.”

    People in the US seem to gravitate toward shows about people yelling at idiots. The casting of this show makes sure this will continue to happen. It gets ratings.

    • bigbearbutt says:

      Right, but that’s the only reason I continue to watch the show, not because that’s what I like and want, but because I like Ramsey. There have been many seasons now on HK where we simply watch the first episode or two and then drop it as being not worth our time. Each episode, really, we evaluate it again. “Is this really something worth watching? Do I even care to see any more of these?”

      I like the idea of the “Best Restaurant” show, I hope if it does well it comes over here and boots HK.

      • infomatic says:

        This is why I never even started watching Hell’s Kitchen. I don’t like idiots and I don’t like people yelling — not even at idiots, because yelling at real idiots never works. It makes me think the yeller is an idiot, too.

        I was actually astonished to read (in an earlier blog of yours, BBB) that Gordon Ramsey actually was a credible chef. From the HK commercials I figured he was just an angry boss. It made me want to check out some of his other stuff — but not, and never, Hell’s Kitchen.

  8. yunk says:

    I don’t even watch Hell’s Kitchen anymore. The first season was great, the second pretty good, then it just kept going downhill. Last season wasn’t so bad, i have not even watched this season at all.

    When I read Ramsey’s autobiography he mentioned he did one season of the UK Hell’s Kitchen and left, since it was more like “I’m a celebrity get me out of here” and he wasn’t interested in a silly reality show and he liked the US version when Fox pitched it because it was less accomplished but real chefs, and giving them a chance and teaching how to run a kitchen. However that doesn’t explain the decline in quality of chef the last few years. And each year it’s like that it will only get worse because no one good will want to be on it.

    I do watch Kitchen Nightmares and enjoy that. I don’t know why every Italian owner has to be a hothead though. Oh wait, we’re all hotheads. nevermind :) But it’s similar, it’s not haute cuisine by far, just regular restaurants. It’s really amazing how little business sense these owners have, or even how they can’t answer questions straightforwardly and honestly.

    I don’t know who I want to win Top Chef allstars, I know I want Spike to go home right now! even my girlfriend who hasn’t seen him before watched last night and said “that guy is a douchebag” after he “namedropped” living in DC (she is from DC). I am pretty much rooting for Richard. Even though there’s two chicago guys, I am not fond of either the whiner or the anger management boy.

  9. Kernunos says:

    As a proper villain myself and having spoken with some industry cronies who have first hand experience on both shows I can tell you the following:

    1 Hell’s Kitchen gets very little respect from industry cooks. A former co-worker was on season 2. Because his team was so organized it was very difficult for the production crew to mess with them. The result was almost no drama. To create drama the production crew squibbed a glass partition to blow into their mis during service. Ramsey was pissed as hell about it and the team gave up trying to be grown up professionals. Real cooks rarely audition any more.

    2 Top Chef is trying to live down the whole Marcell/Adan thing, still. Several of their most respected judges refused to come back after that. The one I worked for mostly stopped taking Collichio’s calls for two years.

    Ah kitchen life.

  10. Steevee says:

    Ramsey has ruined my life. My wife will no longer cook seafood at home. I just enjoy shouting “F@#%ING RAW!!!” too much. LOL

  11. Nephiande says:

    Most reality TV shows, as well as tabloid talk shows like Jerry Springer operate by mixing in so called ‘plants’ (paid actors) with the real, non-briefed contestants or guests. The characters the plants are playing are developed to complement or contrast the real guys’ personalities, they are there to instigate conflict, shape group dynamics or help the non-plants reach their full entertainment potential.

    Raj on this season of HK was definitely a plant and I strongly suspect some of the others, it’s a long running show with very specific shticks, if it weren’t for the scripted characters dialing up the crazy they wouldn’t be able to maintain their viewership.

  12. Ron says:

    I’ve wondered this myself at times. The contestants on Top Chef produce these beautiful dishes while Hell’s Kitchen’s people bring up raw chicken.

    I’ve come to the realization that after editing work, the biggest distinguishing factor is the environment.

    Top Chef tries to get the best of the best, and show their talent and creativity. They’re always told to take a dish and “make it their own”. From the beginning they have the choice of making whatever they want. While there is a time limit, they’re basically making a large quantity of 2-3 dishes, of their own recipe. Of course they’re going to know how to cook it, they’re given the choice of what to cook. They’re making what they’re good at making.

    Hell’s Kitchen I think is more realistic for 90% of chefs. There is a set menu, and they have to execute it perfectly. From the first night they’re on the line, being told what to make and how many to make. If you’ve never made a dish even close to one of the dishes you have to make, tough, suck it up and make it.

    Also a big difference is how they’re treated. In Top Chef, the judges table is calm, and the worst they have to hear is that their dish wasn’t good. In Hell’s Kitchen they’re under pressure, constantly being berated and torn down by Ramsey. That can make a HUGE difference.

    Last bit, is the prize they’re going for. In Top Chef they’re going for prize money to start their own restaurant ( at least the season’s I’ve seen ). In Hell’s Kitchen its a predetermined job in one of Ramsey’s restaurants. I think the show very much mirrors what the prize money will give them. If you’re the head of a restaurant you can do what you like, and make the decisions. If you’re going to work in one of Ramsey’s kitchens, you better get used to his style of management ( though I guess its no guarantee that all his kitchens are run the same way ).

    Disclaimer: I’m not a Chef, I can barely cook. =)

  13. Herr Drache says:

    I think it’s the yelling that draws the majority of the US TV consumers. Having watched some of Ramsey’s other appearances on BBC America, he apparently can form a sentence without yelling or using vulgarity – but I’m sure it wouldn’t sell well here!

    My personal favorite cooking show would be “Chopped”. That’s “Heroic Mode Cooking”. You look at the ingredients and go “how on EARTH can that come together” and “what the HELL is THAT ingredient?” Those are all accomplished chefs that get tossed into “Cooking Impossible”. Granted, I can manage to burn water, but I’m amazed at their wizardry!

  14. Bill says:

    Its not just you. I want Hells Kitchen to blow up in a spectacular explosion and take all of those Waffle House wanna-be’s to Hell where they belong. I actually thought it was just me, this is my first season watching and I wondered if I was wrong for bitching on Twitter and Facebook that some retard just tried to serve raw salmon or chicken to Ramsay…

  15. Ærynn Lomehtar says:

    There is a reason why there are cooking shows (like Hell’s Kitchen and, I must admit) Master Chef here in Oz that do not take the greatest amateur chefs out there: it is because of the risk of having someone better than their celebrity hosts.

    Think about it: the show is all about how so much better Ramsay (or Gary, George and Matt) are… or at least, how much more refined their taste and how much more experienced they are. One cannot have a contestant prove to actually have more talent, or where will all Gordon’s profanity come from? Why would Master Chef Master Classes be necessary? The show is all about getting some nobody with not-so-good skills to a point where they can be great… but not greater than the hosts or we’ll have a problem. These shows will focus on the skill of the hosts that every contestant will have to live up to… and judging is pretty much a slave of the actual hosts (and guest judges’) taste.

    You see the same formula in the Top Model series of shows, for instance.

    Then there are the cooking shows that are there to showcase skill. I have never watched Top Chef, but from what people (like you) are saying about it, it is more akin to reality shows like the Amazing Race or even Survivor: the hosts do not pretend that they can outrace, outwit, outplay or outlast any of the contestants—they are there merely to facilitate. Iron Chef is like that, too: the hosts are commentators in a sporting match, knowing all the technicals and being able to describe it but never once pretending that they can take the contestants on. Cooking shows that belong to this category will showcase the contestants’ skill as the focus, not that of the host. They can do something different from the taste or technique of the hosts, but as long as impartial judges okay it, it’s alright.

    While I watch both, I like the latter specie of shows better.

    Incidentally, I enjoy watching this other show Ramsay does (I forgot the name), where he helps a struggling restaurant become better (with as little profanity as possible) and then comes back 2 years later to see how they are doing.

    • yunk says:

      huh? Did you watch the first season of hell’s kitchen, where he offers an internship instead of giving him his restaurant? Have you read his autobiography? Or do you just assume people at the top are all jealous and want to beat everyone else down? He sure as hell (pun intended) yell on Kitchen Nightmares, especially when the owners are not being forthright. He doesn’t yell when they actually try hard. Which is why he yells at chefs on Kitchen Nightmares : they are not trying.

      He is like many of hour high school coaches: they only yell if they care. My cross country coach would tear you a new one if you were not giving your best. He’d praise even the slowest runner (usually me) as long as you were trying your hardest. But when he stops yelling then you know he doesn’t care, he’s given up on you since all you do it slack off. Lots of people who didn’t have coaches or drill sergeants or other experiences like that misinterpret Ramsey’s yelling as arrogance and meanness. But read any interviews with people who work for Ramsey.

      Some people (Like Ramsey’s very first head chef, who was jealous) are like that, but not Ramsey nor any judge on Top Chef. They want to be shown up and meet great people. I just read an interview with Bourdain, the other celebrity chef probably just as well known for his big mouth, talking about this very issue: how he wants to meet people who can cook the pants off him.

      Read any biography about almost any very successful person and you see the same attitude. There are a few episodes of Kitchen Nightmares where he actually hires chefs if the owner falls through (like the one in Paris). He is excited to meet great chefs.

      Ramsey is more interested in helping new chefs, but like others said, the producers want something else. I expect Ramsey to leave Hell’s Kitchen soon.

      • bigbearbutt says:

        My favorite moment in any Hell’s Kitchen was in Season 3, in Episode 8. When ramsey went to eliminate Julia for her lack of training, he actually praised her dedication and hard work, and how much she had improved… and then said he would personally pay for her to attend culinary school.

        I thought that was just tremendous class.

  16. Pacheco says:

    I’m looking forward to the No Reservations: Christmas Special with Michael “The Ratio” Ruhlman and David Chang! Swoon!

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