Kitchen Nightmares: Why I can’t stop watching a Scot get angry about overcooked scallops
We all have our favourite bit of shit TV that we can’t help but like. It’s like having a favourite fast food joint or that one-hit wonder you can’t help but have on your Spotify playlist. They scratch an itch you’d rather not admit you have.
For you, you might like the raft of romance reality shows we’ve had recently. They go from the classy First Dates to the median of Love Island to the holy hell what are they doing of Too Hot To Handle. That’s the one where they aren’t allowed to have sex. Maybe you like those ones which are following someone’s real life. There are two subgenres here, the somehow a celebrity ones (Kardashians, Katie Price etc), and the ones following unique people like I had 9 children come out of my vagina at once and a TV show is the only way I can afford to keep them all. I think that was the name of it.
My weakness are the fix-it reality shows. The formula for these shows are all pretty similar. They start with a business that is failing and the owners have no idea what to do. A genius comes in and hates everything, has arguments with the owners before fixing it all and being beloved by the end. Examples of these shows are Hotel Inspector, Bar Rescue and The Profit.
The king of these shows though is Kitchen Nightmares. You all know it. Gordon Ramsay swears so much he saves the restaurant. That’s the show. Well ok, that’s simplifying it a bit but that’s basically it.
To be more detailed, this is the typical show. There is a restaurant failing and it is usually stated that the owners are in massive debts and are only a short time away from closing up. Gordon Ramsay shows up and goes through several dishes, all of which are usually terrible. Expect to hear the word ‘raw’ more times than you would in a porno. After Ramsay gives the chefs and owners a rollicking, he’ll be in the kitchen to watch a full service. It will go terribly with customers sending their food back and often it’ll take ages to get there in the first place. After shouting raw some more, Ramsay will get bored and go rooting around in the fridge. He’ll soon discover everything is unsanitary, there’s raw meat next to cooked and something will be rotten. It’s a special episode if he decides to shut the kitchen down.
In the second half of the show, Ramsay gets on with the fixing. To begin with, he has a sombre talk with the owners about how they need to get their shit together. Owner will not be happy about it. Then he’ll teach the chef a special to put out in the next service. In this service, the special will go great but everything else will remain shit. Voiceover guy will point this out. Ramsay shouts at them again. Overnight, the restaurant will be decorated not to look terrible. Ramsay will present a new menu that everyone loves. Then there will be a final service with some VIPs. There’ll be some problems but overall things go great and Ramsay says things look great for the future if they keep on with the changes.
Of course there are differences from show to show. The designated villain will change. Sometimes it will be an arrogant owner who thinks their restaurant is perfect other than having no customers. At other times it will be a terrible chef who is getting one over on their clueless owners. But in the end, their main crime will be that they do not listen to Gordon Ramsay, the greatest genius ever.
You see, Kitchen Nightmares started in the era of the angry genius. Back in the 2000s both in reality television and in dramas, we absolutely went mad for angry geniuses. These characters would be complete and utter arseholes, liable to blow up at anyone who disagreed with them. But man were they always right! They would know what the problem is and shout and swear until the problem went away. House is probably the best example of it in drama while Simon Cowell was the number one representation in reality television. The X Factor may have marketed itself on the fact it made stars but the real reason people tuned in was to see Cowell dress down some fool who thought they could sing. Of course, the angry genius trend has died. Like with all big trends, we have remnants of it but we no longer get enjoyment from an idiot being dressed down. That’s why instead of doing more Kitchen Nightmares, Ramsay is palling around with Gino D’Acampo and making TikToks with his daughter.
In cooking, the angry genius was Ramsay, a complete antithesis to most celebrity chefs at the time. Before, celebrity cooks and chefs would be very friendly genial people. But not Ramsay. In the documentary Boiling Point, he caught the imagination of the British public for being an angry perfectionist, someone willing to be the nastiest piece of work going as long as it made the service perfect. While he has shown in recent years he is actually much nicer than he was filmed as in his early years, his reputation as the swearing, angry chef will probably never go away.
Kitchen Nightmares is not Ramsay at his angriest. That would be left for Hell's Kitchen, the reality show where cooks compete in order to impress Ramsay. But this show still showed some prime angry genius material. For the bulk of the first part of the show, Ramsay will tear into anyone who listens. And if you give an excuse, it’ll tear into you even more. Ramsay usually got his angriest though when anyone questioned him. That’s when he threw his experience at them in an uber rant. It’s what makes the show work. In the end, most people can point to the general problems as to why a restaurant isn’t working. I could visit one and tell you whether the food is rubbish or if the service takes too long. But because I have no experience in the restaurant trade, I wouldn’t know how to fix it or be taken seriously at all. Even though Ramsay has had his failures, you can’t really dismiss him saying your risotto is rubbish. Though many do try.
In the end though, the genius Ramsay will always prevail. The restaurant will be changed, owners kicking and screaming if need be, and that final service will be a success. It is easy to forget that the vast majority of the restaurant Ramsay has fixed have actually shut down, some alarmingly soon after he has been there. Of course, it’s usually a bit more grey than that, sometimes the owners were too far into debt to be saved or they just went back to their old ways after the show stopped filming. But the show cannot act like that’s a possibility, else Ramsay not seem like the angry genius he is. Whenever the show does mention that a restaurant has closed down, usually in its revisited programmes, it will always make sure to tell you that it is not Ramsay’s fault.
For some, the rigid formula Kitchen Nightmares makes it unwatchable. Knowing every scene before it happens it’s not enjoyable for them and that’s fair enough. For those people, there is the British version, i.e. the original. While the American Kitchen Nightmares is great crap TV, the British Kitchen Nightmares is legit good television. It is less beholden to a formula and is willing to get into much more detail about the restaurant business. Ramsay will teach the owners there about haggling at local markets in order to make the average meal cost down and also on how you make the average spend per customer higher. This sort of detail is missing from the American version. It’s not always a happy ending either. Sometimes the final service in the British version will be rather rubbish and Ramsay will come out and say he doesn’t hold out much hope.
But I think that’s the reason that I actually prefer the American Kitchen Nightmares. There’s comfort to the formula and despite the fact it is filled with anger, tension and pointless sound effects, there’s something really life assuring about it. That’s because one of the messages all of these fix-it shows have is that it doesn’t matter how much of a disaster things are, things can always be fixed. Your restaurant can be serving the food equivalent of diarrhea, have service that’d make a slug look quick and a kitchen that looks like Garbage Island but in just a few days, it can be sorted and things be on the right track again. Yes it will take hard work, the show never shies away from that, but it’s possible.
In a world which increasingly looks like a disaster, buying into the show’s world view that an angry genius can fix everything is just something I, and probably a lot of people, need right now.