Recently on FOX’s reality cooking contest Hell’s Kitchen, Gordon Ramsay, the multiple-Michelin-Star winning Scottish chef, screamed at Melissa, a struggling contestant with a droopy face and a Cro-Magnon tangle of reddish hair: “Listen, listen … If you just shut the fuck up for thirty seconds you might learn something! … Now stop being a stubborn little bitch and fucking move your ass! ”
A few days later, on a broadcast of his BBC America show, Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, in which the chef helps faltering U.K. restaurants get back on their feet, Mr. Ramsay visited a “real life Fawlty Towers” in Kent. With the tenderness and patience of a second-grade teacher, he counseled a distressed chef, a “big friendly giant” named Stuart White: “You deserve to make [the restaurant] yours. Stick to what you know, you can do properly, and stand firm.” Then he encouraged Mr. White to sing a song, which he did.
And on Sunday night at 5:30 p.m. inside Mr. Ramsay’s sole American restaurant, the much-murmured over and awkwardly named Gordon Ramsay at the London, located in the London NYC hotel on 54th Street, the mood was dreary—the place resembled a country club dining room a few hours before prom. Only one table in the hot-pink-accented 45-seat dining room was occupied; about an hour later, a second party arrived. Even the bar was desolate. But it wasn’t the diners who were the most conspicuous no-shows; it was Gordon Ramsay. Not only the man in the flesh—the whole huge bursting idea of him was nowhere to be found. Nowhere among the rounded, padded chairs was there evidence of the sharp glint of his American television persona, nor the ruddy good-naturedness of his BBC character. Though there was the moment when, in what was almost a parody of a Ramsay nightmare, one of the many smartly dressed servers strode through the dining room declaring, quite loudly, that a co-worker had just called him “a fucking idiot.”
Who exactly is Gordon Ramsay? Is he the obnoxious, permanently exasperated Simon Cowell caricature on yet another American reality series—a series which happens to be winning its Monday night time slot among the 18-to-49 demographic? Or is he a nurturing, wickedly talented food expert who wants to save wayward restaurants? Is he an ambitious 40-year-old chef de cuisine who wants more than anything to woo and conquer New York City—or just a greedy blond bastard?
I’ve spent the past year or so a little in love with Mr. Ramsay. In addition to his Fox show, he’s got two series on BBC America—Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares and The F Word. On Kitchen Nightmares, I’ve watched him patiently explain to chef after small-time chef how to roast the perfect chicken and braise a duck, while extolling the merits of fresh food, the lameness of deep frying and the importance of a good burger. I’ve watched him teach tragically misguided managers how to lead. I’ve watched him take a kitchen staff for a swim in the sea—in their clothes!—before lunch service. He gets angry, sometimes, but mostly finds himself misty and sentimental about food and the people who cook and serve it.
The F Word is, on the other hand, like nothing else—a strange, flashy sort of magazine show that mashes together cooking contests, celebrity guests, investigative reports, recipes and some pretty personal digressions (Mr. Ramsay’s wife, Tana, and four children are regulars).
But really, it’s all about Gordon Ramsay. There’s no one for him to save or slay on The F Word, so he spends his time preening in his full peacock colors. (Every episode begins with him strutting down a long corridor, first disrobing, then pulling on his chef’s whites, like he’s Clark Kent changing into Superman. He constantly takes off his shirt on Kitchen Nightmares too!) And, look, he’s sexy. True, he may be overly enamored of his own masculinity—he’s a tremendous flirt, and carries himself as if no woman could resist him—but he’s also a family man who, dare I say it, isn’t afraid to cry. In one of the most memorable F Word segments, Mr. Ramsay fenced off a patch of his own backyard and hand-raised turkeys, each one named after a rival chef, so that he could show his children where their dinners come from. Christmas supper rolled around and the birds were professionally stunned and slaughtered; Mr. Ramsay stood there and wept.
In each episode, Mr. Ramsay does his best to teach one female fan or friend how to make one simple home-cooked meal as part of his joke-mission to “get women back in the kitchen.” Far from misogynistic, Mr. Ramsay wants to see more women enjoying their food, as cooks and diners. This man likes to see women eat. A lot.
So I loved Gordon Ramsay. But can I still, given the way he’s behaving in America?
Take Hell’s Kitchen, a program with contestants so inept, with so little knowledge of cooking, that some didn’t know how to fry an egg when they arrived. Two seasons of this nonsense—fine, write it off. The man was trying to drum up some controversy, create a little buzz for himself in the ear-splitting buzz-factory of America. But the Monday night show, which gets more pointless and inane with every episode, is going strong. Surely it will be renewed.
What’s he doing? At this point, greed seems like the only explanation for Mr. Ramsay’s insistence on expanding his empire. He doesn’t know where to stop: He’s opened a fine dining establishment in Dubai, and got another pub planned for London. And for someone who seems so enamored with themselves—and humorously so—it’s shocking that he can’t see what’s happening to him in America. Food TV fans may have wondered, two years ago, why a well-regarded chef like Tom Colicchio had signed on with Top Chef, that other reality cooking program. But in three seasons it’s become clear that that show means business; the winner of season one, Harold Dieterle, opened his own (well-reviewed!) place in the West Village! Mr. Ramsay is hardly mentoring new talent on Hell’s Kitchen. He’s merely giving viewers something to laugh at, and himself something to yell about, each week.
And there’s more: America will have its own Kitchen Nightmares this fall, also on Fox. Mr. Ramsay has already been sued (see left) for allegedly fabricating problems at a Theater district joint called Dillons, one of the restaurants he was sent to rescue.
HAS MR. RAMSAY MADE A CULINARY devil’s bargain, trading his good name for newfangled American celebrity, with all the love and hate that brings? Surely he knows that television can burn a talented chef faster than any Viking range. (Six syllables: Rocco DiSpirito.)
Mr. Ramsay has said that he wanted to creep in to New York quietly with his first American restaurant, and he arrived humble, with full knowledge of the brutal market. But he also made it clear that he expected to run a four-star contender—a competitor to those beloved, old-school beacons of excellence like Daniel and Le Bernardin. In February, The New York Times’ Frank Bruni awarded Gordon Ramsay at the London a disappointing two stars, and The New Yorker’s Bill Buford portrayed a restaurant in crisis as soon as it opened.
While he declined to be interviewed for this article, Mr. Ramsay did send e-mail responses to some questions. Asked whether his various entertainment endeavors were pulling focus away from his New York flagship, he wrote, “First and foremost, my restaurants and my guests have always been the number one priority. In fact, I wouldn’t even be on the television if it weren’t for those guests, who have kept me in the kitchen and in business for years. I have an amazing team of chefs that have been with me since the beginning and they’ve come to understand my style of cooking and what I expect, so I have complete trust and confidence in them. I do take care to work closely with my staff to ensure that each guest has been treated to a good meal and a memorable dining experience. New Yorkers seem to have the most diverse palate out there, so I continually look to the New York restaurant for inspiration and to get a sense of what’s happening next on the culinary scene.”
But from the look of things, Gordon Ramsay at the London is still in trouble. The dining room décor is straight out of 1987 (Hot pink and gray? My reversible Converse knee highs were those colors!), and the legion of servers seem anxious as teenagers waiting for their driving test scores to come back, convinced they’d failed. The menus look cheap, like they’d been printed on a Commodore 64, and the whole place reeks of an overstated understatement; a little swagger wouldn’t hurt.
As for the food … on a recent visit, it was good, but not breathtaking. The giant tiger-prawn-stuffed ravioli was beautiful, sturdy and sweet; a lobster main course was simply prepared (as is Mr. Ramsay’s way) and presented so that the striking color of the pinky-orange flesh stood out to be the brightest thing in the entire room. (Yes, even brighter than the hot pink calla lilly centerpieces.) Still, the amuse bouches failed, really, to amuse—or even be worth remembering. The display of post-dessert bonbons was pretty, and one of the servers joked that she’d noticed me staring at that cart all night, which was true—but only because it was parked directly in front of my face.
By 8 p.m., there were only four tables occupied—one table of two fathers (presumably) and several young, Laguna Beach-style daughters; a happy couple; and a business dinner. In the bar area, a kid flung himself across one of the tables.
THESE DAYS, EVERYONE'S A FOODIE. We’ve all developed these strange, intimate relationships with chefs and their television personas that exist independently of the food they cook. I adore the nerdy Food Network star Bobby Flay, but I think his restaurants are ho-hum. (He does too many things in fancy stacks.) Mario Batali, I could live without him, his transparent hangovers on Iron Chef America, his cookware and NASCAR recipes, his goofy friendship with Michael Stipe—but between Lupa, Babbo, Otto and, yes, Del Posto (the Enoteca is very good, and won’t break your bank account), my husband and I have spent more expendable income in Mr. Batali’s restaurants than we have furnishing our apartment.
And Gordon Ramsay … in a sea of cable drek, his BBC shows stand out as examples of what good—and yes, there is such a thing—reality programming can look like. From across the pond beamed a charismatic, intelligent television personality who never talked down to viewers, who could teach them to cook and be sophisticated consumers of food. He took us inside his own house and seemed genuinely delighted to do so. He respected us as he has always claimed to respect his restaurant customers.
But that’s not the image he’s chosen to export to America via Fox. With Hell’s Kitchen, he’s not even a compelling devil; he’s just a bored jerk collecting a paycheck. At this point it seems safe that we can expect more of the same on his next Fox show.
I want my Gordon back. I want the man who cried over slaughtered turkeys—and then made them taste so good.
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