Since the very first time Julia Child stood in front of a camera and warbled her way to a boeuf bourguignon, cooking shows have been criticized for their obvious lack of sensory experience. The salivating home viewer can neither smell nor taste the dishes, so what’s the point? Hell’s Kitchen sidesteps that problem in an ingenious way; namely, by not presenting a single foodstuff a person might care to smell or taste. Instead, Chef Gordon Ramsay allows fans to indulge the faculty most underutilized by today’s modern cuisine: the aural. A meal at Hell’s Kitchen is a sumptuous auditory feast. The bracing clatter of a deftly thrown sauté pan. The comforting squish of a fist plunging into undercooked scallops. The desperate whimper of some schmuck who forgot to season the risotto again.
I haven’t seen much of Hell’s Kitchen in its previous thirteen seasons, but nothing about its simmering stew of wacky sound effects and toxic personalities makes me think it was ever about the food. In its presentation, Hell’s Kitchen is less Top Chef and more Wipeout!, without the added benefit of watching overweight people fall down. I expected Ramsay to yell a lot, sure, but I didn’t expect to endure the extended opening fakeout in which the contestants are led to believe they must jump off a building in order to be allowed to compete, a nod to celebrated chef Joël Robuchon who famously earned his first Michelin star by ziplining off the Eiffel Tower. The contestants are relieved to learn the roof jumpers are Hollywood stuntmen, but not before one chef, known only as “T,” speculates on the plausibility of defecating in one’s pants from fear. This seems an appropriate kickoff for a show ostensibly about the enjoyment of food.
The theatrics over, the Hell’s Kitchen is free to move on to its next bit of theatrics. The contestants are divided into teams by gender — women in red, men in blue — and Ramsay awards each chef’s “signature dish” a score of one to five. In practice, this means arbitrarily dispensing threes and fours while the chefs receive this wisdom as though it were a mysterious Zen koan and they, mere unenlightened disciples. Throughout the judging, Ramsay displays the quick wit and impish charm that has so endeared him to us Yanks, asking a young man who works at a senior living center if any residents have died as a result of eating his food. All this occurs in front of a braying, gasping live audience who were kicked off the America’s Funniest Home Videos set for “doing too much.” When judging ends, the blue team’s dishes are deemed slightly less cumulatively awful than their opponents’. As their reward, the guys pile into what Ramsay, oddly channeling Donald Trump, describes as “the most extravagant limo,” where they swap bon mots about their sexual superiority. Later, they have cocktails with William Shatner, whose blessedly brief screen time is enough to earn this show an Emmy for judicious editing.
The competitors themselves represent a spectrum of reality-show-contestant tropes one might kindly describe as “colorful” and unkindly describe as “bozos.” There’s a geek, an ex-military guy, a hot goth, and a chirpy woman who refers to a bad situation as “hashtag not okay.” Monique tells us that she considers using canned pasta sauce perfectly acceptable “unless you’re from fuckin’ Italy or somethin’.” Adam’s on-screen credential is given as “amusement park chef,” which, like an amuse-bouche, has prepared my palate for a forthcoming array of dishes of the “funnel” variety. In one legitimately frightening moment, our new friend T literally brandishes a knife at an overwhelmed food truck owner named Chrissa, and informs her, “If you let us down, I swear to God, I’m gonna beat you.” The hostility is shocking, and not just because it comes on the heels of one of the most likeable, talented and mutually respectful Top Chef casts in that show’s history. Crank up the Looney Tunes soundtrack as loud as you want, but T’s threat is a truly ugly reality TV moment that instantly sucks any remaining fun out of the season premiere.
But hey, let’s eat, right?! Ramsay’s opening night menu is packed with dishes that deserve to be in a museum, not for their beauty but because they celebrate the cuisine of the mid-1980s. The women get off to a strong start, with the exception of poor Chrissa, who doesn’t understand how a restaurant kitchen actually works and spends the entire service bouncing from station to station like a Roomba having a panic attack while the other chefs swat her away. Though the menu is the pre-set, the contestants are given the opportunity to let their voices shine through in the food. For instance, Monique cooks her lamb via the unconventional technique of forgetting to turn the oven on, triggering a meat course disaster that will be the red team’s undoing. Across the kitchen, the men recover from their rocky appetizer service and muddle through the remainder of the night, but it’s the ladies who deliver what we’re really hungry for: the chance for Grandpa Ramsay to fling food and f-bombs around while the diners snicker at each other over their wine glasses and pretend they actually came for a meal and not the public humiliation of it all.
With a starting field of eighteen chefs, it’s going to take some time to separate the wheat from the chaff, but oh, what a lot of chaff there is. And yet, competitors aside, what’s most surprising about Hell’s Kitchen is Chef Ramsay’s total lack of appeal. There’s nothing clever or sly about his putdowns, nothing instructive in his petulant huffing and puffing. Ramsay churns out insults that are somehow even less creative than the food, bringing the hammer down on the red team by simply spitting at them to “fuck off.” Until whatever talent lurking among the cast reveals itself, I hope the others screw up bad enough to at least inspire Ramsay to up his cursing game, because right now, he’s serving up the expletive equivalent of risotto and seared scallops.