Americans have traditionally regarded the British as a race of literally gentle men, over-civilized wimps stuttering demurely as they doff their bowler hats. In recent years, though, that myth has been shattered by a series of television imports that reveal a truly cruel Britannia—icons of nastiness like American Idol‘s Simon Cowell, What Not to Wear‘s Trinny and Susannah, The Weakest Link‘s Anne Robinson, and pundit Christopher Hitchens. The latest recruit into this vicious circle is master chef Gordon Ramsay, who’s closer to a foulmouthed drill sergeant than to the cuddly culinary metrosexuals (think Rocco DiSpirito) we’ve come to expect from TV.
In Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, the belligerent, Michelin-starred cook whips a series of failing restaurants into shape with a combination of expert advice and brutal humiliation. With just a week to turn things around, Ramsay batters the hapless employees with a barrage of expletives (one British journalist counted 111 uses of the F-word in a single hour-long episode). Most makeover shows shred the candidate’s ego only to rebuild the subject’s confidence. But there’s no guarantee of a heartwarming Queer Eye-style closure here. Ramsay may well succeed in rehabilitating these restaurants, but only if the staffs respond to his brand of tough love and completely submit to his vision. As he threatens one chef, “It’s either a fresh start or we’re going to go down like a sack of shit.”
In the first installment of Kitchen Nightmares, Ramsay arrives at Bonaparte’s, a restaurant with fine-dining affectations totally unsuited to its location, a small, blue-collar town in northern England. Tim, the 21-year-old cook, thinks he’s a misunderstood artiste when he’s actually the gastronomic equivalent of those tone-deaf, over-emoting American Idol rejects like William Hung. Tim wants to be the next Jamie Oliver, but he actually bears a painful physical resemblance to the pretentious bistro owner, played by Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s movie Life Is Sweet, who serves up nouvelle monstrosities like duck in chocolate sauce. Likewise, Tim’s “signature dish” turns out to be a scallop daintily placed beside blood sausage, then drowned in gloopy hollandaise sauce. Ramsay takes one bite of the concoction and runs outside to vomit. Why couldn’t Tim taste that the scallops were rancid?, Ramsay asks in disbelief. “I do now,” Tim answers slowly, as if half asleep. “I know what you mean, I feel sick meself.”
This incident highlights the most disturbing element of Kitchen Nightmares: It offers a truly nauseating view of what goes on in many restaurant kitchens. In several episodes, Ramsay finds filthy prep areas and vegetables furry with fungus. Inspecting Tim’s fridge, Ramsay discovers a mysterious foodstuff that resembles “sheep turd infested with ants.” But mainly he finds dysfunctional workplaces, much like in any business: chefs who don’t know how to delegate or organize, bosses who aren’t bossy enough. Ramsay tells one restaurant owner to “grow some bollocks”—the ultimate insult, presumably, for a former pro-soccer player turned foodie who prizes testosterone as much as a sharp palate.
Ramsay recently followed up Kitchen Nightmares with another U.K. series, Hell’s Kitchen, in which he was so abusive that Britain’s undersecretary for employment apparently complained it set a bad example for workplace behavior. Fox is shooting an American version of Hell’s Kitchen in which aspiring chefs compete for the chance to be bullied by Ramsay. One of its contestants already threatened to sue after being injured in a scuffle with the chef. Ramsay adds a whole new dimension to the notion of a food fight.
If I were going to set up my own culinary boxing match, I’d send Ramsay into the ring with Alton Brown, the quiet king of the Food Network. Brown would probably show up with gigantic boxing gloves and a red clown nose, just to signal that he didn’t mean any harm. On his popular series Good Eats—an eccentric cooking show riddled with sketch comedy and scientific explanations—Brown flaunts his wimpiness like a badge of honor. In one running gag, his PTA-president sister orders him to make dozens of doughnuts for a bake sale; Brown meekly complies with her ever changing wishes, even when she insists he buy all the leftover doughnuts himself.
Where cooking for Ramsay is all passion and aggression, conflict and cojones, Brown approaches it more like a wacky scientist. We learn a lot about the chemistry of cooking and the history of cuisine—that the shape of doughnuts allows for even cooking, for instance, or that the ancient Greeks loved oysters so much they used shells as election ballots (no chad problem there). Last season, Brown did an informative special on salt worthy of the historian Braudel, spanning geology, history, myth, nutrition, and taste; along the way, Brown threw in a cameo by his eighth-grade science teacher riffing on the properties of salt. Good Eats brings food to life, sometimes literally treating vittles like human entities. “When proteins get hot they tend to tangle up tighter than teenagers at a dance,” Brown explains in a discussion of yogurt. “When they bond up tight enough, they overcoagulate. And when they overcoagulate, they can curdle. And any cook or parent will tell you that leads to trouble.” He grants even the most ordinary snacks the complexity and grace they deserve.