Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares

Tuesday, April 27, 2004 by

Heavily trailed over the previous fortnight, Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares provided an hour of television so riveting it was difficult to watch, but impossible to switch off.

First in a four-part series, the main thrust is, as with all good formats, simple: take a failing restaurant, and send Gordon Ramsay in with a week to identify what’s going wrong, and do whatever he thinks to sort things out. This week focused on Bonapartes in Silsden, Yorkshire, owned by Sue Ray. This is a pub upstairs, with a basement restaurant offering a “fine dining” menu.

Following a fairly standard template, we start with Ramsay meeting the staff, and sizing up the problems facing the restaurant. Unfortunately, the place has such a bad reputation they have to offer a free dinner (which only 11 people accept) to get anybody in, so Ramsay can see the chef at work.

What follows is really a catalogue of ineptitude, enough to put you off eating out for the foreseeable future. The kitchen staff, comprising head chef Tim Gray, and his mate Lee, clearly cannot cope with cooking for 11 (their restaurant has capacity for 50), and at the end of the night it looks like carnage. As the reality of the situation sets in, Ramsay continually regresses to more basic steps, in order to find something – anything – to build on.

Attempts to cook Tim’s signature dish, which featured prominently in the programme trails, end with Ramsay being sick out the back, having been served rancid scallops. Tim’s excuse is that he didn’t realise. This prompts Ramsay to check out the other ingredients and leads to the discovery of a disgusting kitchen; fridges full of rotting, mouldy food, exposing the lack of training and leadership shown by Tim. Ramsay’s face, on being told that Tim has never cooked an omelette (again much trailed) is incredulous, and inevitably by this stage, we just know that he won’t be able to do it. Which he can’t – both chefs overcook them.

Desperate to establish some basics in Tim’s skills, Ramsay has to resort to baby-steps stuff; teaching Tim how to target the right market, buy stock, plan menus, taste his own food and make a profit. The finale of the week is Valentine’s night, for which they are fully booked (I can only assume because word got round that Ramsay was involved).

By the end however, all seems to have been resolved – Tim appears to have genuinely moved on, the restaurant does well on Valentine’s Night, and everybody’s happy. But instead of cutting to the credits, the programme goes into one last commercial break.

Somewhat inevitably we return within a month for a surprise visit. This is five minutes of difficult viewing, as Ramsay’s genuine enthusiasm to see how thing are going turns to near despair to find out that, within three days, everything had slid back to normal. He inspects the fridges and from what we are shown, it is hard to believe it could get in that state in just a month. Clearly under pressure, Sue decides to close the restaurant, and Ramsay suggests to Tim that he should resign. It’s a devastating tag scene to a remarkable programme.

Arguably, this format could have been cynically designed to exploit Ramsay’s foul-mouthed reputation, and a casual glance would certainly reinforce that opinion – he’s almost incapable of uttering a sentence that doesn’t contain at least several expletives. But watch, listen and think about what he is saying, and his genuine commitment to his profession in general, and the task at hand become abundantly evident.

Having studied under some of the most famous chefs in the world, Ramsay, who is only 37 years old, is a three Michelin star chef. Such is his commitment and enthusiasm for his profession and cuisine in Britain, that he’s set up his own scholarship to train young chefs. And it is this passion and concern which you can see in every pained expression, and hear in every frustrated utterance, as he desperately attempts to improve a business which many would believe to be a total lost cause.

When things are genuinely going pear-shaped, Ramsay is actually quite composed, and clearly focused on getting things going, getting organised and getting the food out. The real bollockings do not come during service – and it is this lack of self-indulgence which highlights his professionalism. Ramsay is there first as a chef and successful restaurateur, and second as a TV personality.

At this point, instinct would suggest Channel 4 have led with the “strongest” programme of the four, and this appears to have contributed to a certain backlash, with critics strongly suggesting that the programme is exploitative of its participants – which is only true in as much as all television exploits its participants. It’s a two-way relationship, and it very much depends on what you want to get out of it.

For a business that genuinely wants to learn, and gain from the opportunity to have a week of expert troubleshooting from one of its leading proponents, there may be a lot to gain. However, for those looking for some “free” publicity and TV exposure, there’s also a lot to lose.


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