Hell’s Kitchen USA

Monday, November 7, 2005 by

In the end, it was the short ribs oso buco with roasted red garnet yams that won it for Michael. So all that talking to a 12-foot billboard of Gordon Ramsay at 3am in the morning finally paid off.

The climax of Hell’s Kitchen USA proved every bit the event that the preceding nine episodes demanded, and, unlike The Apprentice USA‘s finale, it didn’t even need a live audience, Regis Philbin and a house band blaring out the theme tune.

Not that you could ever imagine Ramsay putting up with all that. From start to finish, Hell’s Kitchen USA had a ruthless minimalism that made it the peer of the shameless but compelling Trumpfest. Like The Apprentice, it had a creditable inclination to concentrate on the game itself, at the expense of backstage showboating, unless it had a direct bearing on the action.

The production team weren’t above manipulating the tension, mind, and neither was Ramsay, from his endless cries of “shut it down!” at the end of another shambolic night in the kitchen, to the resolution of the final, which placed the two rivals in front of two doors, but only the champ’s would open. It might have been melodrama, but sometimes that can be the most satisfying kind of drama.

None of this could really fly without Ramsay, though, as the second run of the British original underlined. Manic, obnoxious and charismatic by turn, he remains one of the most watchable people on the box. Declining to tone down his engagingly spiky persona for have-a-nice-day LA, he refused to even defer to America’s culinary lingua franca. Hell’s Kitchen would freeze over, you imagine, before Ramsay ever referred to a “riz-oh-toe”.

And for a British audience, the series had the extra attraction of letting you feel one step ahead of the competitors. In the first instalment, when one aspiring chef didn’t understand what it meant to be branded “a plank” by Ramsay, it was fun. But when he styled himself an “executive chef”, you instantly remembered the hapless participant in Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares who incurred the culinary master’s wrath for adopting the same title. Immediately, you knew he was doomed.

The final pitted Michael (“The 27-year-old kitchen phenom from Los Angeles”) against Ralph (“The 36-year-old veteran chef from New York”). Each handed half of the Hell’s Kitchen dining room, their last challenge was to transform it into the restaurant of their dreams and become head chef for one night.

Ralph, a garrulous character much given to declaring “I have a slight advantage” to the diary room camera at every given opportunity, elected to create a 1920s style Italian diner, Frank and Lulu’s, named after a pair of dogs owned by him and a friend.

The evolution of Ralph’s restaurant produced another memorable cameo from Ramsay’s loyal maitre d’, Jean Phillipe, who’d spent the entire series facing the ire of dissatisfied and hungry customers, including one repellent Californian who ordered in pizza instead and repeatedly bellowed, “Do you have a doctorate?” at him.

Now he found himself obliged to clothe the waiting staff of Frank and Lulu’s. “Do you want the women to wear some black panties?” he asked a bemused Ralph, in reality attempting to select the waitresses’ hosiery. For his part, Ralph rarely had the courtesy to even get Jean Phillipe’s name correct, but for a man who ended a morning conversation with Ramsay with “bon soir” (“Stupid idiot!”) it was barely unexpected.

Michael, meanwhile, was busy solemnly declaring, “I will win this, Chef Ramsay. I’ve put everything on the line for this,” to the giant likeness of Ramsay that topped their living and working quarters. The quiet, likeable tattooed chef came up with Lola Pop, a stark, modern Californian restaurant named after his wife.

Minor kerfuffles over the non-arrival of Ralph’s wallpaper ensued (“This isn’t going to work for me”) before the two chefs took turns at managing the kitchen as a trial run ahead of the big night. Michael sabotaged Ralph by “forgetting” to put the crab into his rival’s crab risotto, something Ralph failed to notice before he served it, but the crew building his restaurant (“So we’ve got a construction worker, with a hard hat on, sending his risotto back, because it had no crab in”) didn’t miss it.

The two chefs finally subjected their restaurants and their waiting staff to Ramsay’s scrutiny. Frank and Lulu’s (“Casablanca meets the Speakeasy meets Ralph”) looked warm and inviting, according to Chef, even if he felt the traditional uniform made the waitresses look like grannies (“Okay grannies, go round the corner and scratch your fannies”), while Lola Pop represented pure California glamour, according to Ramsay, though here, the outfits made the waiters look like ballerinas (“Okay ballerinas, go off and get your tutus”).

Bringing back the discarded candidates to assist the two finalists has become one of the staples of the reality show finale. Hell’s Kitchen USA didn’t disappoint, resurrecting the magnificent Dewberry (“Blueberry?”), a camp oddball who almost walked out in week two, only to be kicked out moments later, and affable klutz Jimmy (“Jimmeeeeeee!”), though sadly there was no sign of Jeff, who’d spent most of episode three rolling around in the corridor suffering from a kidney stone. It’s almost always a masterstroke, as it obliges the finalists to motivate people who have every reason to resent their success and, as week three reject Wendy Liu noted here, there’s nothing in it for them anyway.

Having beaten Ralph in a street-tasting session earlier, Michael got first pick of his team, selecting Elsie, Jimmy and Ralph’s best friend Jessica – the three most experienced competitors available, while his rival had to make do with Dewberry, Wendy and Andrew. The balance fell firmly in Michael’s favour at this point, and it tipped even further towards him when Andrew had to dash to hospital after cutting his thumb, before Dewberry almost fainted with exhaustion (“I think I’m fixin’ to pass out! Don’t let me!”). Recuperating on a pile of crumpled cardboard boxes in the corridor, he eventually came back to the kitchen, where Ralph called him a rock (“I’d rather you be saying that I was Brad Pitt’s wife”) for returning to his post.

In the end, however, the final decision, and the deeds to the new restaurant awaiting the winner, all came down to customer satisfaction. 90% of the diners said they’d be prepared to come back to one restaurant … but then 94% admitted they’d return to the other. Blindfolded, the two finalists were led to those doors, only for Ralph to remain locked behind his, as Michael walked through to the celebrations.

Ramsay announced a rather unsatisfying twist at this moment, however, offering Michael the chance to forego the restaurant that had been dangled before the competitors at every turn, and travel instead to London to learn from the chef himself for 12 months. It was never adequately explained whether this decision meant giving up the new business completely, or even if Ramsay had always intended this apprenticeship to be the real prize, perhaps correctly predicting that it was an opportunity that no winner could turn down.

Moreover, despite Ramsay’s boasts that he had transformed the champ into a masterchef, given that Michael was, unlike some of his rivals, already a professional chef, it felt a bit like the game hadn’t quite taken place on a level playing field. Nor did we ever get a real sense of how long the contestants had been in there. Two weeks? Three months?

For all that, Hell’s Kitchen USA proved that it’s too easy to label something this good as a guilty pleasure. Like the boardroom, the kitchen makes for the perfect television arena.


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