"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Ramsay's TV Nightmares

TPromo shot of Gordon Ramsayhe two-hour, season-ending episode of the Fox TV program Hell's Kitchen airs tomorrow night beginning at 8 EDT. It's a reality program in which a dozen contestants vie to become the head chef of a multimillion dollar Las Vegas restaurant that is in the process of being built in a new resort.

The program stars English celebrity chef enfant terrible Gordon Ramsay, and the gimmick is that Ramsay verbally abuses the contestants as they try to cook dinners in his Los Angeles restaurant named Hell's Kitchen. Nearly all the contestants are grotesquely unsuitable for any work at all, and, frustrated by their ineptness, Ramsay spews profanities and calls his charges stupid donkeys and says that they should be working in a garbage dump and other such choice criticisms. Ramsay is loud, angry, obnoxious, and most important of all, he's right. These people are incredibly complacent, sloppy, lazy, ill-mannered, ignorant, self-indulgent, and blithely unaware of the most basic standards of achievement and decorum.

It's rather compelling television, for what Ramsay is asking these people to do is simply to work hard, learn, and accomplish what they set out to do. Their failure to do so is often quite mindboggling—if you were competing to win the job of managing a multimillion dollar restaurant, you'd think you would try to learn a little bit about how restaurants operate and venture to do exactly as the head chef tells you, right? Not these people....

Ramsay is clearly not from any sort of privileged background himself, and therefore there is no excuse for any of the contestants not to work hard to do exactly what he has done and rise above their origins.

Ramsay has appeared on several programs on British television in recent years, and the difference between his British programs and the American one is quite revealing. In the English programs, including Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, several episodes of which are running on BBC America this afternoon and in the coming weeks (schedule here), Ramsay visits poorly run restaurants and advises their owners on how to make them work. Typically that includes simplifying the menu, getting the staff to work together as a team (which often involves snapping the head chef out of an utterly demoralized condition), matching the style of food to the location and restaurant's history and decor, using food ingredients economically, and generally looking at ways of making the place run profitably.

The show, it should be clear from this description, focuses on teamwork, a characteristically English concern, and on improving entrepreneurship, an area in which Britain is not nearly so strong as the United States. Hell's Kitchen, by contrast, concentrates on development of personal character and skills. This, too, makes sense. Entrepreneurship is certainly a strength of American society, but our education system is very poor, and concerns about personal character have been at the forefront of the national discussion in recent years. The snotty, overly self-confident, or lazy contestants are eliminated quickly, and the ones who remain are those who have a bit of talent for the job and who begin at least vaguely to recognize that Ramsay's standards of quality are unlike anything they have ever experienced or, in some cases, even imagined. To be the best, Hell's Kitchen makes clear, you have to try to be the best. Coasting won't get it done.

There is a further lesson here. The contestants in Hell's Kitchen are learning to serve other people. As Ramsay continually points out, they have to concentrate on their work and nothing else while on the job, and they have to leave their egos outside the kitchen and serve. The only way to succeed in Hell's Kitchen is to recognize that you're not good enough yet and that your job is as a servant to others. Ego is not an option.

Fox's Hell's Kitchen is a variation on an earlier, British program of the same name starring Ramsay, and the difference is interesting. In the British version, Ramsay had two weeks to train celebrities into becoming Michelin-star chefs. It's something of a lark, of course, and the fact that his students are already celebrities means that the emphasis is on learning a new and unfamiliar skill set, not on developing the personal character necessary for worldly success. In the American version, the emphasis is strongly on the contestants' unsuitability for high-level work and on the amount of improvement they will have to make both in skills and, more importantly, in how they approach the job and life in general, before they can hope to make anything of themselves.

The entertainment attraction of Hell's Kitchen is in awaiting the next disaster and Ramsay's explosively frustrated reaction to it, but there is much more to this reality program, and much to learn about what it takes to make it in this world. As Hell's Kitchen shows every week, success is no accident, and those who want to get ahead have to pay their way like anybody else. The real success in Hell's Kitchen as in life in general, is for those who learn to serve others.

From Karnick on Culture.

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