How America ruined Kitchen Nightmares

Americans like myself have a tendency to stereotype all British people as being smart and generally classier than ourselves. This is of course not true, but fear not! Americans can still hate themselves for having the dumbest, most pandering television.

Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares debuted in the UK in 2004. The idea was simple and unique: Have famous chef/restaurateur Gordon Ramsay go into failing restaurants and show them how to fix their businesses. The show was a huge success. It allowed audiences to gawk at the disgusting underbelly of the restaurant world: rotten food, dirty floors, panicked kitchen staff, etc. The newly flipped restaurants got some good advice and a well-earned boost in customers. And Gordon Ramsay became even more prolific.

Of course, that’s what the original version of Kitchen Nightmares was about. The American version that aired on FOX up until this year is about Gordon Ramsay paying people so he can scream at and humiliate them.

Allow me to break down the problems by comparing and contrasting the two shows.

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Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares (UK):

How America ruined Kitchen Nightmares

Gordon will introduce himself and try the food, which is almost always dreadful. He will then talk to the chef and the owners to figure out the source of the problems, which vary from staff inexperience to overly pompous chefs. The next day, he’ll watch a dinner service to see how the kitchen runs, or doesn’t, on its own.

Having pinpointed deficiencies in the operation, he’ll give them instructions to carry out before the next big service. This usually involves learning a new menu, cleaning, painting, getting rid of tacky or old furniture, and adjusting prices. There will then be a very busy service and the team will either sink or swim depending on how well they’ve adjusted to their new environment.

Kitchen Nightmares (USA):

The show begins with a new intro, including explosions and flying knives, because ‘Murrica. The announcer will then preview all the most exciting points in the upcoming episode, basically explaining everything that happens before it’s given time to have any context. You know, just to make sure nothing is a surprise.

How America ruined Kitchen Nightmares

The rest of the show is painfully dull, because not only do you already know what’s going to happen, but it’s always the same. The reason for that is the show is 100% staged. The casual observer may not catch it at first, but every episode follows the same rigid formula.

How can you tell?

This kitchen is always filthy.

They all know Gordon Ramsay is coming. They’ve all seen the show they’re about to be on. They know that he’s going to go through every nook and cranny, and yet for some strange reason, no one ever bothers to try and clean up the place before cameras arrive. Despite the show’s constant depiction of chefs who insist their food is fresh, not a single chef will clear out the refrigerators stuffed to the gills with frozen chicken or processed cheese. The signature things we’re all supposed to gasp at are always there. Why? So we can gasp at them, of course.

The reoccurring characters.

Failing businesses often have a lot of things in common. But the US Kitchen Nightmares takes this to ridiculous extremes. The chef is almost always a family member (husband, son, wife) who’s deluded and thinks the food is great when it’s not. The owner is played by another family member who either has no palate whatsoever, or is just too passive to say anything. Then there’s the front of house staff. Usually, there’s a wacky or no-nonsense waitress, or a manager who’s too stuck up to do their job. It’s like a rotating cast playing the same characters over and over again. Eventually, you’ll be able to spot them before they say anything.

The food they give Ramsay is always horrendous.

This particular part of the show always gets me. Many of these restaurants have been in business for years, but the moment Gordon Ramsay shows up, they suddenly forget you have to season things. I’m not even talking about complex seasoning here, just salt. Food comes out looking like baby vomit, or half-frozen, or even rotten. People cooking at home don’t even make mistakes this bad. This kind of thing happens even when the restaurant is empty and they’re just cooking for Ramsay alone. Forget cooking, I’m not sure people this dense can cross the street by themselves.

How America ruined Kitchen Nightmares

In the UK version, the problems were varied and different because the restaurants were run by people with varied and different issues. But the US version took everything unique about each episode and distilled it down to the same cartoonish caricatures. Everything from the obnoxious reality TV editing, to the dramatic way Gordon screams, “Shut it down!” in nearly every episode.

There’s a sad irony to it all. Gordon Ramsay has always preached the gospel of freshness, quality over quantity, and establishments having a down to earth, rustic feel. But his show, after seven seasons, has become a highly processed, overly salty, homogeneous mess.

But what I think gets to me the most about the show is the handouts. In the original UK version, the owners were expected to make all the changes themselves. Trim the menu, paint the walls, remove tacky décor, etc. Because why not? It’s their business, after all. And if they succeed by the end of the episode, you feel as though they’ve really earned their success.

This was changed in the American version, I assume to help compensate for the way they make everyone look like idiots. Once Ramsay has spent a few days mocking the owners and screaming about how incompetent they are, he will reward all their non-efforts with a complete renovation of their business. And the best part? It’s done overnight by a team of specialists. That’s right: the owners don’t even need to lift a finger to fix the problems they caused, as long as they pretend to be surprised and cry at the end of the show.

How America ruined Kitchen Nightmares

The good news is as of June 2014, Kitchen Nightmares is more or less over. Ramsay is moving on to other shows. But this adaptation was a sad glimpse into what FOX thinks we want in our television. Or perhaps more unsettling, what they know we want. Personally, I prefer the original show and I’ll continue to passive-aggressively hope FOX takes the hint.

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  • Michael Martin

    Honestly, I never thought I’d see a show like this show up on Agony Booth, but I’m glad I did. Kudos, you nailed it. I think the one reason I’m glad the U.S. version exists is to point to when people say the U.K. version is staged. You want staged? This is what staged looks like. Just sad. My favorite thing about the U.K. versions is that people complained that it was both staged and that very few of the restaurants actually ended up making it. Both of which are totally ridiculous. The second point is actually not very surprising. Do people who actually watch the episodes really expect people to be able to actually turn themselves around that easily? And it disproves the first. If all of the dis-function was really staged, wouldn’t most of the restaurants flourish (or at least go back to not really failing)?

  • Jay_Bay

    That’s what bother me about KN USA (and even other shows similar to this like Bar Rescue). The first two seasons, you could get away with people being caught surprise and unaware. But after like 3 seasons, that’s gonna wear thin. The suspension of disbelief will be shared. And then you realize all the repeat players and the ease of predicting stuff and scenarios.

    But even with KN USA, it gets hampered by season 1 cuz Ramsey did how many seasons of Hell’s Kitchen before? 5, 7, double digits? You know this man, you know how he functions. If he stops in your restuarant wanting to try some food, by the gods you must wanna try your very best. These cooks just act like Ramsey is just some ol bloke off the streets. I know no self loving chef will wuss themselves out like that. And on top of all that, I don’t know if KN USA is like that, but a lot of those type of shows someone within the company (maybe even the owner) is the one who invite the host over. Like they should definitely know how the host will act.

    But I’m still watching Bar Rescue and KN UK and Undercover Boss and….I guess just all of them.

  • I never watched this show but this is very similar to the Food Network show, Restaurant Impossible with Robert Irvine minus the cursing. Robert Irvine came to a local restaurant here in Virginia that my family used to go to. It was failing but after all of the changes, Irvine made, the restaurant actually lost customers as they hated the menu items that he added and missed what had been there before and the owner, who was a family friend told us that the people you see in the before shots trying out the food and saying it wasn’t very good were actually actors that the show had hired off of Craigslist. And since they came to that particular restaurant and in my opinion made it worse, I haven’t watched an episode of that show since and I was disappointed.

  • Sofie Liv

    I did notice that a lot.

    Like in MasterCheff, the original Australian show is just about one of the calmest must pleasent things i’ve ever seen in television.
    It’s just this calm friendly little happy competetion taking its good time talking about food.

    Then it came to America….
    Suddenly it’s all about insulting the contestents when they do wrong, fast paced editting, blowing up any anomosity between contestents.

    American do seem to have a thing about wanting to make any reality show into a blood spewing action thriller at any cost neccesary.
    It’s like contestents are pitched up against each other on purpose and they make trials specifically designed to make people pissy.

    It’s entertaining to watch for an outsider… but only for a while.
    After some time you realise just how pandering this is.

    • Jonathan Campbell

      Nah. We get that humiliation stuff in Britain.

      Hell, we invented it.

      What America did was more about taking things too far, turning it Up To Eleven.

      The UK Kitchen Nightmares might be more subdued about this, but Ramsay’s other UK shows are not. As is anything with Simon Cowell. The UK MasterChef (ahem- New Zealand? The UK version came first, Ms. Liv) is relatively calm compared to those, but there is still more than a bit of “this is the worst thing I’ve ever tasted” thrown in there too.

      • Sofie Liv

        I will not claim to be any exspert in the history of Master Cheff.
        All I know is that I saw an Australian version of it, on my own Danish television set, and I thought. “My god this is a programme perfect for grannies it’s… so nice calm and serene.. I can have this running in the back ground while I calmly clean up and drink calm tea, this works for me.”

        I’ll admit it though! I do like the American version of Master Cheff, i’ve watched all the seasons.
        And it was really nice to because I was starting to get tired of Hells Kitchen, I like Master Cheff a lot better at this point.
        I sooooo want to try and get access to a pantry like that one day. or try a mystery box challenge!
        Them just standing there without recipe making food like that from scratch seems like so much fun, I so wanna try it!

        Also funny story… We DO in fact have a Danish version of. “The big bake off.” Which is also just such a calm little farm like show in this country, hehe.
        They are litteratey making cakes in a farm house just beside a lake out on the country side, it’s great X)

        • Jonathan Campbell

          “I will not complain to be any exspert in the history of Master Cheff.
          All I know is that I saw an Australian version of it, on my own Danish television set, and I thought. “My god this is a programme perfect for grannies it’s… so nice calm and serene.. I can have this running in the back ground while I calmly clean up and drink calm tea, this works for me.”

          So…you think of yourself as a nice old granny?

          You’ve been watching WAY too much Howls Moving Castle.

          • danbreunig

            Heh, I get it, even though it’s been five months later and still haven’t seen anything past Totoro yet.

            Nice old granny? She’s wise beyond her years, I’ll give her that.

          • Sofie Liv

            Sometimes I need background noise.
            I life alone afterall, shesh.

            And sometimes it’s the TV running on these shows.
            Sometimes it’s a lets play from youtube just running.
            Sometimes it’s music of different various kinds.

            Also, Sophie from Howls moving castle in awesome <_<

            Sadly I am very little like her personality wise, she is way more organised than I am, and knows how to put her foot down way better than I can.

          • CaptainCalvinCat

            In Germany, we have lots of those shows. We have “Die Küchenchefs” (The Kitchen Chefs) which is more or less the same thing than “Kitchen Nightmares” but with three German high-profile-cooks – and then we have “Rach, der Restauranttester” (Rach the tester of restaurants) which is – again – Kitchen Nightmares, just with one person, namely Chrisoph Rach.

            Whilie I never seen Rach, I watched “Die Küchenchefs” and – let me put it this way: Instead of the “Küchenchefs” helping those restaurants in need with their specific problems, I have the feeling that they want to cancel out everything, that is making them special and boil them down to their run-in-a-mill restaurant.

            But that one point, Nycea brought up in this review (“They all know Gordon Ramsay is coming. They’ve all seen the show they’re about to be on. They know that he’s going to go through every nook and cranny, and yet for some strange reason, no one ever bothers to try and clean up the place before cameras arrive.”) I see in another quasi-reality-show, that’s called “Mein himmlisches Hotel” in Germany. I don’t know, if a version of that show is aired in USA, Denmark or wherever people probably answering on this, will be living in – but if not, here’s the rundown.
            4 Hotels (their owners respectively) go into competition.

            rating criteria:

            location and outward appearance of the hotel

            For some strange raison, in the hotel-owners rooms – even if the cleaning personnel went through all rooms – you can find dustbunnies, hair, stains…

            It’s getting even more clear, that this – if not scripted reality – edited in a way to accomodate a certain narrative, namely, that in all rounds, there will be that asshole, that is overly critic and will be saying stuff like “You are not working as Hoteliers, you’re just doing this for fun, right? I mean if you’d be doing this to get money, you’d be broke.”

            One show I certainly can live without, is DSDS – Deutschland sucht den Superstar – which is a better title (Germany is looking for a super star) than the title, it should’ve had, because it’s the German adaption of it. tht title would be: “Germany’s got Talent”.

            And once you saw, who’s sitting in the Jury, you think: “Erm…. might be, that Germany has talent, but that’s most certainly not sitting in the jury.”

            Yeah, all of those shows are becoming more and more transparent scripted reality shows.

          • Sofie Liv

            That hotel thing actually had a short US run with… oh what a surprise. Gordon Ramsay as the man going to visit these hotels.

            It’s so hillarious whenever Denmark tries to pull off those talents shows… and we do.
            Because we only life 5mio people in the entire country, our talent is kind of limited so what usually win our shows are things that would never get past the audition in America got talent.

            I freaking love America got talent, just because of the sheer craziness in some of those acts.
            It’s just compleately insane, it’s great X)

          • Man, that just makes “Sensei fit all the more.

          • danbreunig

            Sure does. Although it is a bit off when someone younger than yourself is smart enough to pass for your aunt. Aunt Sofie, nice ring to it.

          • Jonathan Campbell

            How old is Sofie?

            How old are you?

          • Sofie Liv

            I’m 24 turning 25 this December… urgh i’m becoming older -_-;

          • MichaelANovelli

            Still younger than me. ^_^

          • Sofie Liv

            Would be kind of weird if I was all of a sudden older than you.. that’s.. not how it works.

          • MichaelANovelli

            No matter. We’re still part of the same demographic!

          • danbreunig

            I never know if it’s a good or bad thing to be a GenXer and yet still feel like I’m 20.

          • MichaelANovelli

            Well, people in their late twenties like me are kind of between Generations X and Y, so I guess I know how you feel. I call us Generation Theta! ^_^

          • Magdalen

            I can feel 30 coming on slowly. It’s not bothering me as much as I thought it would. We’ll be okay ;)

          • Jay_Bay

            You know, as a 32 year old, your description of turning 30 would have hurt my feelings. You know, if I have a heart and stuff. lol

          • Jonathan Campbell

            Huh. I’m 28 (same as Ursa, I believe), and I’m only getting younger.

          • danbreunig

            As old as Judas Priest’s debut.

          • Jonathan Campbell

            (google search) 1974….

            (google to find age calculator, because math is hard) You are 40 years old.

            12 years older than me…a fellow Year of the Tiger bro.

            Oh well. I was born wiser than all of you, anyway. Age alone does not confer wisdom.

          • I’m 18, and you know how many people call me “Grandpa?” A lot.

          • Jonathan Campbell

            My whole life my family have told me two things:

            “Stop acting like an old man”, and

            “Grow up and stop acting like a child”.

            Symptoms of wisdom.

    • I can’t wait to see the American version of The Great British Bake Off.

  • Thomas Stockel

    “…because Murrica.”

    That brought a smile to my face. :)

    There’s no denying that when you take a show from one culture to another adjustments have to be made. Would The Office have worked if it had been an exact clone of it’s British counterpart? Probably not. But what they did with Kitchen Nightmares sounds like Fox really had no faith in the intelligence of their viewers and had to be so utterly, blatantly obvious about everything.

  • danbreunig

    Never was drawn to any TV with “reality” tied to it. I gave Kitchen Nightmares some benefit of the doubt for being the first reality show I’ve seen which was not entirely “you suck and I wish I had nothing to do with you” in presentation or mentality–the show has that for sure as well, but it also had a second act which shifts into “let’s try to fix up this bad situation”. A reality show that at least attempts each time to improve the negative situation instead of wallow in it? It seemed worth a shot. Then.

    As I remarked before in the forum for Full Of Questions’ review of From Within:

    “-I want all reality TV to stop as soon as the year 2000. I mean no humor or snark in that comment.”

    That was because that was when Survivor started, one of the first mass-produced reality shows of relatively recent times, and apparently it’s still going. -,-……..

    The only Survivor I want is the 80s band.

    The real cultural reflection I see in this show and others of its ilk is our collective tolerance of them. It ties into what you said in the last paragraph, Nycea–it’s not only what networks assume about what we want, but that we prove them right when we keep watching. The ball really got rolling even before the 2000s–in the 90s there were already talk shows and judge shows all over the place, and those took off when we as a collective TV (and now internet) audience found entertainment in watching people with supposed lives worse than our own, like a mass pop culture Schadenfreude. Which is now mass pop culture bitchfests.

    Currently reality TV has too much equilibrium–since it lasted this long already, it won’t die quickly like a fad normally would or should. It’s as distressing as knowing that Saturday morning cartoons are now officially a thing of the past, certainly in Murrica.

    • JD

      Cartons are gone from Sat morning for a number of reasons.
      cable cartoon only networks being one of them, being able to DVR things is another, why get up at 8am when you can sleep till 1030 and still watch your scooby do?
      I know ill sound old when i say this but sat morn cartoons were on in the time when there were only 3 stations if you were lucky and you had to walk uphill 3 miles at 6 Am to watch them

      • danbreunig

        One more reason is the increase of educational versus entertainment-based shows for kids. The main networks’ Saturday morning fare are more about science shows and kids going out and doing community-based activities–now *there’s* real reality TV!

        That’s nothing against those shows, they’re just…a sign of the times.

        A few auxiliary channels may show some cartoons yet, although that may vary regionally. Those more real shows are what currently play on weekend mornings these last few years when I flip through the non-cable/satellite channels at that time on weekends if I’m up then.

        I know where you’re coming from though–only three channels, which you had to physically grind on the set to change shows at commercials, only one set and fighting with your brothers about who gets to watch what, and being there religiously at that place and time every Saturday morning or weekday afternoon because if you missed your shows, then you get maybe two or three chances to catch them in repeats and then they’re done for life. And anything you wanted to look up about your favorite shows meant either the encyclopedia set or the rare trip to the library. Nostalgia.

        • JD

          they had to make room for more Total Gym,Bow Flex and Shake Weight infomercials.

          We wont get the educational channels back either.
          TLC use to be The learning channel, discovery is going to reality shows like the crab boat shows ect, even nat Geo and the weather channel is starting to show these kind of things.
          what pisses me off about it is they keep adding more channels almost exclusively for the reality type shows but they still add this crap to the nature based channels too. seems every channel has to make a profit now or they get invaded by the reality shows instead of letting it just do the science shows

          • jbwarner86

            It saddens me to see what the Discovery Channel is turning into. It was bad enough when they cancelled Dirty Jobs, but now Mythbusters has had its budget slashed, and the writing is on the wall that its next season will certainly be its last. Meanwhile, Naked and Afraid continues to thrive. Ugh.

          • JD

            And 10 years of ghost hunters. good god. ill aways blame ghost hunters for only one season of Firefly

          • JD

            I think myth busters was doomed after the cannon incident anyway.
            i think they have had mabey 6 new episodes since then

          • danbreunig

            There’s some truth that since many of us are internet based anyway (`ello everybody reading) TV itself is on its way out already. I’ll watch maybe five to ten shows regularly and leave the TV on as my background noise while I’m working on other things. Also I’m usually in a retro frame of mind so TV or online I’m more drawn to older series now than 90+% of whatever 2010s TV can offer me. Not that I’m against anything new, but as this article and forum show, I’m open for anything on TV that’s NEW.

          • JD

            Yes TV is on the way out. mostly since they discovered how many people DVR entire seasons of shows then watch them in a couple evenings. the sponsors dont like you seeing , i mean skipping their commercials or watching them 6 months to late.
            But watching on the internet were they control your controls and dont allow you to skip or Fast forward thru the ads is going to be the new way going forward, the sponsors like that idea more then the DVR system they have now.

  • Embarrassed

    It’s kind of embarrassing to admit I’ve seen pretty much every episode of both versions, but there it is. Having said that, I will argue that the UK version is not perfect either. It’s too long, for one thing. By the thirty minute mark I’ve usually lost interest. That may be because of the second issue; the pacing is soooooo sloooooow. I know American audiences respond well to Gordon yelling and bouncing around spastically (see Hell’s Kitchen), but he is just so subdued on the UK version. His voiceovers sound like he’s trying to record them in the reference section of the British Library. I think if he was every interested in doing a third incarnation, the two versions could learn something from each other and probably lead to a truly great show. But, as you say, he’s moved on and that will likely never happen.

    And you must admit, without the US version, we would never have the glorious ongoing train wreck that is Amy’s Baking Company. ;)

    • Jay_Bay

      Oh damn, I forgot about ABC. They are still in business, I believe.

  • JD

    Scripts are easy to write.The Bar/Bakery/Copy Store rescue, is the same show.

    all the same situation, they run a place into the ground and they “rescue” Them.
    massive liberties are taken with every aspect of each “rescue”.
    Bar Rescue did one of a local dive bar near me( Scary Marys), I actually know some of the people that run the place sure the place was a dive but most of the other stuff that was shown was complete BS only for the show.
    When can we get shows Like Good Eats back?

    • SithSmurf

      Ditto on Good Eats. It’s the only Food Network show I really followed. As a heads up, some of those Good Eats episodes have just recently made their way to Netflix.

  • The one thing that people who create reality shows hate the most is the reality as it’s too unpredictable, that’s why they prefer “reality” instead.

  • Sardu

    The other huge trope the show (and others like it) have developed is, “it’s really about the PEOPLE!!” It’s not about boring crap like business and kitchens and how they run. Who would understand that? Noooo, it’s really about families. Gordon Ramsey won’t just fix a restaurant- he’ll heal family wounds and teach them how to love again. In 4 days. Robert Irvine and his show are also largely full of shit but at least there’s a bit of a reality check in that they only spend $10K and demonstrate how to do more with less. I’ve been to a local place that Restaurant Impossible “fixed”. The decor changes are still in place, the menu changes were about 50/50 old to new, the service sucked, prices were too high and they were basically just going on same as ever.

    • Sardu

      Ramsay. Sorry. I should know better.

  • fenstral

    Or “Another Example of Why People Don’t Like Anything That’s in Any Way Different From What They’re Used To.”

    • jbwarner86

      I don’t mind different things, in general. When those different things are obnoxious, pointless, and treat me like an idiot, that’s when I start to get uncomfortable.

      • danbreunig

        What hurts more is when those different things insult our intelligence and worth and then they become the new normal.

    • CaptainCalvinCat

      AEWPDLATAWDFWTUT for short…. erm….

      But honestly, I don’t think, that it has anything to do with being something out of Nyceas “comfort zone” – I mean, hey, she watches Korean Dramas, that can be very whacky – I think, it has something to do with the fact, that this show “Kitchen Nightmare” went from “okay, that’s a relatively realistical portrayal of how the underbelly of gastronomy is working” to “scripted reality, in which even the ones, causing the problem, i.e. the gastronomers themselves, don’t need to lift a finger”.

    • Murry Chang

      It’s not like The Office where you can have your opinion about which version was better, in this case the British version is objectively superior.

  • Wizkamridr

    I like watching Gordon yelling at people and throwing things even if the shows are scripted.

  • Mordridakon

    I live near Piratz Tavern, the subject the most infamous Bar Rescue episode. So I went there to eat, twice, and discovered, not surprisingly, that the entire show is was bullshit from beginning to end. I wrote a widely read blog post where I detailed what I found. What was shocking wasn’t so much that entire affair was faked,it was that people came out of the wood work thinking that what the show showed was the truth, and claimed I was lying… except half the shit I brought up were subjective facts, like the Piratz Tavern’s real problem is it that it has one the worst locations imaginable, sitting next to a dining mecca of sorts that sucks all the traffic.
    Now when I watch shows like Bar Rescue and US Kitchen Nightmares, I turn my brain off and watch for entertainment, but I sure as hell don’t think what I’m watching is real.

  • regina

    Everything you said is true. Everything in the UK show is more subtle and unique. No music that makes you feel as if you’re about to have a heart attack. No sad music when the owner stops being stubborn and has a breakdown. One thing that really tipped me off was that in the UK version Gorden never spit the food out no matter how bad he thought it was. In the American show he always spits it everything out. How can everything be bad? They would literally be out of business if it was.