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.
Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares (UK):
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.
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.
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.
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.