“Business is a game — the greatest game in the world — if you know how to play it.”
— Thomas Watson, founder of IBM
I’m visiting my parents, who get BBC America, and I can’t stop watching Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. I’m almost never interested in reality TV, but there’s a peculiar combination of elements that makes this work for me.
Cooking shows when I was young tended to be dominated by jolly personalities. Julia Child, the Cajun Chef, Yan Can Cook, the Frugal Gourmet — their innocuous sobriquets announced a good time with a friendly host, plus some practical hints for your own kitchen time. But since then, we’ve gotten used to the idea of incredibly mean people on TV — Simon Cowell, et al. And since Anthony Bourdain peeled back the cover on the world behind the kitchen door, we’ve also come to accept the idea that chefs are competitive, high-strung screamers who abuse their staff and half-detest their customers. What’s nice about this show, though, is that it combines the demanding persona of an obnoxious but passionate celebrity chef with the roll-up-your-sleeves enthusiasm of home-improvement shows like Trading Spaces and the slender kernel of what’s worthwhile in the bourgeois aspirational grasping of shows like American Idol.
You won’t catch Simon, or even Paula, taking a singer into the studio and coaching him until he finally gets it, but Gordon Ramsay goes into a different failing restaurant each week and tries to show the staff, point by point, how to turn it around. He puts on his chef’s whites, sprays the place down with obscenities, and massages his brow while the people around him take forever to produce inedible food. Then he very candidly explains to them exactly what they’re doing wrong, and how to make it better.
The show works, I think, because it taps into a deep-seated capitalist dream — one that goes much, much further into our collective soul than the recognizably tawdry lust for fame so naked and exposed on shows like Idol, The Apprentice, Survivor, and Who Wants To Bang Tila Tequila? Ramsay isn’t helping chefs in five-star hotels or name restaurants; everyone on Kitchen Nightmares is a small business owner, an entrepreneur pouring his or her own sweat into carving out a piece of something personal from the grimly unforgiving food business. Their ambitions are wholesome, modest, and thoroughly middle-class — these people don’t want to become the next Barbara Streisand or Donald Trump, and God bless them for that. Americans, and I suspect Britons too, are suckers for the fundamental capitalist narrative of freedom and personal fulfillment through ownership, and we’re incredibly sympathetic to anyone who’s stepped off the comfortable plateau of employment into the terrifying free fall of ultimate responsibility.
We also like these chefs and owners because, like most of us, they tend to be their own worst enemies. There are no competitors here, and no judges other than the fair, reasonable, but gently insistent tastes of the public. The chefs are often smart enough to know, themselves, why their restaurants are failing, but they’re often in denial about it. See? That’s just like me! I knew that what I should have done was go to Hollywood and get an agent, but instead I went to Brazil and then joined the Army for five years…. Ahem. Anyway, whether it’s the ditzy restaurant owner who’s buying her ingredients retail at the supermarket or the cocky young “Italian” chef who bought a brand new Beamer (with a pompous vanity license plate) a few weeks after opening his place, these folks are usually making horrible business decisions, and Ramsay, with the keen read on people necessary for good management, deals with each one differently, gently but firmly leading some to face their fears, while mercilessly mocking others. (He forces BMW Man to listen while he calls several famous chef friends and asks them if they’d like to buy a car with the license number “A1CHEF.”)
Ramsay’s insistence on practicality crosses over into his kitchen critiques, too. He’s not trying to turn any of these chefs into Auguste Escoffier. Instead he focuses on what two cooks in a small neighborhood restaurant can really achieve — simple, inexpensive, satisfying food prepared with fresh ingredients. It’s the kind of cooking people who love food often do in their own homes, but with more artistic presentation and delivered at the restaurant’s unrelenting pace. He slashes overly complicated menus and teaches chefs how to find good, local ingredients and build dishes based on what’s cheap and easily available. He teaches waiters and maitres’d to suggest the quickly-prepared “specials” in order to give the cooks some breathing room. And sometimes he even creates innovative service plans, as in the case of the American soul food restaurant where they decided to sell “seats” at shared tables with fixed menus, rather than individual orders.
Ramsay is a passionate customer advocate — he starts each show by having a meal in the restaurant in question, and every change he makes is driven by giving the customers a good experience. And he effortlessly blends the art of cuisine, the customer experience, and good business practice together into one seamless whole. Any chef can yell at someone for not keeping the kitchen clean, but Ramsay, rather than simply expressing disgust, ties it to the moral and financial catastrophe of giving a customer food poisoning.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t also give a little Warm Fuzzy to the camera operators on Ramsay’s show, who frequently capture quite lovely images of both the restaurants and Ramsay’s craggy, tired face, and who follow the action in a cramped kitchen with grace and economy.
I’ve been checking out some of the BBC’s other reality programs (programmes?), too. I watched My Big Breasts And Me for obvious reasons, but it turned out to be a rather straightforward light documentary about the occasional nuisances and strains of having large breasts, following three women who pursue different remedies to the problem — surgery, weight loss, and just learning to live with them.
And then there’s Dragons’ Den, which I haven’t seen all the way through but have caught little bits and pieces of. Five bazillionaires sit on a panel, and young inventors and entrepreneurs pitch them business ideas — the best idea gets an actual investment. I haven’t really seen enough to say whether this is handled simply or tackily, but even if it’s a lot of forced drama, the difference between this and something like the Idol programs is still instructive; no one on this show is competing for fame or celebrity — they’re asking to compete based on the strength of their ideas. I remember Simon Cowell saying on NPR once that he knows a contestant is in trouble if he comes on and says he’s a real rock-and-roller — because if you were a real rock-and-roller, you wouldn’t be on American Idol in the first place. Points to Cowell for honesty, but why put on a show with a built-in and acknowledged lameness factor? Maybe because any album coming off an American Idol win is pretty much guaranteed to sell; the bazillionaires of Dragons’ Den have no such built-in market for the product they ultimately decide to invest in. It’s more of a risk for them, which makes it more interesting for us. (Not unlike Win Ben Stein’s Money — anyone remember that little capitalist gamble?)
The vast majority of television is in one way or another reality-based television, because reality is easier to record than to invent. Fiction, though the most prestigious and artful part of TV, is a thin crust atop the bubbling magma of home repair shows, historical documentaries, biographies, business reporting, celebrity gossip, dating games, and gospel hours. Heck, even Fox News counts. I lied, earlier, when I said that I don’t watch reality TV — of course I do, and so does everybody else. I’ve bought both The Crusades and Barbarians on DVD, because Terry Jones’ wry revisionism is at least as entertaining as How I Met Your Mother, and I’ll happily spend an hour watching Bloomberg News when I’ve got access to cable. I dig Morgan Spurlock’s 30 Days. I was into The Discovery Channel’s Shark Week before it was cool. I’m even curious about Ice Road Truckers, although I’m guessing that after the first two or three terrifying jack-knife slides it probably becomes a little redundant.
Pokey, staid BBC and the underbudgeted basic cable channels have, for a couple of decades now, been gradually refining reality-based programming, and they’re pretty good at it. Even when they adopt the basic ingredients of trashy American network shows — provocative titles, celebrity hosts, panels of witty and obnoxious judges — they often manage to create something genuinely interesting, and not just in a Roman circus, who’s-gonna-die-next? way. And it depresses me that American broadcast network primetime, currently the home of several dozen good-to-great fiction shows, can’t get its head out of its ass and create compelling reality drama that isn’t completely sleazy. Maybe Gordon Ramsay could give them some pointers. Hey, wait — I think I could pitch that….