the talented tenth

I know I’ve raved before about Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, but now that the Lady Wife and I have succumbed to the warm, gentle content tsunami of basic cable, I’m also really enjoying Ramsay’s more recent show, Gordon Ramsay’s F Word. It’s a show built around a gimmick — each episode, Gordon takes a team of four amateur cooks through the paces of working in a pro kitchen for a night. The kicker is that the diners decide at the end of each course whether they want to pay for it. At the end of the season, the team with the most purchased courses gets to come work at Claridge’s at Mayfair.

But that’s just the anchor concept. Between the courses, Gordon engages in various other food-related activities, including hunting, fishing, and raising his own livestock. He also does a “recipe challenge” each episode, pitting his own recipe against one brought in by a celebrity. (Well, a British celebrity. I didn’t recogize any of them.) Gordon always talks a tremendous amount of smack in the kitchen, presumably in an attempt to rattle his celeb competitors. But he doesn’t always win, and his maitre’d, Jean-Baptiste, is always positively gleeful when Gordon has to take one in the face. (So am I.)

This is sort of the key to the show, actually. Gordon Ramsay is a type-A, bullying personality, but he’s also a high achiever, and what’s fascinating about high-achieving people is watching them apply themselves to things they don’t yet have mastery in. So far, the best, most efficient kitchen team of the first season was a group of lady doctors who moved fast like they were in the emergency room and repeated orders with a martial “Yes, chef!” They were fine home cooks to start with, but they were also the kind of people who, having achieved complete mastery in one area, feel comfortable trying to learn new things and have the discipline and learning skills to be successful. (Another brigade, by contrast, consisted of “Eton Boys” who worked in finance and made me cringe for the future state of the British economy.)

Gordon, of course, has achieved complete mastery in his field, and the chief pleasure of the show is watching him, as well as his amateur cooks, try new things. Mostly he succeeds, but the process humbles him, takes away some of his competitive, ball-busting energy. (It’s particularly fun to watch him shrink down to quite human scale when he gets to ride along with a group of RAF pilots.) And in the process of trying to get closer to his food, he actually finds out some fascinating things, like what the jolt from an electric sheep fence feels like, or what happens to the pigs he’s raised in his backyard when they go to the slaughterhouse. Some of his adventures are clearly impossible to repeat at home — not many of us are going to go spear-fishing for food — but some, like finding and cooking snails from his own garden instead of importing hoity-toity French snails, seem like the kind of thing an ambitious home cook could totally figure out.

Also, he involved his kids, paying them 5p per snail. It was pretty adorable — one boy got something like 1 pound 25p, which is 25 snails! — but it also points to the thing that makes Ramsay such an engaging figure: despite being an asshole in many respects, he’s passionate about educating the public, including small children, about food and where it comes from.

(One recurring segment that seems destined to become the next Ramsay show is about Ramsay’s search for the next Fanny Cradock, a seminal British TV cook who apparently taught millions of middle-class housewives to cook. I.e., Gordon Ramsay’s childhood companion.)

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