There’s no question that America is a food-obsessed country. Deluxe, super-sized kitchens, bistro-style meals at fast food chains, and yes, more reality shows centered on satisfying our hunger. Take, for example, FOX’s Hell’s Kitchen. Gordon Ramsay, the British chef with tousled blond hair and an unreadable stare, oversees a motley crew of line cooks, chefs, homemakers, and new culinary grads; only one will survive his nightly berating to emerge as the winner.
Ramsay is as intimidating as they come – in some ways, he is the Simon Cowell of food reality television, albeit more vulgar. The constantly censored language makes you feel as if you’re watching an episode of Jerry Springer. The difference: they’re throwing undercooked risotto, not punches, on Ramsay’s show. Chef Ramsay is tough and demands perfection from his cooks; there’s no panel of judges here. It’s Ramsay’s call as to who makes the cut.
But even Ramsay has shown a softer side this season, most notably with regard to one contestant: Julia. Julia, a short-order cook, displayed natural ability and determination, but lacked the formal training necessary to handle more complex techniques and menus. Ramsay ultimately, but reluctantly, nixed her in favor of the remaining, more experienced cooks. He did, however, praise her efforts, and on top of that, offered to send her to culinary school so that she could one day open her own restaurant.
Despite the heart-warming gesture, I usually watch the show and think, “man, am I glad not to be in that kitchen!” There are moments when I question why anyone would want to work in a high volume kitchen if any slip-up could make you feel like the smallest person in the world. The passion with which these young cooks approach their profession is enviable. They clearly love what they do, and they have the drive – if not always the skill – to do it, regardless of what humiliation they may endure on their climb up the ranks.
What makes Hell’s Kitchen a particularly captivating show is its focus on the kitchen dynamic. While other food reality programs have emphasized creativity and one-on-one competition, Hell’s Kitchen devotes the majority of its time block to kitchen service. The contestants divide into two “teams” and handle the dinner orders for a restaurant full of hungry customers. Contestants must work together to piece together the meals in a timely manner. Those of us who take for granted the food served to us at all levels of restaurant should watch this usually-unseen process unfold – the masterful coordination necessary to execute just one dinner order. Cooking the meat to specs, the starch, the vegetables, and even the garnish – a kitchen operation is a lesson in multi-tasking.
As seems to be required in all reality shows, there is that melodramatic element of alliances and back-stabbing. There are pensive stares and name-calling spats, and the music sounds as if it has been lifted from a hostage thriller. All in all, Hell’s Kitchen is good Monday night entertainment; maybe the cubicle will look a little more appealing after watching an episode.