When was it, exactly, that home economists took over the Food Network? In a few years, it has gone from being a guilty pleasure to something far more tedious and less inspiring. Shows that feature the goofy erudition of professional chefs (like the Iron Chefs, Jacques Torres, or Mario Batali) have been shunted to the off hours of the schedule and replaced with a flood of truly hausfrau offerings. There is Semi-Homemade Cooking, which includes recipes jacked up with peach Jell-O mix and canned cream of mushroom soup. There are numerous carb-busting and calorie-cutting shows. And, worst of all, there are endless hours of Rachael Ray, who dines out on the cheap and cooks on the fly, chirpily renouncing such culinary values as elegance, subtlety, and perhaps even flavor. ("Mini -Cheeseburger Salad," anyone?) It is enough to make you give up on TV cooking shows. But then I found one—on BBC America, of all places—that just might rescue the genre.
In Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares (which airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET), chef Gordon Ramsay, who owns several Michelin-starred restaurants in London, is dispatched to far-flung U.K. eateries, each of which is on the verge of financial collapse. Ramsay is given one week to whip the restaurants back into shape. In the process, he swears—a lot. Once Ramsay gets rolling, chewing out a lazy chef or a noisy dishwasher, the show features about as many bleeps as a radio version of Lil' Jon's "What You Gon' Do."
The restaurants are fantastically screwed up. Man-on-the-street interviews show former customers sniffing about poor service and exorbitant prices. The kitchens are fouled with the odor of ancient fryer oil. There are furry potatoes and rancid meat in the refrigerators. Most of all, the restaurants serve bad food: sandy seafood stew, nuked vegetables, and frozen deep-fried camembert.
Ramsay struts into the troubled kitchens, his frosted hair bouncing as he smacks his forehead and does wild double takes at the wretched state of affairs. He's a funny, charitable authoritarian; he encourages hardworking line cooks while ridiculing managing chefs who are well-paid but have let the kitchens run amok.
Despite his theatrics—collapsing to the ground, for example, when one waiter can't get his mouth around the description of a haddock chowder—Ramsay's lessons are pretty level-headed. Kitchens should be spotless, cooks should taste their food often and be certain that it is good, and restaurants should know their audiences. A basement cafe in Yorkshire isn't going to survive if it continues to muddle around with fancy presentation. An Italian restaurant in rural Wales isn't going to keep its one Michelin star if it fails to update and refine its food. Ramsay does his best to idiot-proof menus in restaurants where the staff lacks skills but also tries to show more ambitious owners the talent that lies untapped in their kitchens.
By far the funniest episode involves Tim, a chinless, gape-mouthed 21-year-old who has somehow convinced the owner of the Yorkshire bistro that she should be offering a "fine-dining" menu. Though he squishes nearly everything he cooks into ring molds in an effort to make the plates look swish, he is incredibly careless with food—he's constantly burning things and dropping pans; he can't tell lamb from beef in a blindfold test; and he even feeds Ramsay a rotten scallop, which makes the celebrity chef vomit. Tim responds to the disaster with pique—"I didn't know it was fucking off"—before relenting and admitting, "I suppose it's my fault, really."
The show also displays something I've never seen before in foodie television: the paralyzing effect of being "in the weeds" in a restaurant kitchen, with orders—and mistakes—piling up. At one point on a busy night, Ramsay yells at Tim when he burns croutons for the umpteenth time: "You're on your own spinning around." I remember that sense of panicked alienation (and flaming toast points) from a few frantic restaurant nights of my own. When the tickets are piling up, it's natural to want to send food out to tables, no matter what's wrong with it, but it is the responsibility of every cook to guard against this instinct. And Ramsay is unrelenting about this kitchen morality: "You shouldn't be in a fucking kitchen if you don't know what's right and what's wrong in that sense." One gets the impression that despite Ramsay's outsized ego, the show is not just an effort to win publicity—he seems to fervently hope that the restaurants will start to serve decent food.
Try as he might to reform things, Ramsay also acknowledges that a cook must have a certain fire in order to make it as a chef, and he almost always describes this quality in phallic terms. "You're a limp dick in the kitchen, you know?" he tells Tim. "How do you say erection in Italian?" he says as he tries to get one cook fired up. And he speaks half-admiringly of one sous-chef as a "ballsy Rottweiler." It made me wonder how he psyches up women cooks (as clearly he must—his protégée Angela Hartnett runs his restaurants in the Connaught Hotel).
For those without the requisite fire, the series turns up some genuine moments of pathos. In the end, Ramsay can do nothing to get Yorkshire Tim to straighten up. When he goes back to the restaurant a month later, he finds the kitchen a mess again: broken eggs sliming the refrigerator floor, strawberries covered in a half-inch of fuzz. The owner closes the kitchen and sends Tim packing. Even sadder is an interview with Stefano, a promising sous-chef at the Welsh restaurant, which has taken on a new head chef. He is leaving the restaurant because the new guy has been given creative opportunities that he was never granted (and that Ramsay believed he deserved).
I could live without some of the series' set pieces, like each episode's shot of Ramsay peeling off his shirt and putting on his short-sleeved chef's jacket as he muses on the restaurant's shortcomings. And each show also features a "challenge"—a party, a Valentine's supper, or a Mother's Day dinner—that is supposed to demonstrate how Ramsay's advice has affected the kitchen, but the big nights are always overdramatized, and they always go tolerably well when it is in fact Ramsay's return visits a month later that really reveal if the restaurant has been rehabilitated.
The really bad news about Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares is that there are only four episodes. Ramsay is slated to turn up on Fox in a new series where he offers chef boot camp to nonprofessionals. But that concept doesn't sound nearly as fun, or as revealing. After all, Nightmares is unique among reality shows in its economic realism. There is something refreshing about a show that doesn't promise a ticket to ride (a surgical makeover, a million dollars, Richard Branson's job) but instead offers restaurant owners the hope—if they seriously reform their establishments—that they might, just might, break even for the next few months.