A TASTE OF CHEF’S STYLE
Gordon Ramsay’s pasta roller is falling apart. Because I’ve broken it.
The Scottish-born chef on Fox’s reality show “Hell’s Kitchen” is trying to show me how to cook salmon-stuffed tortellini. But we’ve barely started rolling the egg-white dough into long, appetizing, chamois-width garlands of pasta when the machine’s handle comes off in my grip. Twice.
When things like this happen on the TV show -- and really, such kitchen mishaps are pretty much the whole point of “Hell’s Kitchen,” where the master chef scouts a suitable protege from a platoon of eager young apprentice cooks with diverse aptitudes -- Ramsay turns the whole experience into a teaching opportunity. He will get very red in the face, race up to one of the student chefs and then bellow some helpful advice in his or her ear. Usually spiced with a bleeped-out, four-letter word or two.
My culinary skills are, it is safe to say, modest; I can scramble eggs and broil a steak, but not much else. Now, standing there with the pasta-roller handle in my hand, I brace myself for the hurricane of chef Ramsay’s loathing. Would he try to psych me out, the way he does contestants on the show? Would he tell me I’m worthless and have no self-respect? To get the [expletive] out of his [again with the expletives] kitchen?
Close. “Now he’s broke my [expletive] machine,” Ramsay announces to an assistant and the show’s publicists, who are standing nearby at the show’s Culver City set, which is only a made-for-TV restaurant where the chef is humoring a reporter’s request for a taste of the reality show experience. “Thank God we’re closed for lunch today.”
Luckily, he’s just pretending to be angry.
“Hell’s Kitchen,” which finishes up its fifth season on Thursday, is an Americanized version of the British series that premiered in 2004 (Ramsay left the U.K. show after the first season). Along with Bravo’s “Top Chef,” the Fox show is the best-known of the reality cooking genre that over the last few years has bubbled across the airwaves like so much bearnaise sauce, including BBC America’s “Last Restaurant Standing,” PBS’ “Cooking Under Fire” and any number of Food Network programs.
In the rarefied world of fine dining, the 42-year-old Ramsay is a very big deal. His eponymous restaurant at the London West Hollywood hotel is part of a mini-empire that has vaulted him into the ranks of celebrity chefs. His restaurants have earned a total of 13 of the elusive Michelin stars, a measure of critical acclaim that places Ramsay in the company of Alain Ducasse and Joel Robuchon. His Gordon Ramsay Holdings controls multiple outlets in the U.S. and the United Kingdom. Britain’s Sunday Times in 2007 estimated his personal fortune at more than $100 million.
Yet his unique contribution to television consists of his very British ability to deliver forceful criticism in tart, memorable and often funny terms. His speech is as memorably seasoned as his cuisine: This week, British regulators complained that Ramsay used various iterations of the F-word 115 times in 40 minutes during a January special. He does for the cooking genre what Anne Robinson did for game shows on “The Weakest Link” and Simon Cowell does for talent competition on “American Idol.” In a conference call with reporters last week, Ramsay even suggested a replacement if Cowell decides to step down on “Idol”: “If he’s going to retire . . . I would consider stepping in.”
His resourcefulness, drive and immense knowledge of the restaurant business are on best display, some critics have felt, in “Kitchen Nightmares,” another series in which Ramsay tries to rescue failing eateries. The U.K. version airs on Britain’s Channel 4 and here on BBC America; the American adaptation is on Fox. “Hell’s Kitchen,” on the other hand, is mostly about tyros learning to suffer the master’s abuse. “When he’s on ‘Hell’s Kitchen,’ he’s on a mission to find somebody,” said Arthur Smith, who oversees both Fox series with producing partner Kent Weed. “So he’s out to test them.”
Indeed. This season, for example, which comes to a close Thursday, Ramsay locked antlers with Robert Hesse, a pudgy sous chef with authority issues. Their skirmishes culminated with Robert’s dropping his trousers on-camera and inviting Ramsay to kiss his backside.
I could not imagine things growing quite that testy between Ramsay and me. But then again, our cooking lesson lasted less than one hour.
The encounter did not begin promisingly. The chef threw me an apron that I fumbled to put on. “How does yours look like a sack of [expletive] and mine looks great?” he wonders. “There’s nothing worse than a scruffy chef. And you haven’t even started cooking!”
As I made a hash of the pasta-rolling procedure, Ramsay cracks, “Take your time -- we’re here till Sunday.”
But once I get the hang of it -- and figure out that the pasta roller’s hand crank is not actually bolted to the machine but rather works like a wrench, meaning that it can snap off easily -- some praise finds its way to Ramsay’s lips. “It’s like sheets of gold,” he says, holding the pasta by the back of his hands to avoid any rips or nicks in the dough. “Lovely. That’s nice.”
The trickiest part is folding the tortellini after Ramsay has cut into the dough. “Squeeze all the air out! Really important,” he says, wrapping a tiny stuffed pasta around his finger. “So we’ve got half a crescent. Up onto your finger, left to right, right to left.”
I can’t follow the movement, however, and my pasta will not stick together. The pureed salmon filling is spilling out. My fingernails are also leaving tiny unintentional tears in the dough, which will burst the pasta during cooking. “I’ll go a little slower,” Ramsay says. Pause. “I thought I was going slow.”
But a few minutes later, after the chef has removed the tortellini from a pot of boiling water and laid them over a bed of diced cherry tomatoes, the lesson has a happy ending. The dish tastes fabulous, with the tomatoes providing just the right tang. It was hard to believe I had done it.
Of course, I hadn’t.
But Ramsay wasn’t entirely unconvincing in praising my abilities. “There’s actually definitely hope,” he said.
Anyone who’s tasted how I usually cook, however, is more likely to agree with Ramsay’s assessment earlier in the lesson. It will be a long time before I threaten Robert or any of the other contestants on “Hell’s Kitchen.”
“When was the last time,” Ramsay asks me, “you were in a professional kitchen?”
I reflect for a moment. That would be never?
“It shows,” he says.
It's a date
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