Critic’s Notebook: Gordon Ramsay, the two-headed food hydra
Somewhat to my surprise, I am a fan of Gordon Ramsay, the Scottish chef and TV personality. He is not, strictly speaking, a “TV chef,” like Julia Child or Bobby Flay, though he will grab a pan and a knife every so often to demonstrate how easy it is to cook something and, paradoxically, how much better he is at cooking it than you will ever be.
As the creator of an international fleet of high-end restaurants and the star of several British and American television series — “MasterChef” and “Hell’s Kitchen” begin their new seasons on Fox on June 6 and July 19, respectively, while the fourth season of “Kitchen Nightmares” ended in May — he is more than a chef and not exactly a brand. He is a world view expressed through food; he is professionally himself.
I say “surprise” because I don’t particularly follow food TV and because there are aspects of Ramsay’s persona that I find, if not quite objectionable, less than appealing — as many surely must. His profanity-laced browbeating of underlings and those who only play his underlings on a game show — his defining characteristic, for the promotional purposes of the Fox network — I do not find entertaining; his attitude toward women can seem dated or at least confused; he eats animals I have long since excused from my diet.
But there are two Ramsays, as seen on television, and if they are not as different as night and day — both are given to outrageous displays of temper, both have the build and mien of an indie-flick gangster and the metabolism of a squirrel — they are perhaps as different as midmorning and late afternoon. The variation between the U.K. and U.S. versions is less a matter of character than of context, the shift in emphasis reflected in the alternative British and American titles of his 2006 autobiography — “Humble Pie” and “Roasting in Hell’s Kitchen,” respectively.
Or compare the American “Kitchen Nightmares” with its British predecessor, which plays here (along with other imported Ramsay programs) on BBC America. Both concern the education of restaurant people, whose ailing businesses the chef comes to heal, remaking menus, décor and mind-sets. The domestic brand, which betrays all the faults of its reality-warping kind — punishing soundtrack, restless camera, fast edits and endless cutaways to the participants telling you how they feel about one another and what has just happened and what might be about to happen — pushes the dysfunction: “That’s tonight, on a very emotional ‘Kitchen Nightmares.’”
The original “Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares,” by contrast, is mainly about food — its purchase, its preparation, its presentation. Every episode creates a distinct sense of place and community, within and without the restaurant walls. Ramsay narrates the U.K. episodes himself, which makes for greater intimacy and involvement, and the camera obliges by moving in close and looking longer. Here, and in such British series as “The F Word,” with its celebrity guests and friendly cooking competitions, he is seen to be part of a larger culture and comes across as warmer and, relatively speaking, more relaxed.
As co-creator and co-producer of his own series, he is, of course, complicit in the creation of this Old World-New World duplicity. But as he forever counsels the restaurateurs that “Nightmares” tries to reform, you have to know your market and serve it. That he has a healthy, sometimes more than healthy, ego is obvious. Yet he is not imperious; it is not all about him. (It is a little about him.) For all their four-letter thundering — much of which boils down to “Row harder, ye scurvy knaves” — his shows do ultimately accentuate the positive. Castigating mediocrity, they celebrate quality.
It’s not as if he’s infallible. His own restaurants don’t always make money; some have been sold off or closed. But he cares — desperately, helplessly — about food and the whole business of turning raw ingredients into lasting memories, to the extent that any insult to that process fills him with rage and despair. Most of us will have to take it on faith — and on those Michelin stars, which he is forever mentioning — that he is the cook he says he is. (I have eaten Ramsay-designed food once, as fancy takeout from Heathrow Airport; it was good.) But the show’s greater lessons, which apply beyond the kitchen and dining room, you may test for yourself: “complicated” is not the same thing as “complex,” subtlety and simplicity go hand-in-hand, and success is a matter of both knowing your audience and knowing yourself.
Ramsay has a rough tongue. But it is the rough tongue of a mother cat in a world of dirty kittens.