"And if you toss that cabbage one more fucking time, I'm going to ram it up your arse."
This is not The Galloping Gourmet. Acorn Media (which specializes in dishing out all those fun TV titles from the U.K.) has released Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares - Complete Series One, which features the first four episodes of that marvelously foul-mouthed, passionately involved chef's 2004 United Kingdom series (this is not the American retread). A brilliant reboot of all the cooking shows we grew up on, Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares - Complete Series One not only shows us what really goes on in the restaurants we patronize (here's a hint: don't ever eat out), but it also provides a coarse, abrasive, but true and honest (and ultimately, uplifting) message from Ramsay for every dodgy hash-slinger out there going down the toilet: don't make excuses for troubles of your own making - fix your problem with simplicity, creativity and doggedness.
A staple on BBC One over here in the States, Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares' premise is deliciously clever. Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, who currently holds three Michelin stars for his various restaurants, visits failing restaurants and diagnoses their problem. Spending a week working with the owners and the kitchen staff, Ramsay, with characteristic machismo and an unending string of expletives, first arrives at the location to sample the fare, promptly declares it dog shit, and then seeks out the people responsible, sparing them no insult - both professional and personal - until he has their attention. Typical problems identified usually boil down to too-pricey items, confused, pretentious, or outdated menus, poor-quality food, remarkably inept or pompous, arrogant staff (including a bevy of hapless head chefs), heavy, crushing debt, and poorly-designed venues. Gordon lays down the law about what he wants changed with the restaurant (his advice is invariably: simplify), re-teaches the chefs how to cook, and then watches them fail miserably under pressure when the once-sleepy restaurants are besieged with new customers (after Gordon gets the owners to promote their revamped operations). Gordon yells at everyone again, bemoaning their thick heads, and tries again. But ultimately, it will be up to the owners, once Gordon leaves, to either stick with his advice and survive, or go back to their tried and tested (and failed) ways, and sink finally into bankruptcy.
I've been a fan of Ramsay's right from the start, so I was looking forward to this DVD edition of Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares - Complete Series One. Having grown up with Graham Kerr and Julia Child and Rick Bayless and James Barber (couldn't stand the Frugal Gourmet, though, thank you), the standard TV cooking series seemed fairly set in my mind: filmed on a set, with the chef addressing either the camera or a small studio audience, with that one overhead camera capturing the stirring and chopping action. Of course, the terrific Iron Chef jazzed up that formula, adding the game show angle, as well as (for American audiences) that funny dubbed narration. But Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares did something different; it took the moribund cooking show format and turned it into an expose documentary. Not only does Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares give us the low-down on exactly how restaurants operate (and the details can be as nauseating as anything in Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London), it also presents compelling, fascinating character studies of the owners and workers in these restaurants. It's a combination that makes the series instantly engrossing and addictive. Add to that the flamboyant, often hilarious nature of the host - who's dead serious about getting better food to people for better value - and you have an instant classic.
Initially, Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares catches our attention because we get the nuts and bolts of restaurant kitchen operations (if there was another documentary series that did this prior to Ramsay's show, I'm not aware of it). We've all experienced that sensation of going out to eat, and after having ordered our food, sitting there and wondering why it's taking so long to get our food - and then wondering why we waited so long for the tasteless, unappetizing mess we've been served. Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares shows exactly why that happens. And it often isn't pretty. Certainly the biggest eye-opener is the amount of spoiled or rancid food that is routinely pushed off on people (a fact we probably all acknowledge, but which we push out of our minds when we go out to eat). And the unhygienic conditions of these kitchens can be staggering, as well. But if this muck-racking of the sometimes physically revolting aspects of restaurateuring was Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares' only focus, the series would have limited appeal.
Cannily, Ramsay expands the format to focus on the reformation of not only the restaurants' physical operations, but the motivations and outlooks of the staff and owners, as well. I suppose you could call Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares a "make-over" show in that respect, with Ramsay diagnosing not only why a horribly prepared dish won't bring customers into the restaurant, but also why a particular chef or owner would choose to serve that muck in the first place (and the answer is usually a combination of greed and laziness). That's where Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares becomes really interesting, when Ramsay, who has a hair-trigger bullshit detector, comes muscling into a restaurant and like some kind of culinary drill sergeant, immediately picks up on the weaknesses of the crew and owners. He doesn't want to hear excuses. He doesn't suffer fools gladly. He calls it as he sees it, and invariably, he's right, as evidenced by the once pompous or lazy chefs and owners who eventually sheepishly cop to Gordon's assessments (and he's not afraid to put himself on the line to assess the restaurant's worth: there's a hilarious/horrible moment in the first episode where Gordon vomits up a rancid scallop that a totally clueless chef served him).
Many critics of Ramsay pounce on his unceasing vulgarity and his bullying nature during these "kitchen diagnoses," and there's certainly no doubt that the element of showmanship is involved in Ramsay's "performances." He's no fool; he understands that to stand out in the crowded world of celebrity TV chefs, you have to have a gimmick. And Ramsay's sometimes menacing braggadocio is an effective audience hook - particularly when you compare it to the traditionally soft-spoken antecedents of the genre (can you imagine Ramsay invading delightfully fey, buoyant Graham Kerr's kitchen?). But if there was only meanness and spite and bullying to his purpose, without any redeeming value, audiences would have tired of his shenanigans a long time ago (ominously, this indeed may be a potential pitfall for Ramsay of late, considering he's getting some flack in the U.K. for a recent TV appearance where the rate of his expletives was without precedent on British TV). However, the passion that Ramsay has for not only imploring the restaurants to serve delicious, fresh, enticing food for good value to customers, but also for the owners and chefs and wait staff to redeem themselves by jumping their ruts and becoming engaged with their profession, is patently obvious. Unfortunately, I don't see a lot of this quality in the American versions of Ramsay's shows, particularly Hell's Kitchen, where insults and shouting seem to be the be-all, end-all reason for the episodes' existence. But in this earlier U.K. incarnation, Ramsay truly seems to care about these people (and let's be honest: he's hilarious when he's insulting people...because the insults are always on the money). He wants to help them. Yes, ratings will be bigger if he calls them "fuckers" or "twats," but anyone watching the series can see that this ploy is designed to shock the participants out of their complacency, and to get them to refocus on what Ramsey sees as a honorable, even noble profession: serving food to people, while always striving for absolute perfection in both design and execution.
As for this release of Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares - Complete Series One, viewers of the series on BBC One will immediately note that the vulgarities are not bleeped out here (as they are not on U.K. television), which, undeniably, adds a bit of fun to the proceedings. If honesty is the hallmark of Ramsay's approach to cooking, then we best hear what he has to say without the filter of an electronic "beep." Somewhat problematic, though, is Acorn Media's touting this release as containing eight episodes of the series. Technically, this is true. The first season of Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares visited four restaurants; later, during re-runs, Ramsay revisited these restaurants (adding yet another layer of interest to the format) to see how they were surviving after his visit (and to see if they stuck to his advice), re-editing the shows and calling these repeats, Kitchen Nightmares Revisited. Some of the narration was necessarily changed (to denote the past tense), while between five and ten minutes of additional new footage was tacked on, showing Ramsay revisiting the restaurants (with some footage edited out of the original Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares to make room for this new footage). Those are the additional four episodes to add up to the DVD's eight count. However, the DVD menu allows you to essentially skip the re-edited main section of the Revisited episodes, and go right to the new material. So, a viewer could watch the original Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares episode, and then skip to the last five minute section of the corresponding Revisited. Obviously, Acorn Media, by offering this option to skip almost all of the re-edited Revisited episodes, understood that those last five minute sections were the only really relevant parts of those Revisited episodes. Having that additional footage would have made a good bonus, but it seems superfluous to have the entire Revisited episodes here, particularly when they're used to make the DVD set seem like it has double the content.
The anamorphically enhanced, 1.78:1 widescreen video transfers for Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares - Complete Series One look extremely sharp, with reasonably good color values and no screen anomalies. I didn't detect any possible PAL conversion problems, although interlacing, albeit discreet, was discernable. Overall, quite a nice image.
The Dolby Digital English 2.0 stereo mix for Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares - Complete Series One is super-clean, delivering crisp dialogue and surprisingly delineated spatial effects when the pots and pans start clanging around the kitchens.
A text bio and production notes for the series are the only bonuses for Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares - Complete Series One. Fairly weak.
If it was really only about the swearing, he would have faded a long time ago. Gordon Ramsay passionately cares about achieving excellence in preparing and serving food, and he's ready to call anybody out who doesn't share his same high standards - which leads to a whole slew of expletives in Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares - Complete Series One. A brilliant restructuring of the TV cooking show format, Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares - Complete Series One resembles those expose documentaries, revealing the awful truth about matters we'd rather just not think about (who wants to believe our food is treated in this matter?), while providing our foul-mouthed host with a chance to shock complacent, lazy or greedy (or all three) owners and chefs back into serving good food for good value, while regaining their self-respect...as well as avoiding the bankruptcy courts. Compulsive viewing. I highly recommend Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares - Complete Series One.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.