Why Hell's Kitchen is not a real food show

It's a lazy Sunday afternoon (mainly because I'm avoiding the task of Defrosting the Freezer...more about that later) and I'm sitting here contemplating TV Reality Cooking Shows.

Someone who had read my rather detailed reviews of Top Chef, as well as my adventures following the BBC Masterchef challenges, asked me recently why I didn't do similar reviews of Hell's Kitchen.

Hell's Kitchen is yet another reality competition show that is ostensibly about cooking. Star chef Gordon Ramsay pits two teams together in the kitchens of a mockup restaurant, where the contestants must learn to be able to serve the diners with food that's up to Chef Ramsay's standards. It originated in the U.K. on Channel 4, before Fox took Ramsay and the show concept over to the U.S. (There was a second season of Hell's Kitchen on Channel 4 with two 'celebrity' chefs replacing one Ramsay, but it was unmentionably awful so let's forget it ever happened.)

One reason I don't talk about Hell's Kitchen is simple - I can't legally view new episodes here while I'm in Switzerland. I'd have it get it via nefarious means (you know what they are, and if you don't, don't bother). I did catch a couple of episodes when I was in New York in July, and they also showed the first season on ITV, which I can get via satellite.

But the main reason I don't talk about Hell's Kitchen is that to me it's not a real food show. The only food part about it is the restaurant setting.

In Top Chef, the preparation and creation of restaurant quality food was at the center of the show, despite the reality show trappings. That's what made it interesting for me. The other aspects like the inter-dynamics of the personalities and things were fun to watch and talk about too, but above all, the demonstrated ability of the chef-contestants is what made it worth watching from a foodie point of view. The same attraction holds true for Project Runway: although the personality clashes and Jeffrey being mean to Angela's mom and things make for good drama, the highlight of the shows are when Tim Gunn is walking around critiquing the designers in-progress work, and then seeing their final creations go down the runway. It's thrilling in a way to see how Michael can turn a piece of plastic into an elegant looking shrug, just as it was fun to gawk at, and discuss the merits of, Stephen's artsy platings.

What Hell's Kitchen is about is mostly Gordon Ramsay's outrageous personality. Then, there are the often silly little human dramas that go on as on any reality show. There are glimpses of the contestants' creativity or lack thereof, but too few of them to really count. I can't remember any of the food invented by the Hell's Kitchen contestants; the only food I do recall from the show are a couple of ones that they had to serve in the mock restaurant (that the chef wannabes keep on screwing up), such as Ramsay's famous Beef Wellington. But we know already that Gordon Ramsay is a world class chef with several successful restaurants, so of course any dish he's specified has to be good. No drama there.

So what we are left with is mainly is the sight of the mostly hapless chef wannabes-contestants running around like frightened chickens while Gordon Ramsay hurling a stream of abuse at them. It's fun to an extent, but not really enlightening or anything. Hell's Kitchen may draw a bigger audience than Top Chef (I don't know if it does, but it is a network show while Top Chef is on a cable channel), but that doesn't mean it's worth watching from a foodie point of view.

Incidentally, Ramsay has two other U.K. produced food shows: Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, and The F-Word. The F-Word is some sort of talk show/cooking/variety thing which I can't stand watching, but Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, where the Big F*er goes around the country trying to fix failing restaurants, is really entertaining and thought provoking. It is shown sometimes on BBC America in the U.S., so try to catch it if you can...or use those mysterious nefarious measures. I don't think they could bring the Kitchen Nightmares format to the U.S. though...Gordon Ramsay would probably get shot by someone at one of those restaurants-to-be-made-over people in the first 30 minutes. (Update: If you are reading this you probably know that the format was imported to the U.S. Aside from the frequently awful fakey editing and the highly annoying narration, it's basically the same as the original.)

(P.S. We finally settled on a new refrigerator, and should get it delivered this week. Thus the need to Defrost...not one of the fun tasks to do in the kitchen...)

[Update:] Here is a link to a news story about Gordon Ramsay winning a libel suit against a U.K. newspaper that ran an article claiming the production crew of Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares had faked an episode of the program.

(Comments closed since it attracts an amazing number of half-wits. One reason why I have stopped talking about food TV shows.)

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hi maki! i find "hell's kitchen" to be completely unwatchable, for the reasons you've listed, plus its obvious staging makes it less like reality competition than a scripted paid advertisement for the casino/hotel/restaurant where the "winner" is supposed to end up.

i do like "kitchen nightmares" and it makes me like ramsay because he seems geniunely sympathetic. i wish they would do a follow up to see how many of those that he'd helped are still open. several years ago there was similar show on japanese television, almost all of those were still successful a year after their makeovers. there was a half-baked version of it on food network canada that was quite awful--of the half dozen episodes i watched, only one of the participating restaurant owners really embraced the changes and made a successful run of it; some of the participants were downright hostile. i can't imagine why they signed up in the first place.

and, although i really am having a problem with the subjective editing and the bizarre judging choices on "project runway," i think tim gunn is great. i love that the catchphrase of the show is not really heidi's "auf wiedersehen" (although, doesn't that mean "until we meet again"? that's not so horrible as far as send-offs go), but more tim's "make it work." he really makes the show work.

Hi Santos,

Actually there are follow-up episodes for the Kitchen Nightmares, starting in season 2 of course (where they go back to see what's up with the Season 1 restaurants, after a few episodes of new restaurants). The followups were really interesting too. Some of the places really took on the advice, and are doing well; a couple didn't and are struggling along or have closed, etc. I think one participant (forgot which season it was from) wanted to sue the production company and Gordon Ramsay or something. I'm not sure which season is on BBC America now but I'm sure they will show the re-visit episodes eventually too.

And I agree totally about Tim Gunn - forget Heidi, he's the star!

Hi my name is Allen now I dont like how the chef is treating his contestants I say he is no chef my for my tast buds I can cook as good as him I dont need to prove nothing dont see why he has to humiliate his contestants what ever name he calls his contestants he is 10 time the name he calls his contestants name calling is wrong he is no chef in my books.

your show is a total digrace. it has no class no taste, is insulting to people that love to cook. i think the network should have banned you before you aired one show. your a disgusting man, and should be put in jail for emotional abuse....you sick twisted freak!!!!!

You guys apparently have never worked in a real kitchen before.