I am not much for competition in any form or forum, but in the kitchen it appeals to me even less. The proper preparation of food is, to a certain point, a matter of technique, and I believe it is good for cooks to be able to speak the language of technique before they, as the kids say, get all creative ‘n’ shit. Cooks should study and learn the Maillard reaction and the gelatinization of starches and the coagulation of proteins before they delve into the production of bee-pollen gelato using liquid nitrogen imported from eastern Mauritania, just as aspiring poets should understand subject-verb agreement and reflexive pronouns before they leap into e e cummings territory.
But if cooks see fit to offer themselves up for televised ridicule in the hope of fame and fortune, then all bets, as one might say if one were a betting man, are off.
There is a television program called Hell’s Kitchen having nothing to do with the neighborhood of that name in New York City. The studio where the TV show is produced sits in Culver City, California, some 2,804 miles from Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan.
Gordon Ramsay, a Scottish chef who serves as “star” of Hell’s Kitchen and inquisitor of the show’s contestants, puts his tattooed, pierced, raspy-voiced, chain-smoking charges through their culinary paces each week. For somewhere between 10 and 56 seasons — I lost count during the Jimmy Carter administration — Ramsay has demanded perfect Beef Wellington, sautéed scallops and lobster risotto from the Brads, Brians, Britneys and Briannas who aspire to servitude in a Ramsay-themed restaurant in a convention hotel somewhere.
Mr. Ramsay appears to take great pride in expressing flailing, flairful criticism of his contestants’ inferior work.
“It’s ROWWWWWW!!!” he wails about undercooked salmon.
“It’s under-rare, theh!” he whines about still-chilly beef tenderloin.
“Who made this shit?” he demands about runny risotto before slapping a plate of it onto the floor.
It is unclear whether Mr. Ramsay generates his dialogue on his own or a team of professional writers creates it for him, but I lean toward the former. I picture the chef, late at night, behind a mahogany desk the size of a Chevrolet Vega. Pen in hand — it could be a quill pen but on this point I am not adamantine — he gazes into space, lips pursed and brow wrinkled.
He mutters to himself. “Salmon not cooked quite enough…scallops need another minute on each side, yes?…It’s not yet done.” But nothing satisfies. “More zing,” he thinks. “More snap. More sizzle.”
He toils through the night, testing lines, tasting them as they pass his thin lips.
“These scallops look like something my daughter’s pet goose left in the yard.”
“What is this? A Frisbee?”
“You call yourself a chef?”
But still he knows he hasn’t reached his destination. He pours another glass of Old Rip Van Winkle ‘Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve’ 23 Year Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. (He cultivates an idea among the public that he drinks Scotch or Cognac, but at home he’s all about American spirits, even though he pronounces its state of origin “KIN-tooky.”)
Now he stands upright while trying his lines. Emboldened, he jabs the air with a finger.
“Ah you kidding me, you idiot?”
“Go back to the third shift at Denny’s!”
“Who do you take me for? Bobby Flay?”
Now we’re getting somewhere, he thinks, returning to his chair and picking up his pen. The words flow easily as Ramsay scribbles, though the whiskey has taken a toll and the Scotsman’s cursive now resembles the scratch on an order pad in a Cantonese restaurant. But through the jumble, gems emerge.
“Blue team, get out!
He lays down his pen and leans back in his chair, aflutter with anticipation of his next day on the set, when he will first fire his new ammo.
Ramsay’s work done, he retires to his media room, which all the best people have these days, and sinks into a sumptuous leather sofa. He clicks the TV on and digs into a queue of early BBC episodes of Hell’s Kitchen, which even he acknowledges are far superior to what appears lately on the Fox network. He drifts into a snogging, satisfied, Bourbon-fueled slumber.
It would be reasonable at this point to believe that this essay is about Gordon Ramsay’s kitchen lexicon, especially the taunts he spits at the contestants on his entertainment “show.”
But that is not what this essay is about.
This essay is about the utter stupidity of a stream of contestant-cooks who know that they will be tested on scallops, Beef Wellington and risotto but who show up in California and appear befuddled when asked to cook those items.
Week after week, season after season, Salvatore and Samantha stare at scallops blankly, as if they were golf balls that had been run over by a steamroller.
“Scallops, eh? So…that’s a fish?”
How stupid do you have to be? How careless, unambitious and…well, stupid do you have to be to know you’re entering a production of Hell’s Kitchen and not spend every spare dollar buying scallops, beef tenderloin and Arborio rice, and then every spare minute cooking them?
There are few things on television that aggravate me more than Hell’s Kitchen contestants who can’t cook scallops, Beef Wellington or risotto. A lot of things aggravate me but this is a biggie.
(UPDATE, Oct. 30)
I somehow neglected to address another source of Hell’s Kitchen-related aggravation.
Time and time again, contestants deliver their completed dishes to Ramsay for service when they clearly do not meet the threshold for servability. On the contrary, scallops from the same pan will sometimes run the gamut from raw to charcoal briquette, and risotto will have the consistency of lumpy iced tea.
How? How can these people deliver such crap to Ramsay? Has anyone in the history of that “show” ever, ever called out, “Chef, I screwed up the scallops. I need two more minutes.” Ramsay will erupt regardless but at least the confession would demonstrate an awareness of one’s shortcomings.
And as long as I’m at it, how about those final moments of each episode where two or more contestants stand on the chopping block? Ramsay will ask, “Why should you stay in Hell’s Kitchen?
How I long for one of them answer, “My mistakes are of technique, and technique can be improved. Dominic, however, has bad attitude and a reluctance to learn, and those qualities will stay with him when he’s chef at your restaurant in the Toledo Hilton.”
Good grief, that show aggravates me. Plus, everybody smokes a lot and I hate that.