As even a cartoon rodent knows, there is a right way and a wrong way to cook. Likewise, there is a right way and a wrong way to produce a reality-competition cooking show. There’s a network that believes its target audience might actually be smarter than a fifth grader, and a network laughing all the way to the bank on the premise that they’re not. There is Bravo’s “Top Chef and Fox’s Hell’s Kitchen, and you are what you eat. Welcome to America: A Nation Culinarily Divided.
Before expressing my hatred for Hell’s Kitchen, I should admit that I tune in every week. It’s the TV equivalent of a frenemy — a show that you stay in touch with just because it gets on your nerves. For the uninitiated, in Hell’s Kitchen, a bunch of apparently hapless cooks get cursed out by a blowhard chef with anger-management issues until the last survivor gets to run a restaurant you’ll never visit somewhere in Vegas until everyone forgets the show ever happened. Tasty! Hell’s Kitchen is very Fox — there’s no other way to put it. Instead of instruction, you get insults; instead of celebrating excellence, it highlights abuse and humiliation. This year’s contestants are particularly inept: One has retrieved pasta from the garbage with the intention of serving it, another turned something as basic as mashed potatoes into Elmer’s glue.
Like American Idol, Hell’s Kitchen uses a Brit, Gordon Ramsay, as the conduit for contempt and invective; Fox believes that us good ol’ dumb ‘mericans find them funny-talkin’ people all snooty an’ such, but also secretly superior to us. The problem is, we’re given no reason to respect Ramsay (who, off camera, is a reasonably well-regarded chef). We never see him fix, solve, or correct anything; we never hear him offer a suggestion that implies he thinks inventively about cooking. On Hell’s Kitchen, Ramsay isn’t a cook; he’s a drill sergeant who’s flabbergasted that people who have never run a kitchen before don’t know how to run a kitchen. And now in his third season, even he looks heartily sick of manufacturing outrage while Voice-over Exposition Guy sweats to find a narrative, any narrative (”Now it all comes down to the waffle-house cook versus the executive chef!”). I can’t help thinking that if Ramsay’s charges never seem to learn, perhaps they need a new teacher. Maybe even one who’s not quite as obsessed with what he’d undoubtedly refer to as beef f—ing Wellington. Come on — beef Wellington? It’s beef wrapped in dough. A dish that Fred and Ethel Mertz might have been excited to eat in 1952. Aren’t we past that, even as retro-cuisine?
Along the way, we get to hear Ramsay refer to the show’s women as ”bitches,” one of the few words at his disposal that doesn’t require bleeping. Ramsay’s ethos seems to be that if you can’t take the heat, you don’t deserve the chance to…take the heat. No wonder the contestants always look so glazed and spooked-out, the way people on The Apprentice do when they have to say stuff like ”Workin’ fa someone as classy as Mistuh Trump would be a dream fa me.” Earlier this season, in an all-time low, U.S. soldiers were dragged to the set, and the contestants lumbered before the camera to mumble about supporting the troops. No wonder this is the summer replacement for 24 — watch Hell’s Kitchen, or you’re with the terrorists! I’m sure the soldiers really appreciated it: Eating crap food while some dude yells until his face turns the color of a baked ham must have been a real vacation from military life. D