Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Volume 2, Number 41: Looking Back On Kitchen Nightmares

(Note: I originally posted this entry in December 2007 on my Yahoo! GeoCities blog.)

The first season of Kitchen Nightmares ended earlier this month. I meant to post my reflections on the series after the final episode aired, and here they are:

Obviously, I'm looking forward to the next season.

I wish that not only does the series come out on DVD, uncensored, but that it has tons of "bonus footage", also uncensored, that didn't make it into the episodes due to time constraints. I realize that this has not happened with Hell's Kitchen, so I do not hold out much hope. Maybe when this series airs in the UK (where censorship isn't such a big issue; everything that airs after 9pm London time doesn't get bleeped), someone over there will post the uncensored episodes on YouTube.

My two favorite episodes have at least a few things in common: Filthy kitchens, at least one bad employee leaving (in one episode, the so-called general manager resigned; in another, two chefs were fired), and weak owners who hadn't yet realized what was going on under their noses.

My least favorites had loud-mouthed control freaks that made Chef Ramsay look like a Vienna choir boy. That kind of person always rubs me the wrong way because they generally do nothing but talk without any understanding of the work their staff is doing (or is having trouble doing), and blame everyone except themselves.

Virtually all the restaurants had dozens of dishes on their menus. Ramsay wryly observed this during an episode of the UK series, Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares: "A good restaurant does one dish and does it well. A bad one does 50 dishes and does them poorly." Ramsay prefers that they do as his restaurants do: Offer up a few appetizers, several--not two dozen--main courses, several desserts, and that's it. If Ramsay ever got a hold of Big Boy, its menu would be cut down severely--no seafood, no quesadillas, no pasta, just burgers and some other sandwiches.

Another common sin is using food that was either frozen (like the crab cakes at the Seascape or the salmon at Dillon's) or pre-packaged in some way (like the tomato soup at Lela's). Looking back, that has got to be a reason why my father always insisted on ordering the restaurant's "specialty" no matter what--it's more likely to be fresh than anything else. (Being young and naive, I thought I could order whatever I was in the mood for, and my father was unhappy with me for ordering a fish sandwich at a souvlaki place.) Ramsay tries to get his nightmare restaurants to use fresh meat and produce from local vendors.

I've seen this comment a number of times while viewing videos of these episodes (and the UK episodes) on YouTube, but it bears repeating: Darnit, where are those health inspectors?!? Have health inspections become a luxury (rather than a necessity)? The increasing number of chain restaurants--not just the fast food joints, but places like Chili's, Ruby Tuesday, and Applebee's--seems to warrant a greater need for health inspectors. And remember, Chef Ramsay and local news reporters can't go after chains (just the little one-location "mom-and-pop" places like the ones above), so the need for health inspectors becomes that much more important where chains are concered. As I mentioned in a previous blog entry, the only two times I got food poisoned were after dining at chain restaurants (Big Boy, 1989; Little Caesars, 1994).

Below are how I rank the episodes, from my favorite to my least favorite:

1. Dillon's (relaunched as Purnima) - This one gets the nod over the Seascape due to much filthier conditions (it was the only episode with cockroaches and rat droppings in it). I enjoy Chef Ramsay the most when he rips apart the idiots responsible for spoiled food and filthy kitchens, and the reason is that I've had two severe food poisoning incidents in my life. He went so far as to make the person who cooked the doormat salmon with the rancid potatoes eat that dish (although in retrospect, maybe he should have made Martin, the do-nothing general manager, eat it). Favorite quotes: "What, do we need a death in the restaurant before some (expletive) gets a grip?!?", "The walls are ghastly. Looks like it's been plastered with hospital linen; that's where the customers go after they come out of this restaurant," "It's (expletive) rotten, you (expletive) idiot, it's rottennnnnnnnnnnn!"

2. The Seascape Inn - This restaurant suffered from a number of things, but at the top of that list was a head chef who should be barred from ever working in the food service again. Doug claimed to have been working as a chef for 38 years, gone to the Culinary Institute of America, worked in famous restaurants and was world-renowned. Yet he insisted on re-cooking leftover food (a pot roast during a dinner service, and later, a chicken valdesano Chef Ramsey found during his investigation of the kitchen). Favorite quotes: "They got it wrong on the menu. It's not a crab cake, it's a CRAP cake," "You're lucky I'm not standing here with a (expletive) writ on your arse about being food poisoned!" This one fell to #2 in part because the restaurant has since been sold, so its future is not as solid as Purnima's. Hopefully the new owner has a stronger spine than Peter, who confessed to "keeping the peace" when he should have standing up for himself.

3. The Secret Garden - Chef Ramsay says that the hardest people he's had to put up with are those that are both the owner AND the chef. If they aren't resistant to changes Ramsay wants to make to the menu, they're resistant to changes Ramsay is making from an ownership (business) standpoint. And you can't fire the chef because the owner IS the chef. Here, there was a filthy kitchen with a moldy walk-in fridge (plus there was a maggot infestation that made Chef Ramsay hurl).

4. Lela's - Memorable for a "head chef" who cooked almost 100% bought-in stuff and served Chef Ramsay a nearly meatless "rack of lamb," a staff member who kept stealing food (and wine), and the arguing between the manager and the aforementioned "head chef" (mostly over not having items that were on the menu). The restaurant had a chance for success once Chef Ramsay turned it into a burger joint (apparently Pomona doesn't have a place you could go for a real good burger), but the debts Lela had incurred were apparently too much to overcome.

5. Finn McCool's - Curiously, this restaurant was considered for Kitchen Nightmares because its cook, Brian, had tried out for Hell's Kitchen the year before, and the producers of that show (who also produce Kitchen Nightmares) remembered Brian's crappy attitude. But Brian also took too many shortcuts and had his share of poisoned food (most notably a shepherd's pie that made Chef Ramsay sick).

6. Sebastian's - I had been looking forward to this one ever since seeing Chef Ramsay say to Sebastian (another stubborn owner/chef), "I've never, ever, ever, ever, met someone I've believed in as little as you." I think Chef Ramsay should have saved those words for Doug, the now ex-chef at the Seascape (#2). While Sebastian seemed stupid to not listen to Ramsay and go back to using that old, hard-to-understand menu when sticking to brick oven-baked pizzas made perfect sense, at least Sebastian wised up later.

7. Campania - This one featured a recurring element from the UK series, Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares: Not only rework the menu, but feature some inane street campaign that works far better than I would expect, but only because it has Ramsay's sales skills and brand identity backing it up. ("Best Meatballs in New Jersey." Seriously, that can't be original, and wouldn't have worked without Ramsay. Lela's (#4) had something similar, with Lela's Famous Burger. Seriously, how can you call something that's new "famous"? Oh, wait, it was Ramsay's recipe, so that's why it's famous. An example from the UK series: The Campaign for Real Gravy, which has evidently been wildly successful in transforming the Fenwick Arms from a failing restaurant into a successful pub.)

8. Peter's - This was the one with Peter, the guy who a) looked like he could have been on the Sopranos, b) kept putting up fights with debt collectors, and c) kept taking money from the till even when the restaurant was losing money. The only reason this episode is ranked above The Mixing Bowl and The Olde Stone Mill is that at least Peter showed signs of improvement towards the end of the episode.

9. The Mixing Bowl - I couldn't stand Mike the manager in this one (he booked 20 tables at the same time on the night of the re-launch, and blamed various staff for crap that wasn't their fault). Only one other personality I came across aggravated me even more (see below).

10. The Olde Stone Mill - Not only was Dean arrogant (he called himself the best restauranteur around even though, let's face it, he's no Gordon Ramsay), and a maniacal control freak to boot, but he apparently couldn't be bothered to listen to his own staff. When the chef expressed a problem he was having with a new computerized system, the owner kept mindlessly yelling, "Read the (expletive) ticket!" I wanted to reach through the screen and grab Dean by the neck and yell, "Hey, (expletive) (expletive-head)! Did it occur to you that maybe there's no ticket to read because the (expletive) system isn't printing like it's (expletive) supposed to!" The episode did have one high point: Chef Ramsey convincing Mike, the chef, to lose the ridiculous funnel salad, even burning the funnels with a crème brulée torch.

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