I've long been a fan of British television, since I started watching Britcoms on public television. I became a regular viewer of BBC America when I got DirectTV and that's how I discovered Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares. The show features celebrity chef, Gordon Ramsay, as he goes to struggling restaurants for a week and tries to turn them around. Over the hour long show, he drops about 1,000 F-words.
As a rule, I'm not a fan of reality TV. But Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares shows people in a REAL real situation, in real trouble, and Gordon goes there and tries to help them. Gordon is tremendously charismatic. Despite his foul mouth and colossal ego, he's incredibly talented and commands respect. From what I've seen of Gordon, my amateur psychoanalysis is that he's obsessive and extraordinarily competitive. So his seemingly abusive assessments of the restaurants he visits and their staff/ownership is a result of his incredibly high standards.
The show has a pretty natural progression. Gordon arrives and has a meal. He tears the chef a new orifice over the quality of the food. The next evening, Gordon observes a service to see how the kitchen operates. Then the healing begins, as Gordon retools the menu and serves as a therapist f0r the staff, mending bridges between co-workers whose relationships have become strained. By the end of the week, there's a new menu and a new attitude in the kitchen. Gordon comes back a month or so later to check up on the featured restaurant. Often times, the restaurant is doing better, but on more than one occasion, the restaurant has shut down.
Much of the show focuses on the actual food served in the restaurant. Gordon regularly preaches simplicity on the menu by utilizing fresh ingredients and not overpowering them. What separates this program from a run-of-the-mill cooking show is Gordon's personality. Because of his bluntness, he frequently runs afoul of hard-headed chefs and owners. But the drama is never forced. The show is very controlled in its presentation, put together in a documentary fashion. Music is used judiciously, never coercing an emotional response. Gordon serves as the narrator, letting the viewer in on his internal monologue which is both informative and humorous. It's a well executed, engaging, and entertaining show.
Gordon started his American television career with Hell's Kitchen on FOX, a reality series in which aspiring chefs compete for his or her own restaurant. I saw several episodes, and I found it entertaining, albeit in a much different way from Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares. Hell's Kitchen is all about competition. The producers dig into their bag of reality tricks to amp up the drama. There's almost never a moment without music, the editing is manic, and more than a few incidents feel manufactured. But over-the-top drama was the goal of the show and Gordon kept it entertaining.
I was excited to see that FOX was going to do its own version of Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, entitled simply Kitchen Nightmares. This incarnation of the program featured American restaurants all of which are located in New York, New Jersey, or California. For a good analysis of the differences between the two shows, go over to Lee Stranahan's blog. Lee also recapped all of the American shows and even did some investigative journalism, calling up some of the restaurants on the show and asking them about the experience.
The huge difference between Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares and Kitchen Nightmares is the entertain-or-die FOX presentation. They took a smart show and pumped in all the over-production of Hell's Kitchen. To be fair, the British version of the show would never work on FOX prime time. Food Network would be the best place Stateside for that program. Or maybe HBO with all of Gordon's profanity intact. I found the American version entertaining and watched the whole season, but in the season finale, the ubiquitous music and editing-manufactured drama finally had me throwing my hands up in exasperation.
Another difference that bothers my inner film geek is the photography. The British version has a cinematic, verité look. Virtually all the camera work is handheld and the cameras shoot 24 frames per second, giving it a film look. The American version is shot exactly like Hell's Kitchen. There are lots of hidden camera shots, crane shots, and the video looks like video. Another drama-creating trick that they use is creating a close-up from a wide shot. There are a ton of shots of patrons seemingly turning to see what the commotion in the kitchen is. Oftentimes, these shots are taken from a wideshot and zoomed into. It's a cheap trick that results in some degraded looking video.
At its best, Kitchen Nightmares is fun and forgettable. At its worst, it's dishonest and it insults the viewer's intelligence. Don't judge Gordon Ramsay and the original show by the American incarnation. If your a fan of COOKING shows, do yourself a favor and track down the original.