Sadism, Masochism, Food and Television

June 27, 2006 | By | COMMENTS

I don’t like pain, I don’t like inflicting pain. But the question remains: do I like to watch pain inflicted on others?

I was forced to tackle this question tonight sitting through “Hell’s Kitchen” on Fox. It’s not hard to imagine Gordon Ramsay dressed in leather, cracking a real whip as his reality show minions dance around with rubber balls in their mouths. That, in fact, might be tamer than what really transpires: verbal lashings that burst forth with real venom. “Nooo, you donkey! You fat, stupid donkey!” is just the tip of the iceberg.

Why is it so pleasurable to watch Gordon spew such rage at these wanna be chefs? Is it pure schadenfreude? Is it just fun to watch people suffer?

And, more importantly, are these people really suffering? There is that notion, set forth by Anthony Bourdain, Michael Ruhlman, and Bill Buford (to name a few), that restaurant kitchens are raw, emotionally violent places. I remember accounts in books by all three authors of chefs willfully burning other chefs (chefs showing off their scars in “Kitchen Confidential,” Thomas Keller setting a hot plate down on a waiter in “The Soul of a Chef,” and a Babbo chef splashing hot oil on another in “Heat.”) Perhaps what happens on “Hell’s Kitchen” is just par for the course, a window into the real life climate of kitchen culture.

Clearly, to be a chef–to make your bones–you have to be a bit of a masochist. And that makes sense: to be good at it, you can’t really mind pain. The job itself, by its very nature, requires playing with fire and people who play with fire for a living can’t really mind getting burned.

And where does that leave us, the watchers–the voyeurs enjoying it all, putting fat wads of cash in Gordon Ramsay’s pocket? Are we sadists by proxy–do we rub our hands together with grim pleasure when Gordon hurls an apron at a sad sack chef who forgot to fire the meat that printed out an hour ago? Do we pity the fiesty risotto maker who first makes it too firm and then too soupy as Gordon calls her “sweetheart” and screams “no! no! no!” Or do we relish her pain?

It’s probably a little bit of both. And whatever sadistic pleasure we do get is a guilty pleasure, the same way that watching Britney Spears interviewed by Matt Lauer is a guilty pleasure. It’s like watching an old lady pushed down a flight of stairs. If she gets up, we can laugh it off. If she doesn’t, then we start to feel sick. There’s a fine line.

Of course, for those of us who can’t stand anything sadistic–who much prefer to be victimized by television instead of watching television victimize others, there’s always Semi Home-Made with Sandra Lee. Watching that is the greatest exercise in masochism a food-lover could ask for.

Categories: Essays

  • http://www.mostlyaboutfood.com Kalle

    I think it’s just healthy to get a peek behind the scene, when it comes to cooking in restaurants. Healthy, as in many of us like to see restaurant chefs as some eccentric and inspired artists, who create magnificent dishes in a whim. As a matter of fact, people tend to have a somewhat “romantic” view on any creative profession. The truth is, whether it’s writing, painting, playing music, or cooking, it’s not always a dance on rose petals. It’s often stressful, repetitive and tedious work, especially in a restaurant, which at its core is meant to be a profit generating enterprise. Therefore I find it positive that personalities like Ramsay or Bourdain scare the bejesus out of all of us daydreamers, who think we have great ideas for restaurants, or pretend to have the ambition and perseverance to stay in the kitchen and do the same thing, over and over again, night after night.

    But is it enjoyable to watch somebody get yelled at? At some level, yes, but is it really good management policy, or do they swear and insult just for the sake of the show? (which would be a bit lame, no?)

  • http://dirtpusher.blogspot.com Judith in Umbria

    To me it is all one with the reality TV syndrome which fulfills the hunger of the pulsing masses in the way that once was done with gladiators. The taste for dirt was a surprise to me. The taste for violence was a shock.

    There once was a time when dining out meant going into a hushed and elegant atmosphere where appeared by magic course after course of studied and mannered French food.

    The comparable group nowadays goes to chaotic places amidst a din to deafen them and eats ever stranger food, often genius-inspired but often just weird.

    More! More! More! shouts the crowd who lives the rest of the time on tasteless pap.

    Kill! Kill! Kill! shouted that crowd who lived the rest of the time on endless work and boiled grain.

    I only know what I read. When I went to the US I turned on the TV news and was so traumatized that I stopped watching the whole time. I had to leave my child in that den of hyenas.

  • jinius

    I went to go see Batali, Bourdain, and Buford speak at the New York Public Library last week and they talked about how dealing w/hellish chefs is a restaurant rites of passage. And unfortunately screaming chefs produce more screaming chefs so the cycle continues. Perhaps that’s why we so few women chefs as well. And I don’t understand why Sandra Lee is on the food network but Lydia B. and Jacques Pepin are not.

  • AuntJone

    Preach on, jinius. I can barely stand Sandra Lee and the outfits that match her kitchen decor. Puke!

    I am enthralled with HK and I have no idea why. I can’t bear confrontation which is why I wouldn’t in a million years try out for the show. I am an aspiring pastry chef who has yet to break into the fast-paced restaurant world (if such a place exists in Northern Indiana) and I sort of see the show as a training tool. I seriously hope I don’t encounter someone as heinous as Chef Ramsay but I realize that I have alot to learn and that I will probably work for or with some real tyrants.

    I, personally, feel the insults and excessive swearing are inflated. I’d be interested to hear from one of his current or former employees to see if he acts like that when the camera is off.

  • http://www.einphilly.blogspot.com e

    Sandra Lee is horrible. What kind of chef uses pudding cups in nearly every dessert? Ewwwww

  • http://www.kitchenbeard.com kitchenbeard

    OK – Ramsay… sure he yells, sure he makes those people hop to it, but lets be honest here, those people are idiots and are on the show for that reason. The producers hired them because they knew they’d screw up and give cause for a scene.

    And Sandra Lee? I was surprised as all hell to find out she graduated from Le Condon Bleu. It just bothers me that some one with that much training and education does what she does. She’s likie a Stepford Wife after a couple of martinis.

  • habanero

    We watch Sandra Lee for the cleavage.

  • superluckycat

    Sandra Lee is a carwreck too interesting to not catch once in a while. I laugh hardest at her special “cocktails” that she always mixes up in some dumb pitcher/glass set from TJ Maxx that always has hardly any alcohol in it and always a bottle of something heinous like grenadine or apricot nectar and never enough ice cubs and then she takes a sip like it’s the naughtiest juice ever mixed. I also love to imagine her “girlfriends” coming over for her overly-themed party of processed foods and get annoyed at her 600 calorie drinks with no alcohol.

  • http://www.aminglingoftastes.com Julie

    I totally agree with everything superluckycat just wrote. Funny post. I don’t watch hell’s kitchen because I hate watching people suffer (Britney Spears sort of being the exception), but I have no qualms making fun of people who serve their guests velveeta fondue or some such nonsense.

  • myzkyti

    I triely think most of Ramsey’s behavior is premeditatied.. not scripted, but certainly with ulterior motive. Who in their right mind would have kept Tom around so long, if it were not to torture the other chefs on the Blue Team and make them sweat it out? Who could legitimately overlook Sara’s blatant lying (and obvious smirking) and blame it on the rest of the Red Team? I really think, aside from the showmanship of it all, that he’s just running them all through a psychological test much more so than an actual cooking test. I think he’s mostly trying to see if they can hack it under rediculous circumstances, since that’s what they’ll be in 24/7 if they win. How else can you explain 100 screaming kids, soda, pixie stix, silly string, and chewing gum? ;}

  • http://musable.com Annette

    Correction: Sandra Lee did not graduate from Le Cordon Bleu. She apparently attempted a week (or two week) class at a campus in Canada(?) and left after day or two.

    For the rest: I’ve seen accounts from other chefs where they’ve said they didn’t serve with any screaming chefs, that the kitchens where they worked were pretty quiet, although bustling during a heavy service, and that from some chefs, a raised eyebrow could be enough to cause tears because it was a sign of disappointment to some degree or another. I think I’d prefer the non-screaming version of a kitchen, mostly because that’s the same way I manage my employees: not by chewing them a new one if they screw up, but by showing them the path they should have taken instead. Throwing things at people or burning them and whatnot? Never would I do it, nor would I stand for it, no matter who it came from, even if I were a lowly dishwasher somewhere.

  • AdamH

    I don’t like everything that Sandra Lee makes, either, but her show meets a need for people who don’t have time to watch other cooking shows, or time to shop at more than one store once per week if they’re lucky, or money to buy the fresh gourmet ingredients. Consider the intended audience – it’s probably a lot more people than you think.

  • Jana

    Ya want fast and convenient ya watch Rachael, who, while she makes one cringe with each “yum-o”, nonetheless uses real food. Ya want cleavage, ya watch Giada. Sandra Lee makes my teeth hurt. Gordon Ramsey and those, um, contestants make me laugh out loud. All of which means I’m watching way too much TV. But then, So You Think You Can Dance is on tonite….

  • Michelle

    Omigosh! What is up with the “table-scapes” Sandra Lee has at the end of her shows??? A number of the shows on food network are by random people that seem to know zilch about cooking. If only they could put Jacque Pepin or even his daughter Claudine and Lidia Bastianich on – a real chef!!!

  • karmicnic

    My family owns a restaurant, and during service hours the kitchen is stinkin hot, emotions run rampant, and I go home thinking today’s the day I’m going to have a nervous breakdown.

    So, if I don’t go mad, then it’s another day doing something I love and hate at the same time.

    And we don’t curse or belittle each other. We can’t. It’s family. So if I had to stand up to the terrifying Gordon Ramsay… oh holy crap. I would go nuts.

  • http://www.bbcamerica.com/genre/home_living/ramsays_kitchen_nightmares/ramsays_kitchen_nightmares.jsp George Schulte

    RAMSAY’S KITCHEN NIGHTMARES is a much better show. I have downloaded all 8 episodes with microtorrent from BBC ch4

    It’s a reality show that gives insight to REAL restaurants in the UK that are on the verge of FAILURE, he comes in to attempt a rescue. Also the BBC apparently dosen’t censor or bleep him so be prepared for lots of 4 letter profanity. BUT IT SO ROCKS over HK

  • Rijoukou

    Personally, I watch Hell’s Kitchen just for the hell of it. For me, it’s entertaining to see the trials the contestants go through, and maybe cheer on a few of them, instead of having a sadistic pleasure in watching them getting ripped apart by Ramsay. Other than Sara, of course. That woman needs to go. Right. Now.

  • Joe

    What I can’t believe, is how some of you losers can trash Sandra Lee. I’ll wager that she’s by far more successful than 99.999% of you guys. After all, how many of you have your own show on the Food Network? How many of you maintain a residence in New York and California both. If you’re upset because you’re not part of her demographic, then get over it. If your league blew up, it’s doubtful Sandra would even hear it! It’s doubtful I would hear it either! As for the clevage remarks, I’m sure a large percentage of you would do well to look half as good! Sandra is quite ample I’m sure!