Sadism, Masochism, Food and Television

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.

You may also like