The Hell’s Kitchen Finale

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Young chefs, take heed: reality television offers you two glimpses, this summer season, of chefs who have fallen so far off their pedestals it’s difficult to believe they were ever taken seriously. Rocco DiSpirito’s visit to Top Chef Season III was thankfully limited to one episode, but there he was shilling for Bertolli, his face strangely waxen, maybe from all that cat food he’s testing? His dress, his face, his hair, his voice, are all so presentational you can see the crux of his career crisis right there in his pixelated visage: he’s too in love with his own image to stay in the kitchen. The kitchen is for the Howies of the world and Rocco wants the limelight. Only that limelight will fade, as it always does, and then what? “All right, Mr. Demille, I’m ready for my Bertolli frozen pasta dinner”?

Yet Rocco’s disgrace is tame next to that of Gordon Ramsay. How can a man who held three Michelin stars appear on a show where the two finalists–the supposedly BEST chefs from the entire season–serve a three course meal that would embarrass the lowest chef at a T.G.I. Friday’s? Did anyone see this? I mean, I don’t watch Hell’s Kitchen, we were desperate tonight so we watched the finale and it was shocking. The food was so sub-par that the fact that anyone could believe that these “winners” are the best at anything, let alone cooking, is deeply disturbing. In particular, the blonde woman’s food (I forget her name) was laughably bad: her signature pasta with shrimp looked like it came out of The Idiot’s Guide To Olive Garden Cooking. And her dessert? A chocolate covered strawberry and some cookies. I’m not kidding. This show has as much to do with fine dining as “America’s Top Model” has to do with brain surgery.

And yet, “Hell’s Kitchen” does do something that “Top Chef” doesn’t: it tries to recreate the dynamic of a “real” restaurant kitchen. Sure, “Top Chef” does that in the finale, but that’s what “Hell’s Kitchen” does all season and it showcases how social skills and leadership skills are so essential behind the scenes. And that’s about all the praise I can muster for the show.

Back to Chef Ramsay. Look, money talks, I’m not an idiot. He must be paid up the wazoo for his volatile personality, his mad-dog antics, his showboating sadism. But at what cost? And the same goes for Rocco. What’s your price, young chefs of America? At what point are you willing to become a corporate shill, like Rocco, or a fuming cartoon character like Ramsay? If fame and fortune in the food world are what you seek and you want to maintain your integrity, there’s only one model you should follow and that’s the Anthony Bourdain model. I’m not sure how he does it, but he traverses the world of popular entertainment and the cultish world of foodiedom with ease. One day he’s on “Top Chef,” the next he’s writing on eGullet. Study his example, young chefs of today, and avoid the pitfalls that were so depressingly demonstrated this summer on TV. Now I have to shower for 12 hours to get the stank of “Hell’s Kitchen” out of my hair.

24 comments

  1. Oh Adam, I understand what you are saying about Ramsay. And you are probably right. But I don’t have cable, and Hell’s Kitchen is as close as I can get to Top Chef, Iron Chef, and all those other pay-TV chefs. So I’ve watched every episode of Hell’s Kitchen this season, and most of the last two seasons as well. As some justification, I’d like to note that Ramsay’s yelling and fuming is mostly relegated to the service and the commercials — he can often be quite funny and kind. And the service (which is the most interesting part of the show) is very fun and semi-educational to watch. So don’t totally poo-poo it — us network TV watchers need some kitchen reality shows in our lives too.

  2. I watched it for most of the season, and I am in total agreement with you Adam! However…if you watched previous episodes you would agree that those two were the best out of the group! The third runner up…I forget her name…in one episode took cooked spagetti from the GARBAGE PAIL, and figured she could “re-cook” it and serve it to a customer…I was stunned when she not only made it past that episode, but made it into the final three! Unreal…

  3. they were truffles, not cookies.

    not everyone prefers to make snobby chef food. sometimes people(even the best cooks) prefer mac and cheese over foie gras.

    besides, it’s entertainment. it is what it is.

  4. btw, nice makeover for the blog.

    you know, the thing about having a product is that you try to appeal to a mass audience. this is especially true for television.

    sure, you’re a writer. you and anthony bourdain can create a club called, “we do it for the love.” grrrrreat! gold star.

    you gotta ask yourself. is this tv show made for the amateur gourmet? a foodie enthusiast blog that gets over 10k page views a month? or is for the mass market consumer? just think about that for a second.

    you are dissing Ramsey for selling out (which he did) but you also lump in the fact that the show isn’t super because their contestants are crap. sorry, that doesn’t work. the show does what it is supposed to do, you’re just not the target audience. it’s in the third season for a reason (and that’s that middle america doesn’t get tired of seeing people botch up beef wellingtons for 3 straight summers).

  5. I like his show on BBC america; “Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares”, not so much yelling.

    But I do like Anthony’s style much better, more stuff to learn from his shows.

    BTW, like the new look!

  6. hey adam,

    i couldn’t agree more re: rocco & ramsay shilling. and yet, it was pretty ironic reading yr screed with the “healthy choice” ad (praps the worst frozen food ever conceived) flashing in the right margin of your blog and the guitar-playing pork chop ad flashing in the left margin.

    dude, no one likes a hypocrite

  7. Hi Pauper,

    I think it’s possible to reach a mainstream audience without dumbing down your content: see “Ratatouille,” for example. My issue with “Hell’s Kitchen” isn’t the format or its splashy effects, it’s really just that the chefs they choose are mediocre at best. Now you could argue–and I think it’d be a viable argument–that what makes the show powerful is that Ramsay is TEACHING mediocre cooks how to run a restaurant, how to cook better food. But for him to look at those dishes at the end of last night’s episode and not to say what I’m sure he was really thinking–that the food was dismally bad–means that he’s compromising his integrity in a really serious way. Which brings me to…

    Musey:

    Taking ads and shilling for a company are two different things. There isn’t a chef on TV anywhere who doesn’t have advertising on the show he or she is on. You don’t see me blogging about Healthy Choice or the Pork Board and if I did, then I would be an absolute hypocrite because–like Ramsay and Rocco–I’d be exploiting the trust that people have in me for the work I’ve done before to sell a product that I don’t believe in. And that’s the issue I have with them on TV.

  8. The two shows are different in a fundamental way: “Hells Kitchen” is competition for running restaurant. “Top Chef” is not. The former is developed by the same guy who does survivor and it shows.

    Bourdrain is a great TV personality and a decent writer of prose. But he doesnt cook anymore. The early Batali is a better example. Or Jamie Oliver (good chef with a social conscience. Ramsay had a good show on the BBC where he again ran a faux restaurant with a staff of contestants but he cooked on the show. He went to different home each week and helped the wife cook. He raised pigs/turkeys (different TV seasons) to show the food cycle. Had a newspaper columnist do a short piece each week on some aspect of food. Was a good balanced food variety hour.

  9. i dunno, adam. on the one hand, i see your point. on the other hand, i just did a quick perusal of all my other favorite food blogs and, as far as i can tell, you are the only one who advertises products that i would assume you actually think are lousy (i’m talkin’ ‘healthy choice’ here). farmgirl, for instance, has what amounts to an Amazon ad, but she’s only showing products she actually likes/owns. most others seem to only advertise cookbooks. i’m not faulting you for making money from your blog. but i still believe that the kind of ads you have dilute the argument you’re trying to make in this post.

  10. Leave him alone musey. when you have your own blog and are trying to make a living in New York City, you can do whatever you wish. I don’t see your argument here…

  11. Like it was mentioned, there is two significant things about Bourdain that makes him go from one end to the other: He is a pretty decent writer, and his shows are based on his narration too so much of his public persona comes from there. Second: honesty. He never walks away from a hot potatoe, he talks about what bugs him and what he loves with equal verve. Like him or not, there is not much concessions when it comes to him. As far as the cooking goes, I don’t think Bourdain was ever, or even pretended, to be a 3-star chef, he was an efficient manager and was able to maintain a relatively high quality but he never had the creativity of a 3-star chef.

    That said. I think Ramsey made a mistake with Hell’s kitchen and it is not the norm with his shows, that overall have been decent and showed his personality (he is tough but always fair, screams but also congradulates when it is deserved). Hell’s Kitchen is simply a crappy show and he got caught in it. Hopefully he’ll get out of that mess.

  12. My problem with Ramsey and Hells Kitchen is I know him to be playing a character here. His show on the BBC shows him to a be a caring, creative and nurturing culinary professional who only wants his protoges to suceed. Playing the screaming and swearing son of a bitch for the camera just diminutizes him all the more.

  13. Ok, first of all I am totally down with your take on Bourdain. Let’s face it – the guy is living the Dream, period.

    Now, about Rocco… I used to feel much as you seem to now. But I challenge anyone here to log into Netflix (what? you aren’t a member yet? for shame!) and add a movie called “Eat This New York” to your queue – in fact, bump it right up to the top of your queue. When it arrives, check out the movie or… jump right to the special features and behold the interview with Mr. DiSpirito – I think it may be the last one in the special features, so keep clicking around ’til you find it.

    I have to say, that interview really changed the way I think about the guy.

    Just a suggestion…

  14. Will jump in with my own musings…

    1) These shows are pure entertainment anyway…Top Chef is amusing in its own way, but I don’t take it very seriously, either. Ramsay’s slash-and-burn persona isn’t my cup of tea, so I don’t even bother with him. But to each his own on that.

    2) Maybe I am pretty unique here, but I find most foodblogs to be just solid entertainment, too…and I mean that as a compliment, Adam! I just know my own palate well enough, and even though I am very adventurous in my tastes (I lived in Europe and in Latin America for a while, so I am very familiar with different cuisines), I frequently see what bloggers order, and I just know that I am not going to care for much of these dishes at all, even if they rave about it…too many bizarre combinations from chefs these days for my tastes.

    So, in a nutshell, I love the pictures, love the accompanying stories, but foodblogs for me are just as much entertainment for me as a rousing episode of Top Chef. And for restaurant recommendations, well, I trust friends whose tastes I know mirror my own.

  15. I had always enjoyed your blog up until I read this post. It’s obvious that you don’t watch the show. For you to criticize Gordon Ramsay for selling out is a joke; I’m sure you won’t be turning down any of the money from your upcoming book. If you had bothered to watch Hell’s Kitchen or any of Gordon Ramsay’s other shows before making your scathing remarks, you may have seen how important quality is to him, and would have understood better what choices were made and why. Perhaps you should just stick to what you know best, being an amateur. You have definitely lost one reader.

  16. Tyler Florence is next. He has so much going for him. Why Applebee’s, why………great post, invoked a lot of passion, which is the idea right?

  17. I’ve always enjoyed reading your blog, but I think this post is exhibits a bit of hypocrisy on your part. You started as a no-name in the food blog world, took a lot of flack from readers for taking free dinners and products that you reviewed here, and you got yourself a book deal. You sing songs about ice cream and act out scenes with dead lobsters. You cross-market your site with Serious Eats and advertise products on your home page. I realize you are not a chef, nor do you claim to be, but what’s YOUR price for gaining relative fame and money?

    As for Rocco and Gordon, are they exploiting themselves for “good” television and a great paycheck? Yes. And if you think that Bourdain is not calculatingly and methodically exploiting his own skinny, chain-smoking ass, you are being naive. The only difference is that you happen to find him appealing, as do I. But make no mistake, it’s still the same thing.

    In any case, I still enjoy your blog. And I love the singing.

  18. Clare, I’ve never written anything on this blog that I don’t believe. So when i sing songs about ice cream it’s because i want to sings songs about ice cream or talk to dead lobsters. I’m accusing rocco and ramsay of selling their souls–I havent sold mine ive merely subsidized it. There is a difference!!

  19. Adam, it’s not THAT big of a difference. Buy vs. rent, sell vs. subsidize…the spirit is essentially the same. I’m not knocking you for it; I just don’t think you should be putting down others who’ve merely one-upped you on the soul sellin’ (or renting/subleasing/subsidizing/squatting).

    How about a song about Rocco sung in Gordon Ramsey’s scream-holla tone? Now that would be rad.

  20. Amen on the Bourdain method– he’s a foodie of the old, Brillat-Savarin school. He actually incorporates history, politics and culture into his understanding of food– it’s something that people eat, that changes and adapts as societies do, and it’s for everyone, not some rarefied elite. That’s the way to be.

    I’d add another method, though, the Alton Brown/food-science-geek method, which I also think is valuable. (And I actually don’t think Brown and Bourdain are far apart philosophically…)

    Brown and Bourdain aren’t somehow magically free from the corporatization of food, but they’re also not leaping to endorse inferior products like DiSpirito or Rachael Ray. I get the feeling that the food itself means something to foodies of that bent, and that they’d just as soon not have to deal with the whole network sponsor/product endorsement side of things.

  21. Adam,

    Would you have thought the same about Hell’s Kitchen (vs. Top Chef, or Bourdain) 5 years ago? 10?

    I have been watching both shows this season. I much preferred the Bravo series to the one on Fox. But I think the observations made in comments here are true: the intended audience(s) are different for both shows. Only a small segment of the viewing population might find both equally entertaining.

    You no doubt will offend your readers who may in fact have loved watching the program you rather forcefully criticized. But that’s nothing to be ashamed of; sharing opinions is the fodder of one’s blog.

    But I also got a taste of displeasure from what you wrote, thinking that perhaps you are no longer a so-called “amateur” in the sense of knowing, appreciating, and cooking food.

    I would agree with others here about criticizing the chefs you name (Ramsay and DiSpirito specifically) for their selling-out. You and others obviously idolize professional chefs who live for the food-making and people-pleasing business of their craft (the types of people profiled by Ruhlman, et al.).

    But I see a parallel with your own enterprise in the food world.

    I think you had a stronger site here with its rougher edges (both in writing and in the website’s design), than with the more professional, more lofty-tone (if not haughty) that has been afoot in posts like this one.

    I often privately compared your musings on the discovery of good eats in the vein of the young lady who wrote the Julia/Julie diary. Reading about one’s discovery of new tastes and gustatory loves is engaging entertainment.

    Not unlike watching a Brit yell at sorry (or far less-experieneced and capable) cooks whose only experience has been at the waffle house.

    I don’t mean to sound harsh. It’s your blog… and I wish you luck with the book and the continued development of your online persona. But be careful as it develops, because you’re at an impasse now where you can adopt AG as a character… with wit and strong opinions, or follow another, with the more pure, authentic musings of Adam Roberts. One will be more entertaining than the other, however one might be better suited for a career in the food writing/criticism/commentary business.

    Yes, the food in Hell’s Kitchen 3 was not so-called haute-cuisine. But your comments have left some of us with a bad aftertaste in our mouths. And it wasn’t from the final dishes presented on Hell’s Kitchen, series 3.