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Most of the many television cookery programmes in the past decade, such as the UK’s MasterChef, the US’s Top Chef and Australia’s The Chopping Block have used the talent show (X Factor,Fame Academy or The Apprentice) format in which contestants are eliminated, while the winner gets into the business, with start-up money or training at a prestigious restaurant, and some (short-lived) publicity. But there is a different format, first seen in the UK in 2004, and thereafter worldwide: Ramsay’s KitchenNightmares, in which Michelin-starred chef Gordon Ramsay spends a week in a failing restaurant “coaching” the staff. Ramsay made a US version (2008-2010), and there has been a French version (2011-12) with chef Philippe Etchebest.
Coaching programmes are a popular sub-genre of reality television, and usually they are about life coaching — how to lose weight, dress better, bring up your children, clean, decorate, buy or sell your house. Ramsay is not coaching talented amateurs as in MasterChef, or young beginners as in Top Chef, but working professionals.
More than any other work environment, the restaurant is the perfect theatre for what Everett C Hughes called “the social drama of work” (1). In the theatrical metaphor favoured by interactionist sociologists, the dining room is a stage where professionals and customers perform a well-rehearsed script, while the camera explores backstage in the kitchen. We are presented with a spectacle: every service is a test of technical skill, speed and efficiency. The characters know each other — they use first names, shout, swear — and may be family members, so the coach has a chance to administer a kind of cruel, tear-inducing psychotherapy. The programmes meet the demands of reality television because eating and cooking are universal experiences, with a deep connection to our bodies, likes and dislikes.
A ‘democratic’ assessment
Members of the Writers Guild of America describe on their website how stories are created for reality television, and why a docile public, eager to take part for free, is so useful to the industry (2). In Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, the customers/viewers/actors participate by talking to the camera, providing a “democratic” assessment that cannot be argued with.
Each episode has a precise narrative structure, with a linear edit from day to day. In the first sequence, Ramsay/Etchebest sits in the dining room, tastes dishes and identifies the restaurant’s main problems. In the second sequence he has a stormy exchange with the cook or owner. He then follows the preparations, and witnesses the problems — the poor quality of the ingredients and their preparation, inept cooks and waiters, unhappy customers. The fourth sequence is crisis and confrontation: shouting, insults, threats of violence, even tears. Stages three and four are repeated until the restaurateur is broken down, before being rebuilt, or even reborn, and acts on the coach’s advice — showing authority over the staff or being kinder, simplifying the menu, providing service with a smile. The customers/viewers/actors confirm the immediate improvements. The French and US shows complete the transformation by renovating the restaurant. This ending of the cycle is the physical manifestation of the internal metamorphosis of the main players, and repays them for their (often caricatured) performances: the US version features lazy and irresponsible African-Americans, hypocritical Asians and pretentious, cowardly French. In the end, they all hug and thank the coach.
The show is structured as a redemption, a violent exorcism with a happy ending that is a classic of American storytelling (3). It uses both religious and military style indoctrination to serve an ideology of rebirth, and relies on violent techniques, especially humiliation, pushing the protagonists to admit their failings.
Display of virility
Every version of the series depends on a display of virility — Ramsay uses verbal violence, swearing, insults and threats, and changes his shirt at least twice per UK episode to display his torso. In the French version, Etchebest uses his colossal stature, physically intimidating or jostling the protagonists. The moral fibre of the restaurant staff is put to the test through physical games such as boxing, rugby or paintball.
The programmes don’t show much of the chef’s culinary expertise, and what they do show has decreased over the years. Food preparation is shown in short dramatic montages, like in an action film, with ultra-fast chopping and flaming frying pans. We seldom see the drudgery, the menial tasks delegated whenever possible to junior kitchen staff, although their management is decisive to any team (4); if we do see them, it’s because they have become a means of redemption, as when all the staff are set to clean a filthy kitchen.
Professional ability tends only to be referred to over hygiene — a catering-size jar of mayonnaise kept at room temperature, cockroaches behind the fridge, rotting food in the cold store, grease oozing from the oven. The programme appeals to the viewer’s common sense, without ever putting the work in its social context. Fresh ingredients are obviously better than frozen, but their cost or preparation time are not mentioned except euphemistically — “it’s not that expensive or complicated, is it?” — suggesting all that is needed is willingness.
It’s all about attitude
The participants have very different levels of skill, and the series visits a wide range of establishments, from pizza joints and sushi bars to high class restaurants, but the advice is always the same: it’s all about attitude, will, commitment and standards — all down to the individual.
So the restaurant chef/owner is the model of the contemporary worker, trying to meet paradoxical demands: to be both independent and a team player (knowing how to give or take orders), totally committed to work, taking on a huge amount of responsibility, cool under pressure, ready to work long hours for a miserable income in the hope of better times ahead, and able to cope with the coach’s demands for change, while remaining true to him or her self. All this plus technical skills in the kitchen and social skills with customers, plus creativity in the design of the dishes and the venue. The programme’s passionate advocacy of the talented independent promotes the “risk-taker”, the small entrepreneur: wage earners are outdated.
After the first few UK episodes, Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares never directly touches on money — debt, wages, the cost of ingredients, the price of dishes — and never asks about the social background of the protagonists, their training or connections. In this enchanted world, open discussion of money or strategy would end the belief system of this game and reveal the real tricks of the restaurant trade. If the industry were shown as it really is, the programme could no longer confine it to a celestial sphere of vocation and individual morality. Instead, everything comes down to the psychology and personality of the participants.
We are presented with an enchanted version of society. Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares show work as a series of tests that are alsoepiphanies: work should involve a constant rethinking, and the restaurateur should ceaselessly reaffirm his commitment, integrity and indefatigable desire to dowell. The work is by nature insecure: the programme turns that insecurity into a vocation.
Marc Perrenoud is a sociologist at the University of Lausanne.
(1) Everett C Hughes, The Sociological Eye: Selected Papers, Transaction Publishers, New Jersey, 1971.
(3) Christian Salmon, Storytelling: Bewitching the Modern Mind, Verso, 2010.
This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.
(4) Everett C Hughes, op cit.