Friday, September 28, 2007

Deep thoughts about the American "Kitchen Nightmares"

I confess to really enjoying the UK "Kitchen Nightmares" series. I generally enjoy Gordon Ramsay in whatever show he does - even the American "Hell's Kitchen" was not too bad (although the most recent series was pretty lame).

For those unfamiliar with "Kitchen Nightmares", the premise is a simple "reality TV" format where Gordon is brought in to rescue a failing restaurant. He spends one week working with the owner, chef, servers, etc. sorting things out, and usually manages to turn things around by the time he leaves. He then pops back a few months later (seemingly unannounced) to check on how things have progressed. This is the cherry on the pudding for me - I like to see what advice has stuck, and what has been forgotten; who has stuck to their promises, and who has been forced out (or quit).

The UK show is quite simple, with what feels like no scripting, minimal editing or "saucing up" and often some really good drama as relationships are forged under intense pressure in a short time. Chefs that are resistant and hate Ramsay at first often get won over and become his best friends by the end of the week. Lowly kitchen helpers are recognized as having great potential and given their chance to move ahead in their career. Really inspiring stuff.

So, back to the American version. It's pretty bad - not a huge surprise given it's on FOX and seems to be done by the Hell's Kitchen bunch. What do we get?
  1. Almost continuous background music that tries to manipulate your emotions and whip up the tension but just gets on your nerves,
  2. Tedious re-hashing of footage, especially after the frequent ad breaks. Episode 2 was particularly bad, with a 5min+ sequence of "re-runs" in the middle of the episode. Trust me, guys, I can remember what happened 5 minutes ago and how we got there...
  3. A scripted feel. Some of the scenes seem contrived and designed to inject arguing and swearing into the show. One of the refreshing things about the UK version is how nice Gordon is. Sure, he drops the f-bomb and s-bomb quite often, but he's not as shouty, and seems to use anger on when it's really needed. The US version seems to be trying to get everyone - Gordon and the restaurant staff - to the point of exploding.
  4. No return visit. The episodes end with Gordon's trade-mark "summing up" monologue, expressing hope that things will continue to go well now that he's righted the ship. We get no check-up to see if things actually have continued to do well.
  5. Loads of money thrown at the problem. I guess I should be happy that there is no overt sponsorship/advertising in the show, but each episode (there have been two so far), has featured Gordon bringing in experts and/or large sums of money to fix things. That doesn't feel right, and is in contrast to the UK show, where the restaurants are pretty much on their own. (In one episode of the UK show, Gordon asked the vain chef to sell his car's vanity plate to get more funds to put into the renovation of the restaurant). In the US series so far we've had: a complete new kitchen provided for free, a total redoration, professional steam-cleaning of the kitchen, and a "consulting chef" to do the actual cooking.

In closing, here's an interesting thing I noticed after the 2nd episode, which featured Dillon's Indian restaurant in New York (now called Purnima). From the start of the show it's clear the restaurant is atrocious before Gordon arrives. So, I looked around for some old reviews (pre-Gordon and Vikas Khanna) on the web. Nada. The closest I could find (and the address matches Purnima) is Dillon's, but the menu doesn't have anything remotely Indian. (Perhaps only the American menu made it online? They had what looked like two menus, one with Indian items). Here's the official website for Dillon's - the page came up blank for me for a while, but the Google cache still a copy.

It also looks like Dillon's is a theatre venue of sorts None of the stage/theatre stuff was mentioned in the show which is odd... This NY Magazine review also doesn't mention Indian food (or flies or cockroaches).

Which makes me wonder - was the Indian Dillon's a very recent start-up that took over the Dillon's Bar location (likely)? Did Purnima manage to get the old reviews taken offline (not likely)? Or did "Kitchen Nightmares" create the place and it never really existed? :)

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