Chefs are a group tailor-made for reality television. Anyone who’s worked in a restaurant (or read “Kitchen Confidential” by Anthony Bourdain) knows that the professional kitchen can be a breeding ground for chaos. There are time constraints, creative individuals, fire, knives – the essential DNA for a million crises at your fingertips.
Bravo’s “Top Chef” was content to create a few creative challenges but otherwise let the drama unfold “naturally” (obviously that word is relative when you’re talking reality TV). Fox’s “Hell’s Kitchen”… well, this is Fox, not Bravo, and the difference in approach is made evident in choice of title alone. “Top Chef?” Elevated, sophisticated (again, all relative in the world of reality TV). “Hell’s Kitchen?” You fill in the blanks.
Bravo’s “Top Chef” professionals stayed, for the most part, safely behind the judges’ table, with the interaction between them and the contestants heating up to a mild browbeating at best. Fox puts its professional, three-Michelin-starred chef Gordon Ramsey, right in the kitchen with the contestants. Ramsey is the culinary equivalent of American Idol’s Simon Cowell. Except much much angrier. Like many professional chefs, he has painfully-exacting standards, and when they’re not met, his outrage at poor performance makes Simon Cowell look like… well, Paula Abdul.
For many aspiring chefs though, the potential for such verbal punishment at the hands of a master is pretty much par for the course – on-or off-camera. So it’s not surprising that twelve more brave chefs have signed on to go through the selection process with the hopes of becoming executive chef at a restaurant at a new Las Vegas resort.
The twelve hopefuls arrive at the Hell’s Kitchen restaurant and have a few minutes to admire the surroundings, before Ramsey arrives. He barks out a quick speech, saying that in order to win, they will have to impress him, and then orders them into the kitchen. They will have a half hour to cook their signature dish, which he will judge.
The kitchen scene is the usual chaos, and at this point, we don’t know enough about the individuals to be able to make much sense of what is going on. They all seem to complete their meals, which are then assembled for Ramsey to sample.
The first dish he tries was made by Keith, a large, rather doughy young man who is a chef and bartender in real life. Keith is wearing a baseball cap and immediately gets on Ramsey’s bad side for that and for the slang he keeps throwing out to describe his food. He calls it “Cha-ching,” which he clarifies as “slammin’” which Ramsey keeps hearing as “lamb.” Ramsey makes him remove his cap, then deposits some unappetizing elements of Keith’s dish into his own hat. Ramsey takes a bite and scalds his mouth. Needless to say, Keith has not won him over.
Next up is Rachel. She’s 39 and a personal chef, and declares she’s “proud to be a redneck.” Her dish is butterfly shrimp in chocolate sauce, the idea of which makes Ramsey groan in horror. He remarks the shrimp is cooked well but the sauce was just too weird.
The next victim is Holly, a 43-year old caterer. Her dish includes “undone” focaccia bread. Which, she clarifies for an incredulous Ramsey, means half-baked focaccia. It’s unclear if this is a mistake or a gimmick (and if it is a gimmick… um, why?), but that’s unimportant to Ramsey who states he’d rather eat poodle poop than that.
Larry, the 38-year old fishmonger, steps up to be judged. He looks mildly stunned, like he’s been recently clubbed in the head, but gamely says in interview that because he’s “short” he’s used to being underestimated. The potatoes in his crab cakes are not cooked, says Ramsey, and Larry’s dismissed.
It gets worse. Ramsey actually spits out the “baby vomit” soup that Maribel, a 31-year old catering chef, created, and the shrimp cooked by Tom, a 43-year old former stockbroker. Tom gets double humiliation, as Ramsey also removes the cooked Caesar salad garnish from the shrimp and deposits it into Tom’s hands. There is a trash can right by Ramsey, not so by Tom, so he is forced to retreat still holding his soggy greens.
The first bright spot arrives with Heather, a 25-year old sous chef. Her chocolate-raspberry empanadas have a tough outside, Ramsey says, but otherwise are the best thing he’s eaten so far.
Ramsey is tiring of trying the sub-par food, so he enlists Gabe, the 27-year old marketing executive, to take the first taste of Garrett’s food. (The idea of having a taster might also have occurred to Ramsey as Garrett happens to be a former inmate and prison cook.) Gabe says the pasta is overcooked – which ticks off Garrett. But Ramsey then says Gabe’s fish is undercooked, so it all evens out.
Ramsey then brings up Sara, a 31-year old deli manager, and Fabrizio Moretti, the drummer for The Strokes and Drew Barrymore’s boyfriend. OK, it’s not REALLY Fabrizio, his name is Giacomo, and he’s a pizza cook of unknown age (at least that’s what it says on the Fox website) who just happens to have nearly the same shaggy hipster hairdo of The Strokes’ drummer.
Sara tries Giacomo’s Frutti di Mare dish and declares it good. Ramsey warily tries it and agrees. Sara herself is not so lucky – Ramsey says her pasta is “mush.”
The last victim is Virginia, a 25-year old salad chef. Some interview footage of Virginia shows her talking about how she likes to wear make-up to the kitchen. It’s fine if she wants to do this, but the fact that she a) talked about it proudly on camera and b) allowed herself to be filmed while applying said make-up (Ramsey groaned earlier when he came across the still of this footage) makes it fairly certain that she will be the pretty fluffy lamb led to slaughter at some point during the show.
For now, though, she’s just batted around a bit. Ramsey calls her salad “rabbit food” and points out that the only cooked item that made it on dish (after 30 minutes of prep time) was toasted almonds.
So all in all: Ramsey is not impressed thus far. He tells the twelve that they will separate into two teams – men vs. women – and will work under his sous chefs Scott and Mary Ann. They will have 24 hours to prep before the restaurant opens.
The teams are shown their living quarters, which are part of the overall Hell’s Kitchen structure, and then are back in the kitchen to work.
The women work together, and due to their teamwork, are able to finish up early enough to get some sleep. The men stick it out as individuals, and wind up working up until the last minute. They get about 45 minutes of sleep and are struggling the next day when both teams assemble in front of Ramsey for a “pep talk.”
He informs them that at the end of the service, one of them will be going home. He also asks for one volunteer from each team. Several women’s hands shoot up, but on the men’s side, only Giacomo’s hand raises tentatively. Ramsey calls attention to the disparity of reaction, then selects Heather and Giacomo to be the respective “donkeys” (cleaners) for their kitchens. In interview, Heather is excited to be able to help while Giacomo says if he’d known what they were being selected for, he never would have volunteered.
The teams head off to their kitchen to ready for the opening. In one of those images that could make the most hard-core foodie swear off a restaurant, Tom has sweat dripping off his nose as he leans over a huge bowl of tomatoes. Ramsey calls him out, tells him to scrap all that food and start over. I feel a little sick just remembering this.
Opening time: The “patrons” enter the “restaurant.” This sentence can also be read as “The day players enter the set” as these are clearly actor-types assembled for this event. I realize Fox is trying to amp up the drama by at least creating the casual impression that these could be real customers, but it’s really unnecessary. And in the future, if they really do want to do this, I would recommend that they mix up the body types, ages, and attractiveness level of the crowd a bit more. The crowd this evening had a near-uniform soap-opera minor hottie look.
The teams get their first order, and Polly and Tom, who have been assigned to appetizers, are off and running. The women continue to work as a team, and so Polly’s risotto is ready to go out first. Unfortunately, it doesn’t pass Ramsey’s muster, so it’s scrapped and she has to start over.
Tom finally gets his starter together, but Ramsey finds it raw, so he starts over again too.
The guys’ team, also known as the Blue Team, eventually get a starter out and can get moving on entrees. The women, aka the Red Team, continue to struggle, with Polly unable to get out a decent risotto. After over an hour and four attempts, Ramsey finally makes her switch out with Heather, the sous chef who has been on cleaning duty. Heather is already showing some strength as a calm and knowledgeable chef, so she is able to pull out an acceptable risotto within minutes. Ramsey gives it the thumbs up to send out to the table, and Sara gives a cheer. Heather tries to shut her up, but it’s too late. Ramsey is infuriated, pointing out that there is nothing to celebrate in their performance.
Everything disintegrates from this point forward. The guys were able to send out some entrees, but they start to fall apart. Virginia, the salad chef in real life, is completely lost when it comes to cooking the meat entrees and the women don’t even get out one entrée. After the “customers” start getting rowdy waiting for their meals, Ramsey shuts down the restaurant.
He assembles the two teams, and says while neither team could be considered a winner, the women’s team is the worst of the two as they weren’t able to get out a single entrée. He also criticizes them again for Sara’s cheering. Heather, he says, was one bright spot of the evening, so he calls her the “Best of the Worst” and tells her to go back to the house and pick two women for elimination.
Back at the house, she discusses it with her team members. There is footage of her discussing the elimination with Virginia, and the footage makes it look like Heather is saying she’s going to nominate Maribel. However, it seems highly unlikely that Heather would single her out with the truly poor performances by Polly and Virginia, plus the cheerleading outburst by Sara. Maribel was completely under the radar, so I think this was an out-of-context comment made by Heather to Virginia that the editors selected to create a seed of impending betrayal.
As I expected, once the team assembles again in front of Ramsey, Heather selects Polly and Virginia for possible elimination. Ramsey thinks they both should go, but is only selecting one, and so he sends Polly home, saying she couldn’t even get out of the starting block..