by Karl J. Paloucek
There’s no denying that Gordon Ramsay is both a spectacular chef and an equally engaging showman. His dedication to both causes almost got him a bullet and a fiery experience of immolation when he and a film crew went after a shark fin operation in Costa Rica and he found himself doused with gasoline. But the only time we’ve seen him really explode is on his various series, from Hell’s Kitchen and Masterchef to his restaurant-salvage show, Kitchen Nightmares, which has its new season premiere tonight on FOX.
Famed for his temper and his mouth, for good or bad, Ramsay has set himself up as a polarizing figure in the world of food television — you love him or you hate him. And he’s one of the principal luminaries of the current food revolution that television has helped to foster. But I couldn’t help wonder what the food establishment might be thinking about Ramsay’s series and how the art of food is being portrayed in the popular culture. So in addition to hearing from Ramsay himself, I called up Andi Sciacca, Director, Center for Excellence in Teaching & Learning at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, to ask her opinion of the food trend, of Chef Ramsay’s television work and what impact she has seen on the students walking through the door at the CIA.
“I’ve been here long enough to see a continuum,” Sciacca says. “Every time they release a new Bourdain book, there’s sort of a spike in interest and applicants. Every time there’s a big moment, whether it’s on TV with the advent of a new show, or some local hometown hero gets on Top Chef — same kind of thing.”
Without downplaying anyone’s romantic notion of aspiring to a creative life in the culinary industry, Sciacca explains that the stimulation of the populace via competition shows like Ramsay’s does bring a percentage of applications from people who might not be the best fit for what the chef’s life entails. “Post-Top Gun, the Air Force saw this huge increase in applicants,” she continues, “but the applicants didn’t realize that Top Gun is a Navy program. So you’ve got that sort of segment of the population that says, ‘Yeah, I want my own show,’ or ‘I want to travel all over the place and eat unwashed boar rectum,’ or whatever — that’s not the life of the typical graduate.”
That might sound obvious, but it’s probably not unlikely that at least some would-be applicants reading this might be crestfallen just now. It’s far from the only contrast to the world people see portrayed on Hell’s Kitchen or other Ramsay-branded shows full of rage and fireworks. “What you’ll never hear — and this is the big difference between the reality show and a true culinary environment,” Sciacca offers, “on television, you’ve got somebody getting back into Chef Ramsay’s face, or behaving discourteously and disrespectfully to their fellow cooks. What actually happens here is that our Chef Educators say, ‘You need to do it again.’ ‘This is underseasoned.’ ‘This is overseasoned.’ ‘What did you do here?’ The question is in part, ‘Do you know how to fix it, student?’ And the focus is on how to correct this process. And even if the student might disagree with the critique, the response will always be, ‘Yes, Chef.’ And that’s unilateral. In an educational environment, or a professional environment, it’s about humility, not humiliation. There’s a huge difference between the two. At The Culinary Institute of America, it’s a very deferential environment. Even amongst faculty, there is a great deal of respect. The professionalism and respect due to one another leads everything. In the outside world, plates may be thrown, insults may be hurled — even Chef Ramsay has written about this in his own apprenticeship memoirs, but anyone who has ever worked in a kitchen can tell you that in the real world, when you’re facing cover after cover, there’s not time for the argument or the sabotage. In a real kitchen, you don’t yell at your boss and you don’t throw your fellow cooks under the bus.”
But What Does Ramsay Have To Say For Himself?
In a recent discussion, Ramsay got into it about one of the most frequent charges against him, and against many of the contestants on his shows (as well as the guest judges, and well, probably almost everybody who appears in a kitchen on one of his shows) — that there’s just too much ego flying around.
“Unfortunately the egos sort of get spiraled out of control,” Ramsay admits. “I suppose … I like to have a little confidence in a chef. But I also like to have a level of — you know, a control element. That they have inner strength.
“It’s the vision, for me, that I look more for than anything,” he clarifies. “It’s that something that they can’t really expose — I need to pull it out of them. So the ego — you can’t get carried away with stars and stripes and ZAGAT guides, and ratings. It’s what you put on a plate, and that — every day — should resemble you.”
And of course, he’s keenly aware of the link between ego and having the necessary confidence to pulling off the most amazing dish possible. It’s as intuitive as it would be in any rock star. “It’s fascinating. I don’t see many pressures out there that build such an arrogance, to a certain extent because they’re telling themselves the dish is good.”
Even as Ramsay may be skewering one of his contestants, there still is that nurturing side to the chef that wants all of them to succeed — because he knows how good it can be when a kitchen works well together. “Whilst I want them to shine as individuals, shining as a team and a great leader is far more important than being egotistical and telling the group straight out that they’re better than anyone,” he says. “I like that kind of inner calm mixed with vision, and individuals that can, I suppose, motivate a team. … Head down. Let the food do the talking.”
Photo: ©2011 Fox Broadcasting Co. CR: Miranda Penn Turin/FOX