Chefs Under Fire

Photo by R. Sebree/FoxReality shows whose purpose is to anoint a new star in some profession — modeling, fashion design, kissing the ass of a cartoony real estate mogul — inevitably must decide if they care more about showcasing competitive squabbling or creativity. Fox’s Hell’s Kitchen, which started last week with 12 culinary wannabes under the drill-sergeant tutelage of acclaimed, Michelin-starred English chef Gordon Ramsay and will end with one lucky owner of his/her own restaurant, has unfortunately succumbed to obvious dramatics. Thankfully it’s no The Restaurant, NBC’s flavorless entrée of two years ago — all garnish, no meat — about star chef Rocco DiSpirito opening his place in New York. Only when real-life head-butting broke out in Season 2 between Rocco and his financier did things sizzle, but there was still something weird about a food-themed show that hardly told you anything about food. At least in this week’s Hell’s Kitchen challenge we learned something about squid gutting and cleaning with the help of a forearm-size zucchini, impractical as that may be for most of us. But the prevailing lesson taught on this Apprentice knockoff is what being in Ramsay’s notoriously profane line of fire is like, whether as an underperforming cook or a complaining patron. The show is not without its Simon Cowell–ish charms — and by that I mean Cowell’s tendency to be right, not just mean — especially in the first episode, when the unsuspecting contestants served up their signature dishes to Ramsay, who subsequently spat out most of them, telling one’s creator he had “the palate of a cow’s backside.” As dismissive as he was, you imagined a fast-paced series that would be informative from Ramsay’s point of view and curious about the individual styles of the participants. I was thinking of Bravo’s excellent Project Runway, which celebrated the design talents of its fabric-minded aspirants and took us inside their heads — how they thought aesthetically — yet didn’t skimp on the infighting. But right away Hell’s Kitchen sacrificed its chance to be different and went straight for the humiliation jugular — easy TV theatrics, that is — by thrusting its hopeless amateurs into a working kitchen cooking for expectant diners in a restaurant here in Hollywood designed for the show. Not so surprisingly, they fail quickly and miserably, Ramsay dishes out more deflating expletives, and a viewership thirsty for blood is satisfied. But what about a hunger for knowledge about how kitchens really operate, how food preparation under pressure actually works? Risotto sounds like it’s tough to get right — Ramsay certainly does enough yelling over botched bowls of it — but why not tell us what’s difficult about it? And for all Ramsay’s cries for long-delayed beef Wellington entrées, how about getting in what exactly this iconic Brit dish is? (It’s roast beef inside a puff pastry, by the way.) I’m not saying Hell’s Kitchen needs to resemble some warmed-over Food Network recipe-fest — with squid gutting, at least it satisfies the reality-show gross-out quotient — but even the hopped-up gimmickry of Iron Chef leaves room for myriad explanations of what its under-the-gun food artists are actually doing with their ingredients. You can’t blame Ramsay; he’s essentially a foulmouthed tool for Fox as it searches for another I-can’t-believe-he-said-that hit. But Ramsay’s punishing extremes actually serve him well on his U.K. show, Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, in which the Glasgow-born chef spends a week at variously troubled restaurants in England in an effort to whip them into shape. In one episode, when he lays into an in-over-his-head 21-year-old chef with delusions of fine-dining excellence who serves Ramsay rancid scallops and can’t keep his kitchen clean, the take-no-prisoners attitude feels justified, necessary. As a friend of mine who used to cook in a top-drawer restaurant put it, he’s doing a public service on Nightmares, which is being rerun on BBC America. But so far on Hell’s Kitchen, Ramsay is little more than a white-jacketed white tornado of a game-show host. HELL’S KITCHEN | Fox | Mondays, 9 p.m. DVD Good Marriages Make Good Neighbors The concept of turning a middle-class 9-to-5 husband and a stay-at-home consumerist wife into working models of the agrarian lifestyle — tending livestock, harvesting, waste recycling — sounds like a reality show. (Add a berating farmer guide if you’re Fox.) We’ve even seen PBS mine this idea a bit with its edutainment-style Survivor cousin Frontier House. But in the mid-’70s, before reality TV began regularly usurping high-concept drama from scripted programming, a delightful British sitcom called The Good Life actually did explore the ins and outs of a married couple exiting the rat race with barely concealed disgust and venturing to live off the fat of the land: in this case, whatever the front and back yard of their suburban house can yield. BBC Video has now released a DVD of the complete run of this 1975–78 series, which aired in America as Good Neighbors, and it’s worth a look if you never caught it on PBS. Richard Briers played Tom Good, a bored draftsman for a boring plastic-toy company who decides at 40 to reconnect with long-dormant youthful ideals and reinvent himself as a paragon of self-sufficiency. With wife Barbara (Felicity Kendal) as an enthusiastic partner, the pair begin keeping chickens, pigs and a goat, bartering for goods and services, growing their own food and turning animal dung into electricity, all to the initial horror of their next-door chums Jerry and Margo Leadbetter — played to haughty perfection by future Britcom staples Paul Eddington and Penelope Keith — who cherish their own corporate-salaried existence of afternoon cocktails, rotary clubs and safari vacations. Writers John Esmonde and Bob Larbey obviously got a lot of Green Acres–ish humor out of this commune-in-the-community construct, but there’s a brain-tingling whiff of sharp, even angry class-conscious wit in the air with all the pig-shit jokes and domestic-strife laughs. It implies refreshingly that ambition can be a movement outward and inward, not necessarily upward. Perhaps most lasting, though, is the show’s portrait of a casually strong marriage of equals. Wedded bliss is rare in sitcoms, which usually portray husbands and wives as little more than antagonists with an arms depot of withering one-liners at the ready. But the Goods are presented as smiling soul mates in the trenches of their grand experiment: their intercouple needling is funny and constructive, their playfulness is infectious, and they actually seem to enjoy having sex with each other. (No, it’s not shown, just implied.) But most important, they are a team, and I’ve always seen the show’s self-sufficiency scenario as ultimately a muddy, exhausting, exhilarating metaphor for successful matrimony, the workplace comedy as family comedy, and vice versa. THE GOOD LIFE | BBC Video

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