Teaching cooking, teaching science…lessons to learn


Classes start up again in a few weeks, but I thought I’d take some time to get inspired by a master teacher, watching Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares.

That’s sarcasm, by the way. I think Ramsay has real talent as a skilled chef who knows what he’s doing, but he’s a terrible teacher. His show is an excuse to put him in situations with low-talent chefs, where he can explode entertainingly and then reshape the restaurant with his genuine expertise…but really, the entertainment value comes from the raging meltdowns. The effective teaching moments come from the occasional moments of empathy where he explains with real sincerity to the bad cooks what they must do to get back on track. It’s actually a series of demonstrations of how not to teach, interspersed with rare moments when a little light shines through and you see what really works.

It reminded me of science in a lot of ways. We have the same problems. Ramsay sometimes fondly recollects his training, when he had to work 7 days a week for long hours and got yelled at by demanding masters; I knew labs like that, but was fortunate to have had mentors who were much more understanding and treated their students like human beings. After seeing him in action a few times, I just want to tell Ramsay that he was abused by people seeking to build their reputations and their income, and that he is now perpetuating that abuse, while pretending that it is necessary to be abused to become a great chef. It shouldn’t be. It’s obvious that being a line cook is intense, hard work that requires discipline and focus, but screaming and throwing food at the wall and calling the cook making the mistake a donut doesn’t help. It’s counterproductive, even if it does make for flashy reality TV.

Both science and cooking excel when the people doing it love their work, have a passion for their subject, and are creative. They both also require discipline and focus. Glorifying grueling expectations and taskmasters who torment their lackeys is a poor way to instill discipline, and is antithetical to that passionate embrace of the work.

Yet after watching him work for a while, I still kind of like Gordon Ramsay, but only for those moments where he lets the mask slip and reveals that he likes at least some of the people he’s yelling at, and has these brief moments of heart-to-heart communication. That’s where the real teaching gets done.

Comments

  1. Miserable Git Says says

    Ignore the bollocks of the US version of Gordon Ramsey’s shows, they are all about his ability to swear and cause drama. If you can find some of his original BBC programs you will see a completely different character. One who develops the chefs he is working with, they are very good studies in leadership. The US junk programs reinforce the lazy atteitude that bosses know best and workers are mindless plebs who deserve all the crap their bosses give them.
    Ramsey is now sadly an unfunny charature of his origininal intense self.

  2. says

    I’ve never watched him (or any other cooking show for that matter) for the same reason you bring up. Treating people badly shouldn’t be considered entertainment.

  3. Lark says

    You should see him when he teaches children; totally different person. Abuse is still abuse, though, but at this point, the adults going onto his show also should know what they are getting into. I feel like its getting into a rollercoaster and then getting upset at the motion sickness.

  4. says

    I’ve also learned that there’s no way I’d ever want to go into the restaurant business. One of the reasons for the grueling labor is that success is so rare.

  5. stroppy says

    One of my first jobs was kitchen help in a restaurant. It was an eye opener. Intense.

    Recommend “Down and out in Paris and London” by George Orwell

  6. Kaintukee Bob says

    Kitchen Nightmares doesn’t just feature bad chefs (though, yes, the chefs being bad is a common theme) it has also featured resturaunts where the problems were management, ingredients, competition, etc.

    But yeah, Ramsey is pretty savage with chefs who are bad at their jobs…usually because this involves serious problems with food safety. When Ramsey is faced with a chef who hasn’t been to culinary school, who has been hampered by his managers or the owners, or who has just given up because the problems seem insurmountable, he’s incredibly empathetic and teaches. But when he deals with chefs who just don’t care and who should know better, he tears them a new one.

  7. microraptor says

    I really hate the number of “reality” shows that are just focused on how much abuse someone can scream and how unprofessional they can behave while on camera.

    Like that idiotic Axe Men show that was on History Channel- I worked with a former logger about the time it came on the air and he said that he’d have fired the entire crew for their on-camera antics.

  8. M Smith says

    His daughter has a cooking show that my daughter enjoys, and he occasionally shows up, and he seems genuinely lovely in that, so I believe he hams it up for US TV.

    I think the view of chefs at his level has morphed over the years, such that they now advocate more of what you are suggesting, and less of the shouty-screamy-I’m-the-master style of leadership.

    I think that comes through in the British Masterchef-style shows; you see people entering kitchens and being taught and they are rarely in the mold that Ramsey caricatures. Often it gets intense and and tough, but as you say, it’s that kind of environment; as a whole the strong mentoring abilities and the positivity of the chefs comes through.

  9. says

    I’ve also learned that there’s no way I’d ever want to go into the restaurant business. One of the reasons for the grueling labor is that success is so rare.

    I remind myself to be kind to wait staff, because they may be dealing with a backed-up kitchen, or some god-chef who has no business trying to lead an entertainment troupe.

  10. kome says

    I’m generally kind of over the jerkass star-of-the-show genre. Especially the reality TV sub-genre of it. It’s still mildly tolerable on a purely fictional show like House or Archer, where it’s easy to dissociate how they act in a fictional world from how regular people do act in the real world. But, given that Ramsey is dealing with real chefs and real restaurants, and Simon Cowell is dealing with real people who have dreams and aspirations, and so on, it’s… just off putting. It’s modeling such horrendous behavior. I have witnessed and experienced, far too often, enough people acting in that same kind of egotistical and abusive way to others so much so that it does push otherwise calm and quiet people into outrageous outbursts because they just can’t take being poked anymore. The Ramsey we see dealing with children is an actual adult. The Ramsey who deals with adults is a horrible person throwing a perpetual temper tantrum who shouldn’t be allowed to watch TV, much less star on it.

  11. says

    There’s an article out there by a woman who competed on Ramsay’s show; it’s devastating. It’s a pretty good indictment of reality tv in general, but it hammers a stake through the idea that Ramsay cares about cooking; he’s just about the benjamins.

  12. mamba says

    One of my favourite episodes was “Amy’s Baking Company” for exactly the reasons you described.

    The owner was a woman who was always right, everyone else was wrong, and she was objectively bad. She openly said brought in Gordon to validate her correctness…in her words once Gordon sees that she’s right in every decision she makes, then when she yells at the customers, she’d have a professional opinion backing her.

    No spoilers here, she was not validated. BUT every single time Gordon would attempt to explain something to her, in ANY tone, she’d cut him off, start complaining about lack of understandings, and storm off in a huff mid-sentence. Every. Single.Time. He was at first angrily telling her things, then softly telling her things, then practically pleading for her to listen…no change.

    At the end of the show he tried one final time. she started to interrupt again and he just threw up his hands and said something like “I can’t help those who don’t want to be helped. You’re doomed to fail, but good luck anyway” and walked out the door…

    You felt like he truly did want to help her, but just couldn’t get past her personality to reach her. It was that show where the mask of “abrasive asshole” slipped and you say he was practically pleading with her to just listen for a moment to what he had to say for her own good. He really did care, and he really did want to teach her, she just made it impossible.

  13. stroppy says

    If I’m not mistaken, Ramsey’s culinary beginnings were in the military–he has that drill sergeant vibe. Anyway when he first came on the air, I used to like to pretend that he was yelling at Republicans. It was cathartic. It became boring soon enough, though.

    I try to steer away from simple carbs, salt, and saturated fats as much as possible not to mention reality shows, but I do get a kick out of the Great British and American Baking Shows.

  14. Muz says

    I second Miserable Git’s comment. The original UK version of Kitchen Nightmares is very down to earth and interesting. Ramsey has a lot of cod motivational and sports psychology under his belt, but his conflicts and general stern-ness are fairly low key compared to most of his other TV efforts and he comes across as very earnestly trying to help people.

    The US version has been transformed by the Reality TV formula into emphasising conflict and mockery, a lot of zippy edits, horrid dramatic library music and pretty rigid structure. (looking behind the scenes of a lot of these places is still pretty fascinating though)

  15. Jackson says

    Reality shows aren’t real. They are highly produced TV dramas. Samuel L. Jackson should not be thrown in jail for all those people he killed in pulp fiction, because he was an actor in a movie and none of it was real. Just like Gordon Ramsay on Kitchen Nightmares.

  16. says

    I second the suggestion to go back to his old British series, on Channel 4 (not BBC). They’re fascinating little documentary shows (he uses that word) about what works and doesn’t in restaurants and you learn a lot about the restaurant business. He always comes off as sympathetic and knowledgable and clearly has done every job in a restaurant from diswashing and bussing tables all the way up.

    The American shows are a lot more middling and they degenerated over the course of the run into Maury Povich. The problem is always some kind of broken relationship between the owners, who are often family, and he sits them down and forces a phony reconciliation. And then there’s Hell’s Kitchen where he just sears at people all day because Murkins like shouty bosses.

  17. says

    I loved the Amy’s Baking Company episode because she’s clearly just an asshole, it also helps she’s a proto-Trumper Christian woo dingbat and she deserved every bit of mockery she got.

    It got a little excessive though when the show went back to her restaurant FOR AN ENTIRE EPISODE (the season premiere!) just to drag and humiliate her as she slowly went bankrupt. Gordon Ramsay effectively Cancelled Amy, except he did it on national network TV and not Twitter.

  18. square101 says

    He came and did a show at the dive-y college bar in my home town. Not sure how it will turn out, the old menu was very focused on dive-y dishes and also very cheap. The new menu is much smaller and slightly more expensive but I tried it with my family over thanksgiving vacation and the pizza’s are really good now imho. I’m not sure how they will go over with the rest of the town as they are also “fancier” and that’s not what people usually go there for, but I thought they did a good job revamping the menu at least.

  19. Mark says

    Ramsay, the monstrous hypocrite, is a supporter of Brexit. Ramsay got his start by training in kitchens throughout Europe, a right he had under the European Union’s freedom of movement. Now, he wants to deny Europeans the right to move to and work in the UK. He got his slice of the pie, damn everyone else?

  20. kingoftown says

    @16 Jackson
    The show may be formulaic garbage, but it is “real” in the sense that Gordon Ramsey is bullying actual failing restaurant owners. He also gives them false hope, the vast majority go under within a few years of the show.

    This is a great parody:

  21. says

    Reinforcing above, the BBC version of Kitchen Nightmares was MUCH better than than the sideshow that airs in the US.

    If you want to see an amazing spoof of KN, watch the “Live and Let Dine” episode of Archer, featuring Anthony Bourdain playing the titular “Bastard Chef”. His performance there made me like him even more.

  22. woodsong says

    Seconding Cervantes recommendation for Robert Irvine’s Restaurant Impossible. I much prefer that show to Kitchen Nightmares. Irvine comes across as much gentler in his approach to teaching than Ramsey.

  23. nomdeplume says

    Abusing people never teaches them anything, at best it forces them into a sullen obedience, obeying orders, any orders, to avoid more verbal punishment. Now, I wonder why armies everywhere use the drill sergeant abusive approach to new recruits…

  24. says

    My wife, who worked as a second chef for many years, always knew it was time to leave when the head chef started throwing knives. Then there were the restaurants that mysteriously burned down when the first flush of success wore off. Dangerous game, chefing.

  25. cartomancer says

    I think there is another aspect to the Gordon Ramsay phenomenon which has not yet been mentioned here – the way the US series perpetuates a commonplace US stereotype about English people. To wit, that we are self-important, heartless killjoys who love criticizing others but tend to be highly competent. There are lots of examples of this character being played by an English person on US television. Simon Cowell is an obvious one. Nigel Lythgoe another. Anne Robinson’s Weakest Link showcased a female version. Even John Oliver and James Corden have something of the character about them, as does the fictional character of Gregory House, who was not coincidentally played by an English actor.

    I’m not sure where this idea of the mean-spirited, combative English expert comes from in your culture. Perhaps we are simply non-American, and thus a convenient canvas onto which you can project traits you don’t think germane to your national character but want to enjoy seeing anyway. Perhaps it’s a hangover from our imperial past, influenced by your lingering sense that we’re the overbearing imperial power you broke away from. Or perhaps our culture is genuinely more open to criticism, negativity and judgmental attitudes than yours, and you exaggerate it.

  26. hemidactylus says

    One reality show that involves cuisine and cooking that I find interesting in a rubberneck way is Running Wild with Bear Grylls. He’s usually empathetic. Yet this jackass has people climb up or rappel down shit or drink their own urine. Yeah that happened.

    https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/tv-and-radio/michelle-rodriguezs-urine-breaks-bear-grylls-20150813-giy079.html

    So yeah tell me how hardcore Ramsay and his guests are. Grylls doesn’t berate his victims, but they are usually doing scarier shit than impressing the chef. Granted Ramsay doesn’t cook stuff marinated in pee or put guests through real life and death challenges. I’d rather have Ramsay yell at me than test my fear of heights or contemplate eating rotting animals found next to a log. Most Ramsay dishes start and turn out better than that.

  27. hemidactylus says

    @28- cartomancer
    Ant Anstead on Wheeler Dealers is a Brit that is fun to watch because his acumen. And Goblin Works with Jimmy de Ville, Ant Partridge and Helen Stanley seems to portray Brits in a very non-threatening way. Both shows show a Brit penchant for cars most ‘Merkins would have little interest in restoring or tweaking like Saabs or Beemers. And the folks involved aren’t assholes. They are relaxed and cool.

  28. says

    @cartomancer Don’t forget every Imperial Officer, and most of the characters Lawrence Olivier and Richard Burton played…

  29. magistramarla says

    I will never understand how my husband could excel at mixing up chemicals according to a recipe for his chemistry degree, but is totally helpless in the kitchen.

  30. jo1storm says

    US version of the show does manipulative editing to increase “drama”. Including removing “quiet” scenes, changing the order of the scenes or just putting music and camera cuts any time Gordon even looks like he will NOT BE SHOUTING NOW, OMG, WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO, SHOUTING BRINGS RATINGS! …

    See this UK episode for an example what it should really look like: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oe1X0Biz2QI

    Also, the US version cuts a lot of well meaning banter or changes the context so the well meaning banter looks like Ramsey is seriously ripping somebody a new one. For example, in this video he says “How about thank you, you miserly bitch” to a restaurant owner. Sounds horrible when you read it, right? But he only said it because she didn’t write him a kitchen order (she was “stingy” with kitchen orders and he still gave her a meal without one, which is against restaurant policy the restaurant owner wrote herself. “No written order, no meal. ” is one of the basic kitchen procedures designed to cut on misunderstandings and waste). The US version would cut that context:

    Ramsey is abrasive person. But there is also a lot of British humor which does not get translated well.

    ” Now fuck off, you wanker, and let us do our job.” can be said in a loving and caring way between friends (as weird as that sounds), and in British version of the show that nuance can be seen. In US version, not so much.

  31. jo1storm says

    US version of the show does manipulative editing to increase “drama”. Including removing “quiet” scenes, changing the order of the scenes or just putting music and camera cuts any time Gordon even looks like he will NOT BE SHOUTING NOW, OMG, WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO, SHOUTING BRINGS RATINGS! …

    See this UK episode for an example what it should really look like: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oe1X0Biz2QI

    Also, the US version cuts a lot of well meaning banter or changes the context so the well meaning banter looks like Ramsey is seriously ripping somebody a new one. For example, in this video he says “How about thank you, you miserly bitch” to a restaurant owner. Sounds horrible when you read it, right? But he only said it because she didn’t write him a kitchen order (she was “stingy” with kitchen orders and he still gave her a meal without one, which is against restaurant policy the restaurant owner wrote herself. “No written order, no meal. ” is one of the basic kitchen procedures designed to cut on misunderstandings and waste). The US version would cut that context:

    Ramsey is somewhat abrasive person, prone to cursing. But there is also a lot of British humor which does not get translated well.

    ” Now fuck off, you wanker, and let us do our job.” can be said in a loving and caring way between friends (as weird as that sounds), and in British version of the show that nuance can be seen. In US version, not so much.

  32. lucifersbike says

    Cartomancer. I am truly gobsmacked to learn that the Americans think we Brits are competent at anything. Our European neighbours think we have compleletly lost the plot.

  33. stroppy says

    It’s like the old Britbox advert, “For some reason you Americans seem to find our accents absolutely hilarious.”

    True, and British accents can also seem intimidatingly educated. But some of us really love the fact that you’re a nation of wacky Basil Fawlty’s. It’s complicated.

    Maybe it’s because you’re our cultural ancestors, our parents so to speak, that we find your foibles so endlessly fascinating.

  34. hemidactylus says

    I get a sense of social stratification by accent over there. I had seen a few House episodes and the formula of ‘let’s almost kill a patient until we figure out the malady’ got old fast. I never heard Laurie speak his native tongue. But I started binging MI-5: aka Spooks and was floored when he played an MI:6 meaniehead with upper crust vocalizations. But then this:

    https://youtu.be/Whl7QMTlHm8

    🤣🤣

  35. stroppy says

    I loved Laurie in Wooster and Jeeves back when it played on Masterpiece Theater (the Alistair Cooke years). But then I’m a Wodehouse fan to begin with. I was horrified when I first saw him in House. Cognitive dissonance.

  36. Dunc says

    stroppy, @ #34

    True, and British accents can also seem intimidatingly educated. But some of us really love the fact that you’re a nation of wacky Basil Fawlty’s. It’s complicated.

    It’s particularly hilarious for us because you often seem to struggle to distinguish various different British accents from each other, with the result that an accent can seem “intimidatingly educated” to you, whilst sounding “thoroughly pig-ignorant” to us. Imagine somebody mistaking Cletus the Slack-jawed Yokel for a man of great erudition and refinement and you’ll have the idea.

    And don’t get me started on your notorious inability to tell Scots and Irish accents apart…

    cartomancer, @ # 28

    I think there is another aspect to the Gordon Ramsay phenomenon which has not yet been mentioned here – the way the US series perpetuates a commonplace US stereotype about English people. To wit, that we are self-important, heartless killjoys who love criticizing others but tend to be highly competent.

    Whereas we Scots think you’re a nation of self-important, heartless killjoys who love criticizing others but tend to be completely useless… ;)

  37. brightmoon says

    I refuse to watch those shows . I disliked Trump since before he became a reality show host and thought he was just a cruel selfish jerk then. ( nice to know he’s actually gotten worse) So I wasn’t going to watch any others mistreat and demean people.

  38. brightmoon says

    Magistamarla. That’s funny ! I blessed my old fashioned southern grandmother every day I was in those chemistry labs because the cooking skills I learned from her were so similar to lab techniques I was learning

  39. M Smith says

    Probably clips on Youtube, but on the “cooking as science” thing there was a cool BBC program a few years ago with chef Marcus Wareing and Materials Scientist Mark Miodownik trying to make Michelin-style food using their own experience

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0752bbd

    The Mashed Potatoes episode was staggering…

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