Goodbye, My Nightmares…

I guess it started a couple of months ago. A couple in Arizona made headlines across the world for being the first restaurant owners in the multi-year history of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares who he refused to help after they verbally attacked their own customers, were in complete denial about the quality of their food, and fired a waitress for asking a question “with attitude.” After the show aired, the pair then took to Facebook and Yelp and attacked their patrons and reviewers, openly threatening all sorts of nasty things before claiming that all of their accounts were hacked, filing a police report to “report the hacking” (later claiming that the FBI was involved, though the FBI had no comment in every follow up news article), and began soliciting offers for their own reality TV show.

Do you remember these people? I wish you didn’t, because I won’t even say more than the restaurant’s initials, “ABC,” since I don’t want to give these people more publicity. As presented, they were horrible and loud. The story presented on the show was that the much younger wife ran the kitchen and bakery and was in total denial about everything from the quality and freshness of her food to the fact that the cakes she was “famous” for were actually bought at a supplier off-site. Her allegedly mafia-connected husband ran the front of the restaurant, bumbling over orders and refusing to tell his wife when plates were returned and instead, attacking the patrons for “not knowing what food tastes like” and throwing them out of his restaurant.

It was so bizarre, it was so compelling, that I was immediately addicted to the show and had to see how much of it was “real.”

Reality TV is something of an enigma these days. Much like Professional Wrestling, it’s “real” in the fact that there are real people in front of you taking risks and getting hurt when things go wrong. In the category of Reality TV, Survivor is about as famously “real” as it gets since it’s harder to fake the impact to the bodies of contestants who are starving themselves for 39 days. It is still notorious for it’s post-production editing to make characters and events that may not-quite-have-happened-that-way and blatant use of body doubles for retakes of scenes they didn’t get or establishing shots. Even Big Brother, which features a multi-camera live feed that anyone can see on the internet (for a price), has alleged tampering in the private “diary room” sessions which are not open to public viewing. Quite a number of former contestants have admitted that producers openly manipulate them in the sessions, suggesting how to vote and planting ideas that may develop into story-lines depending on what they do with the information.

Other shows, apparently just don’t care. They script sessions. They have retakes. They edit out of order. Just go to Reality Blurred or Radar Online to see the daily stories of alleged Reality TV tampering. It is apparent that like with any TV show, those in the Reality TV Genre are all about what the producers want to put on to tell a story. Much like Professional Wrestling, it’s only as real as what you want to believe.

Which brings us back to the folks at ABC. They were so awful and their actions as soon as the show was over were so bizarre that it peaked my interest. I’ve never been a fan of the obnoxious chef known as Gordon Ramsay, but I wanted to know more about the show and if it and see how much of it was “real.” So I put both Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares (the BBC version of the show) and Kitchen Nightmares (the FOX continuation of the BBC series) on my TIVO for later viewing.

First thing I noticed? There were a lot of them. BBC America runs about 20 to 30 episodes of the show a week. That includes repackaged versions of Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares that have been edited to include him going back to the restaurants to see if they’ve followed his advice. Second thing I noticed? After the first couple of episodes, I wasn’t eating as much. The things I saw people do with food were so disgusting that they made the articles of the guy licking the Taco Bell shells or the girls taking baths in the sink at their KFC  look tame in comparison. I examined my own kitchen and frankly, while Chef Ramsay’s tips renewed my interest in cooking, it also got me to think long and hard about what goes in my fridge and how long it stays there. Let alone made me completely paranoid about the quality of food being served when I go out.

Here’s the basic setup of each show:

First segment: We’re given the background of the restaurant and why they’re failing. The British version is pretty straight forward in telling the facts. The American version likes to establish a story and some drama in this segment with feuding owners or story-lines clearly established.

Second segment: Gordon Ramsay comes in and tastes the food. He usually hates everything he tastes while having witty banter with his server. He then usually goes in and confronts the kitchen staff and owners on what he just ate. Interviews are often then presented with the owner/staff members who are in denial and the story progresses with a lot of yelling and screaming (more so on the American version), as Ramsay starts to wear down the owners.

Third segment: We have the gross stuff. He examines the kitchen either before a service or during a busy shift and we get to see the refrigerators, the pantries, anywhere that anything disgusting is going to hide is all shown on camera. If he finds something that frightens him, he will shut down the service and dramatically send the customers home.

Fourth segment: The makeover. This is the one that differs between the American and British version on the show. On the British version it’s usually just the menu with a few alterations of the actual restaurant. They use this time to show that he’s working with the kitchen staff and the managers. He is an amazing chef and teacher. They really show it off on this version as he teaches the staff how to prepare the new menu.

The American version is dedicated to redoing the entire restaurant and menu. The producers have designers come in and pretty much redo the entire place overnight and Ramsay produces a new version of the menu with a tasting set up for the kitchen and serving staff. I’m assuming the budget is bigger on this version of the show because they’ll often bring in entirely new ovens and kitchen equipment to replace faulty ones, whereas on the British version the owners were out of luck when equipment failed.

Fifth segment: The post-changes first night and wrap up. Both shows are pretty much the same on this one. We have a stressful dinner service to see if the restaurant can handle. Many articles and interviews with former show participants say that the producers over book the dinner service on purpose to make things more stressful. This is literally the make-or-break moment to the story that is presented so things come to a climax here. It usually goes well and we have the feel good/sarcastic/Gordon Ramsay wrap up and that’s that.

So how much of it is real?

This is me. I have too much time on my hands, you all know that. This is the longest article I’ve written in ages on this site (currently at 1273 words) and I’ve had to know the answer to that question. I’ve scoured every website and yelp review I could find for the 50 or so shows I’ve seen. I’ve read articles from owners blaming Ramsay for the failure of their business, I’ve read the ones detailing his own personal scandals and I’ve read those who credit him for saving their business and I’ve come to the conclusion that… it’s about as real as you want to believe it is. Just like everything else on Reality TV.

I can tell you what most accounts say happens with production. They do scout locations. They do look for stories. If you’re selected they set up cameras for a week or two before the actual shooting (some remote, some with hand cameras and producers looking for footage). Chef Ramsay comes for about a week and for that week he practically lives at your restaurant and he does what they show him doing. The producers may ask leading questions during the interviews to get reactions or play up story-lines. They may tell you to hire folks to help with the crush of people who will flock to your restaurant during both segment two and five once the word is out that Gordon Ramsay is there. They do not plant diners on their own or comp meals (in one diner’s blog entry on a restaurant on New Orleans, the restaurant made the diners pay for their meals after Ramsay shut the place down but later comped them with a round of drinks at the connected bar). There are people want to be on TV and there are fans who go out of their way to find where they’re filming to be part of the production but more often than not (other than in the case of ABC when they were confronted by the owner), those people never make it to air.

And for the gross stuff? Again, more often than not, the accounts say that they don’t fake what they find in the disgusting segments. Just read the comments from people who actually work in restaurants and you’ll know that what goes on behind the scenes at every restaurant can be troubling. Some folks have high standards and keep a clean kitchen, others, well, we’re all lucky to be alive after eating at their restaurants. They don’t have to fake what they find.

After the show, the failure rate of restaurants is about 40% (based on Yelp follow ups). Even with all the publicity you get from your world-wide TV exposure, a bad business is a bad business. Chef Ramsay is there to make changes for a TV show. While he does care (and everyone goes out of their way to point that out), he can’t help you if you don’t want his help. He also can’t help if you’re in massive debt, you don’t pay taxes or if you simply vanish. All of which have happened with owners of businesses that were featured on the show. He also isn’t perfect. He’s there for a week. He may make changes that don’t make sense and may not work out, but that’s a fact with any makeover show (I still have nightmares over the things I saw on the old “Trading Spaces” TV show for goodness sake), and that’s going to happen.

As for the owners who blame the show for the failure of the businesses? It’s a show called Kitchen Nightmares that has been on for a good part of a decade and runs a good 20 to 30 times a week on BBC America (let alone with at least a hundred full shows on every streaming site you can imagine). If you run a restaurant that qualifies for a show with that name then there’s something wrong with your business to begin with. If you run a restaurant that qualifies for a show with that name and YOU DON’T WATCH PREVIOUS EPISODES OF THE SHOW TO KNOW WHAT YOU’RE GETTING INTO, you have have no one to blame than yourself for what actually makes it to the air.

So again, how much of it is real? In my opinion, after about a month of doing my own research and visiting hundreds and hundreds of pages detailing what went on at restaurants they’ve featured and watching too many episodes of the show to count, Kitchen Nightmares is one of the better shows on Reality TV in regards to “keeping it real.” Like with every show, the reality is in the editing and the stories that the producers want to tell. There have been very few accusations of staging scenes (that have made the internet anyway), and it seems to be easier for them to present the stories and things they see because they don’t have to fake things. They choose wisely when they “cast” restaurants for a season and usually get a lot more than what they’ve bargained for in the end results.

As for the people at ABC? In my opinion, complete loons. They’re perfect for the genre. I’m sure that their soon to be in development reality show of their own will be watched by millions… if it ever makes it to air.

I’d like to wrap this up with a happy ending. That I’ve continued my obvious fandom and will defend the show to the end of time now that I know that it’s more “real” than others. I can’t do that. Sadly, I’ve stopped watching. I guess I learned the formula and the show has run its course for me. Plus, frankly, I’ve watched every episode on BBC America for a month now and they’re still coming. It’s overkill and I like to eat. I don’t want to be paranoid about what I’m eating and I found myself giving up on eating while the show was on after seeing the gross parts. That’s great for my diet, of course, but not healthy in the long run so I’ve given up watching and gone back to eating.

I’m still a fan of what they’re doing and I have new respect for Chef Ramsey, but my Nightmares have ended and I’m back to channel surfing.

And work. Crap, I’m almost late.

See you soon. Really.

Jim