09.29.10

Has Gordon Ramsay Gone Too Far?

The fiery temper behind Hell's Kitchen may have had nothing to do with the suicide of a restaurateur, but the food establishment’s exasperation with the show is beginning to boil over, Jacob Bernstein reports.

For the last five years, chef Gordon Ramsay has appeared weekly on the reality-TV show Hell’s Kitchen. He curses, he yells, and spit flies forth from his mouth as he frequently reduces hopefuls to tears.

So perhaps it was understandable that some lashed out at the chef after a restaurant owner on his show Kitchen Nightmares killed himself, three years after the suicide of another Ramsay contestant.

In a particularly nasty irony, Ramsay berated chef Joseph Cerniglia on the show, telling the man that his poorly run New Jersey restaurant was “about to swim down the Hudson.”

That’s just where Cerniglia was found floating last Friday.

As it happens, Ramsay’s on-camera rants don’t seem to have played a role in the man’s suicide— Cerniglia’s sister says he left the show loving Ramsay for the advice he gave him—but they still haven’t gone over well with members of the food establishment, whose exasperation with shows like Hell’s Kitchen is beginning to boil over.

Says Drew Nieporent, the restaurateur behind Nobu and the Tribeca Grill: “I have enormous respect for Gordon. I know him personally and I admire his career, but I watch those shows and I scratch my head, because that type of behavior went out years ago. It’s almost as passé as haute cuisine of the ’80s. I don’t condone that behavior in the restaurants I own and it doesn’t pass muster with me.”

That opinion is seconded by Eric Ripert, the maestro of Le Bernardin. “I’ve seen Gordon twice in my life and each time he was a gentleman,” Ripert says. “But I don’t understand the dynamic of the show. I don’t like that the shows he’s on are promoting abuse. That’s what it is, it’s verbal abuse.”

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He continues: “I come from a place where humiliation was part of the training and it did not make me a better cook. I have been an abusive chef myself and I had poor results. It made me unhappy, so we changed how we manage the kitchen at Le Bernardin and I think we’ve had good results. We have our bad days, one of us snaps, but then we are sorry and we make sure that it won’t happen again. I just think the show is wrong. We can find a way to be entertaining and funny without resorting to behavior like that.”

What also sparks the ire of foodies is that Ramsay’s shows are filled with people with questionable skills and competence. “What I don’t like about Hell’s Kitchen is the quality of the contestants,” says Anthony Bourdain, host of No Reservations. “I don’t think anyone I’ve seen on the show could ever credibly be expected to handle the prize, which is to be the chef of a Gordon Ramsay restaurant. It’s ridiculous. Whatever you say about Gordon, he runs pretty good restaurants. He may not be a groundbreaking genius, but the places are quality restaurants, and these people are transparently incapable of working at that level. None of them would last two episodes on Top Chef.”

As Bourdain sees it, Ramsay’s producers are being manipulative, picking chefs they know will perform at a subpar level, merely to heighten the drama on the show. He even says Ramsay’s TV shtick appears to be at odds with what he knows about the man from real life: “I think Gordon’s playing that part for your entertainment. He’s playing a character based on somebody he was 15 years ago.”

Back then, Ramsay was an up-and-coming player in the food world, a working class Scot whose father drank too much and abused him. He played soccer competitively as a child and likely would have gone pro had a series of injuries not taken him out of the game. Still, Ramsay's time on the field gave him stamina that likely came in handy when he went to work for a series of top chefs with top attitudes—chief among them Marco Pierre White of Harvey’s, who was as famous for cutting down his staffers as he was for slicing a chicken.

By his early thirties, Ramsay had a burgeoning empire of his own and a series of Michelin stars to show for it. He’d also earned a reputation as being a major hothead, thanks to a documentary, Boiling Point, that chronicled his effort to open his flagship restaurant in London.

No matter. As reality television came into fashion, Ramsay was perfectly positioned for stardom, a kind of British food-world equivalent to Donald Trump. In 2004, Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares made its debut on Channel 4 in Britain and earned big ratings. Then came Hell’s Kitchen, which did well too and was soon being developed for American television by Fox.

Joan Buck, the television critic for Vogue, was one of many who considered it to be exhilarating television. She likens Hell’s Kitchen to a “Shakespearean tragedy on crystal meth,” saying, “In a way he was the first reality show that wasn’t stuck on a desert island. The way he pumps up the fire and metal makes it all terribly exciting. On the other hand, Hell’s Kitchen also makes you not want to eat out at a restaurant.”

She may be on to something there.

Though Ramsay has been on a steady climb where TV is concerned—he reportedly earns $250,000 an episode of Hell’s Kitchen and several million a year with other small-screen endeavors—his restaurant empire has been struggling. In 2009, according to Bloomberg News, Ramsay had about 20 restaurants, in Dubai, New York, Paris, Prague, and Tokyo, among others. But unlike most celebrity chefs, who sign “consulting deals” with investors who shoulder the cost of building and operating the restaurant (essentially, a licensing agreement), Ramsay owned most of his business outright with a holding company controlled by his father-in-law, Chris Hutchinson. So when the global recession took hold and several of the restaurants earned a reputation for being serviceable but uninspired, Ramsay was stuck footing the bill.

“I don’t understand the dynamic of the show,” says chef Eric Ripert. “I don’t like that the shows he’s on are promoting abuse. That’s what it is, it’s verbal abuse.”

According to a business associate with ties to Ramsay, the chef restructured many of those deals in the last year to help alleviate the problem, but others wonder whether the TV shitck is part of the problem.

For two years in a row, none of Ramsay’s restaurants have made the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best restaurants list. “It’s not a perfect system,” one restaurant world observer says of the contest, “but it’s an important list that’s voted on by restaurateurs and critics. It doesn’t mean his restaurants got terrible, but it is an accurate portrayal of how his reputation has changed among a specific group of opinion-makers, and it shows that there’s a price to his TV persona. His peers don’t take him as seriously as they once did.”

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Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. Previously, he was a features writer at WWD and W Magazine. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.