I'm in awe of Chef Gordon Ramsay's accomplishments, because I have no idea how he does all of them. The Michelin-starred chef visited in June to talk Masterchef and in July for Hell's Kitchen, chatted with me at FOX's TCA presentation in August, and just yesterday the network announced his next series, Hotel Hell. Just seven months after we talked about the last season of Kitchen Nightmares, he's back again to chat about the new one (starting tonight at 8 PM ET/PT on FOX). The man clearly deserves a vacation.
Ramsay's a polarizing figure: it seems you either love him or hate him. As someone lucky enough to be friendly with him, I can say that he's far nicer than his television persona makes him out to be, with a genuine concern for others. If you want to see that for yourself, you ought to tune in to Nightmares, which has seen him step in to rescue troubled restaurants across the country. (It's a spinoff of the UK version of the same name, which is in heavy rotation on BBC America.) Ramsay doesn't just fix the business, he also helps to repair the people who hold it together. Recently, he gave me a little more insight into just how that all comes together.
One of the things that's most intriguing to me about Kitchen Nightmares is that a lot more takes place than what we see in forty-odd minutes each week. Can you talk about some of the things that don't make the TV cut?
What gets left out? I love the style of the documentary aspect from the BBC versions in the UK. I don’t like that jumping around pace. I like it quite in depth. I think there’s quite a lot of stuff being left out, not drama, but things like the relaunch, when we have special marketing exercises that we put together and we get the community involved.
There are lots of issues where I cook, but it’s not a cooking show, so that’s the awkward part. I’d love to spend more time. If there’s one criticism I’ve always had, and it becomes so much more apparent now, it's that we want to see you cook more. The dishes and the specials, there’s more than three dishes that go on. We completely revamp the menu from 25 to 35 dishes, so on the morning of the reveal, my team is in the kitchen about half past 4 o’clock or 5 o’clock, but they move in the night before. We’re there until early hours.
Now we can’t show that because it’s sort of long-winded. It’s the proper preparations in a professional kitchen. It’s like a complete overhaul from an organization - to a complete rip-out of all the fridges, we reposition everything, set up for success. We almost land it in their laps, we give it to them on a plate, and what I want them to do is cook it, finish it, send it and fall in love with it.
What's going to differentiate season five from the previous four?
As you know, there’s a whole team behind me and they have a couple days prep for the restaurants before I get there [and] a couple days prep for the restaurants after I leave. We bring in an infrastructure and we really focus on what are the most important elements to get that restaurant back. The segmentation that’s taken place is seen more than ever before this year.
And then I was greeted with a huge mouse coming through one of the doors [in a restaurant]. Now I’ve had a lot of flack in my time, but I’ve never been greeted by a mouse in a door of the restaurant. And the shock of the fact that I walked in there, and then they accused me of bringing it in; that’s a little bit out there on that one. Me bringing my own mouse to plant in the restaurant before helping them? Come on!
On that sour note, over the course of the show, we've seen you walk out a few times, and people have threatened to kick you out. Are there ever situations where you get tired of giving people second chances?
Do you know what? I am getting tired of giving second chances, but they’re part of the issues that are taking place on a daily basis and that’s to do with the economy. It’s getting harder to be patient, to be honest, and so it’s my own issues and dealing with regular issues. I’m still trying to open new restaurants as well at the same time.
Do they deserve a second chance? When they are arrogant, obnoxious, and they’re not prepared to listen and they want to cook for themselves as opposed to the customers, then, yes, I won’t give anyone a second or a third chance. But there are some pretty distraught, upsetting and emotional circumstances this year. I think it’s been a bit of a whirlwind to be honest.
Have you ever second-guessed any of your decisions?
I act on impulse and I go with my instincts. I’ve had a lot of success; I’ve had failures, so I learn from the failure. I talk about it. I can share that stuff. I shoot from the hip. I have to get straight to the truth, and it’s not because we’re panicking and we’re not there for ten days.
In the UK versions, we’re there for nine, ten days at a time. Here, we’re here for a week and because of the work that goes into that week, the research from every critic to every article to the opening night, the first six months, the financial implications, we turn it upside down. We really turn it upside down. So I don’t pussyfoot around. I really get straight off, so I never second guess it. I go for it straight away.
What's the most common or biggest mistake you've come across in five seasons of Kitchen Nightmares?
Most of [the restaurants] become static. They forget to fight to move on. They trade, but then unknown to them, they’re in a time warp from the first minute that door opened. The secret is to stay in front of your customers because once you’ve opened these businesses you’re in it. The only way you can improve is by going and eating out, because you can’t disappear for two months and travel and understand.
The biggest problem is they get comfortable and then they forget to fight. They forget, okay, we have to move on. Everything has to evolve. You don’t need to go fine dining crazy, but you need to work up with new ideas. The staff isn't going to be inspired and so they get complacent, because they think that they have a restaurant, but they don’t understand what’s open within a five mile radius. And that is something they need to know on a daily basis.
I always say running up to launching a restaurant, once the restaurant is open, check out the reviews. Find what’s hot, find what’s just opened and then look for the worst review of the week. There is so much to learn from watching a restaurant getting absolutely panned and having a bad experience. Go and see it for yourself. There’s so much to learn. It doesn’t mean that they’re lazy, but they don’t understand the importance of their own situation becoming stale and how trendy are restaurants now. Within six months, twelve months, you can become old hat, depending on the energy inside those four walls.
Give us a peek into tonight's season premiere. What can we expect to see?
Blackberry, for me, was pretty significant. I walked in there with a love of soul food and being in amongst that sort of neighborhood, that’s how I grew up. We didn’t have anything near as glamorous. It was a hard-working, blue collar neighborhood and minimum worker living. Mom and dad were out all day and you got home from school and you had your tea. No one left anything and you loved eating out as a treat once a month if you’re lucky.
So I was really excited [about] the soul food restaurant. What I wasn’t excited about was the owner. She was in denial in a way, so we butted heads and I didn’t argue. I just sort of left her to her own devices and she made it clear that she would not be there and we tried. We tried so hard.
The confusing part is [it] leaned towards catering; it’s completely different when one is running a restaurant. I had a big battle with her to try to get her to understand that there’s a massive difference, a huge leap between dining and catering. She didn’t get it. It was a first for me.
Here I am in a soul food restaurant, a friendly neighborhood, rough andtumble and there’s a Chinese wok in the kitchen. A Chinese wok in a soul food restaurant? The big concern was the pizza oven! It was almost like they were putting these things in there to rattle me. "Let’s wind him up. Okay, let’s get the English big shouty man upset. Let’s put a Chinese wok in our soul restaurant and let’s put in a pizza oven. Let’s really piss him off."
My thanks to Chef Ramsay for another fantastic interview! Watch the season premiere of Kitchen Nightmares tonight at 8 PM ET/PT on FOX.