My gag reflex is inconveniently strong. When cleaning my apartment, I will gladly scrub the bathroom floor for my roommate as long as I don’t have to reorganize the kitchen or do the dishes. Globs of unchewed food or streaks of leftover sauce repel me more than any hair or bathroom mess ever could. Something about not knowing where food comes from unsettles me to my core, and nothing taps into this primal fear of disease and pestilence like the reality show “Kitchen Nightmares.”
Gordon Ramsay’s breakout-hit reality show “Kitchen Nightmares” aired from 2004 to 2013. In the show, Ramsay, a world-renowned chef, travels to down-on-their-luck restaurants across the country and transforms their business. Usually, the food is atrocious, the kitchen is unhygienic and one stubborn, misguided or arrogant individual is responsible for it all. Ramsay patronizes the restaurant, criticizes it, then pours money into revamping the menu and decor until the food is tasty and the experience is “classy.” At the end of each episode, the owners, managers and chefs, often all family, share glowing testimonials dripping with self-actualization and financial optimism, thanking Ramsay for transforming their lives.
The show pulls from a tradition of reality TV transformation stories that have participants start in a sad place and end in a happy one. On “Queer Eye,” (mostly) men begin the episode with low self-confidence then, supposedly, grow into more complete people. On HGTV’s “Fixer Upper,” a couple lives in a house and spends the episode looking for an upgrade.
But “Kitchen Nightmares” feels different. Somehow, its recipe is so much greater than the sum of its parts. I’ve tried “90 Day Fiancé” and “Toddlers and Tiaras,” but nothing else satisfies like “Kitchen Nightmares.” It is so powerful that, despite my often overwhelming disgust, I just can’t stop watching.
What is the secret ingredient of “Kitchen Nightmares”? Do I have a soft spot for abrasive British men? Or are all other reality shows just frozen mush with ugly wallpaper? Well, the first question to ask would be: What do those other shows lack?
And, of course, the answer is Gordon Ramsay.
Gordon Ramsay’s current occupation as a game show host is unsurprising given his infinitely rewatchable charisma on “Kitchen Nightmares.” He’s aggressive and no-nonsense when dealing with incompetence or laziness but kind and gentle when talking to the helpless wait staff or the fully-realized former idiot.
In fact, Ramsay’s status as the righteous judger of fate is what makes him so beloved. At least with the way “Kitchen Nightmares” is edited, he appears to only lay his hand against those who deserve it, like an Old Testament-esque God. He is the moral center of the show, the gatekeeper to acceptable dining, a savior figure we must accept as good.
Perhaps it is his cult leader-like charm that captivates my imagination, but then, as always, we must consider the memes.
Remarkably, the “Kitchen Nightmares” YouTube channel is still active. After all these years, it still posts announcements on the community tab and compilations of the show’s most iconic moments with titles like “moments that butter my eggroll” and “memes that i’m definitely not watching at 3am.”
As the YouTube titles suggest, there are some spectacular memes in this show. When asked if the crab in his restaurant was frozen, one owner responded, “It’s fresh-frozen, out of a can.” There is the recurring character Chef Mike who, in one episode, is thrown out of a window in a symbolic gesture of progress.
Chef Mike is also known by his alias: the common microwave. And then, there are the absolutely ridiculous real-life people who say and do surreal and outlandish things. There is Nino’s brother, for instance, who mocked Nino with the iconic line “Helloooo, my name is Ninooooo!” or the hellish couple who operated the now-closed bastion of wage theft and anthropomorphized cats that was Amy’s Baking Company.
But the videos that contain these glorious memes aren’t even the most popular videos on the channel, and they aren’t my favorites either. So, for the purposes of research, we need to dig into the show’s most popular clips.
The first is a compilation called “The WORST Pizzas Served on Kitchen Nightmares.” The second is titled, expressively, “It’s RAW!” Both prominently feature pictures of unappetizing food in the thumbnail. Now we have reached the bread-and-butter of “Kitchen Nightmares.” The most popular videos don’t feature the episodes with emotional journeys or success stories, nor the ridiculous antics of foolish owners. Instead, the more gruesome the thumbnail is, the higher the view count.
This show has more disgust-porn than any other reality show I’ve mentioned. The sheer screen time devoted to rotten food, pests and unkept dining rooms with dilapidated furniture should be horrific to my sensibilities, but it isn’t. Because I don’t love “Kitchen Nightmares” despite my sensitive stomach — I love it for that very reason.
I love the vicarious thrill of seeing an irresponsible chef get chewed out for their hazardous walk-in freezer, unclean equipment or moldy food. The screaming matches and tears that come out of it are only the cherry on top. For me, as much as these sights are painful to watch, their presence on camera is comforting. I fear the unknown history of my food, so seeing the mess and grime before it is served to customers lessens my discomfort. Showing these images is like unmasking an evil-doer or exposing a heinous plot. That restaurant could have poisoned anyone, but it didn’t, and what’s more, the person responsible was held accountable. Ramsay always makes sure of that.
From 2004 to 2014, no restaurant was safe from Gordon Ramsay’s all-seeing eye. Like a culinary Batman, he protected the patrons of failing restaurants all over the country from mild food poisoning and, in some cases, serious disease. I live for the clips with those disgusting images because, once the mess is uncovered, it must be cleaned.
So thank you, Gordon Ramsay and the “Kitchen Nightmares” team. I can’t watch your show while eating dinner, but that’s a sacrifice I’m always willing to make.
Daily Arts Writer Micah Golan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.