Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Nightmare kitchen

The Taming of the Chef

Found this interesting read from the New Yorker. Also note the "New York magazine's story on Momofuku's David Chang"-esque "lovingly cradling my animal ingredient" photo accompanying this story.

Some people dislike Ramsay. I don't like or dislike him, but find him interesting. Unlike the one one patron in this story who wanted to watch Ramsay tell off one of his staff members, it's not that I find Ramsay interesting because his anger is amusing to me. In fact, I would frequently wince watching "Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares" when he'd lay into some clueless restaurateur or the failing restaurant's chef about why their business was going faster than raw chicken breast left out on the counter in the middle of June. I'd find myself internally reasoning, "But Gordon, they don't KNOW any better. That's why they came to you." I kind of talk to the TV a lot.

Obviously though, many times they quite deserved it. Like the one horrifying episode when a chef had no clue that the scallops he was serving had turned and got thoroughly boxed about the ears verbally by Ramsay. The truth was many of these restaurant usually didn't have the faintest idea what the public they wanted to serve thought of them or why (as evidenced by when Ramsay would sometimes go about polling people in the neighborhood about the restaurants he set out to help). So his screaming and obscenities seemed to be a pressure cooker of sorts making up for years of not hearing or listenig to customer feedback.

On the contrary, I find Ramsay interesting because he's so refeshingly strict. Not that screaming and yelling alone is an awesome old school institution, but it's that sort of lack of gloss and feel goodness behind being serious about what you do.

Foodservice hasn't always been a glorified job to have. Some might argue it still isn't, and that there are just more visible "celebrity chefs." I have nothing against celebrity chefs, in fact I have the highest regard for cooking personalities such as Jacques Pepin and Julia Child, but what intrigues me about foodservice is the discipline of it all and how at the same time there's the stubborn existence of that seamy underbelly that never quite went away even with the efforts of Escoffier.

I think it was Anthony Bourdain likened the kitchen staff to pirates. While I agree, I liken it more to the French Foreign Legion. It's the perfect combination of those who know what they are doing and have trained for years and have worked their way up to where they are and are a machine of efficiency, but at the same time they're a ragtag crew who can and will get the job done no matter what the cost.

In the same way, Ramsay sort of embodies that, a guy from the projects who gets trained under a hardcore master and while he has learned to taste the minute difference between a good sauce and a bad one, that very same delicately trained tongue will curse up a storm and let you know that the sauce is fucking shit.

While the episode described in the piece where Ramsay is ripping cook Stuart Collins a new one, it might sound like frustrated abuse, but his tirade is accomplishing something twofold. In foodservice, consistency is key. Sure the food needs to taste good, but if you can't make the same good tasting dish every couple of minutes, let alone night after night, it doesn't matter how phenomenal it is this one time if it's utter crap the next. Not only is Ramsy trying to make sure Collins understands that the food must always be prepared a certain way, but he's also making sure Collins damn well doesn't forget about it. Also the kitchen is a hectic place, and if you can't consistently create a dish with a guy yelling at you, forget about being able to do it when the house is full and you have orders coming in left and right.

At the same time the piece isn't an apologist for Ramsay, since it also hints at darker sides of his temper. The author's physical description of Ramsay and the observation how this fit healthy man who does not smoke has such deep lines in his face must be a symptom of something else is an interesting note.

And quite honestly, the author points out, the man has pulled some dick moves in his life. For example, in this story pay attention to the story about what went down between him and Marco Pierre White. The author has paced this perfectly and it's a truly "Oooh, snap! No, he didn't!" moment in the story.

It was also pretty cool to see the behind-the-scenes reasoning as to what happened with the chef switches at his NYC restaurant when there was speculation going about as to how recovery from a bad review was usually handled by firing your chef. This story shows it's not that simple (though it kind of is too).

Who knows, maybe it was all an act for a writer that was shadowing him, but I think it's a story worth noting. It kept me entertained at least.


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