I am not a fan of Hell’s Kitchen, the TV show. It is, without a doubt, the worst, most asinine, most ridiculously overdone suckfest of a reality cooking show on television: a horrifically over-shot and over-dramatized sixty minutes with half of its runtime taken up by commercials; another ten minutes wasted by recaps of what happened before the last set of commercials; an additional five minutes of intros, outros and product-placement; another three taken up by celebrity chef-slash-executioner Gordon Ramsay calling people “donkey”; and most of the remaining twelve minutes dedicated to either junior Machiavellian plotting by the contestants or weeping by the same.
In an average show, there’s probably no more than five minutes of actual cooking done and even that, because of the contestants involved (most of whom look and act like they were picked up by the producers at random from a bus station in Rancho Cucamonga five minutes before shooting was due to start), is generally a nightmare of T.G.I. Friday’s proportion: burned entrees, terrifying knife skills, people sweating into the crème brulee and, usually, at least one quote/unquote cook having some sort of psychotic break under the withering barrage of bleeped-out curses from chef Ramsay.
Oh, and did I mention the voiceovers? The rugged, half-whispered and very, very dramatic voiceovers done by some mouth-breathing schnook who makes David Caruso at his hammiest seem like Ian-fucking McKellen by comparison?
I hate this show because Gordon Ramsay deserves better than being treated like some kind of other-side-of-the-pond ogre who, once every season, demands to be brought twelve virgins so he can berate and abuse them in front of a national television audience. I mean, from what I understand from people whose opinions I trust (and from the way he is presented in other television cooking shows, done mostly on the BBC), Ramsay is actually a decent and funny guy, a helluva cook (he did a simple dish of lamb loin, herbs and winter vegetables on a show once that was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen cooked on television) and is possessed of the kind of resume that any working chef would kill for. He’s held, at one time or another, twelve Michelin stars. He got his first kitchen in his twenties and was forced to leave because he was banging the owner’s wife. He worked with Marco Pierre White for two years and ten months at Harvey’s -- which, to coin a phrase, wasn’t just a season in hell, but a full tour -- and then went on to work with or for Albert Roux, Guy Savoy and Joel Robuchon. To be known now as just some big man who drops a lot of F-bombs and owns a few restaurants? That’s shameful.
I hate the show because the “cooks” brought on as contestants are, for the most part, not cooks at all, but rather C-school students or personal chefs or roofers who once spent a summer murdering fish at a Red Lobster or caterers who make and sell cookies out of their apartments. They are dregs -- one step above complete civilians, the kind of people no chef in his right mind would ever allow on his hot line unless, for some reason, all the Mexican sauciers, Russian night bakers, Vietnamese grillardins, Filipino fry-cooks and badass Cuban prep specialists who actually staff most professional kitchens all finally decided to call a general strike, demanding better pay, working conditions and amnesty from the INS.
I hate it for reasons that I can’t even recall, which are immediately eclipsed by other reasons that, in turn, are eclipsed by still more reasons with every passing week. Because that’s the other thing. I may hate the damn thing with a rare and blue-white passion, but I still watch the show. Of course I watch it. Almost every week. And I do so not because it’s a guilty pleasure, but an angry one. I watch in order to get myself pissed off the way that I will sometimes watch FoxNews to re-affirm my belief that fully half of this country is completely off-their-rockers, double-bat-shit crazy, or listen to Air America to remind myself that the other half is pretty fucking bonkers, too.
All that said, the people behind Hell’s Kitchen actually did do something pretty cool recently, which was to turn the show into a promotional videogame available for download at fox.com/hellskitchen. And while I know that this was nothing more than a clever way in which to milk a few bucks out of the armchair chefs who watch the show (the full version costs $19.95) and to get people excited for the finale (which airs tonight on Fox), I bought it anyway -- expecting little, but actually getting a decent bang for my (twenty) bucks.
The game itself is basically a kitchen simulation -- a point-and-click version of 35 consecutive dinner services, each one a little bit more difficult than the last, each one a little more intricate and complex. The player (me) controls both the front of the house and the back, either clicking casually to make my little virtual floorman seat tables, take orders and bus-and-clear, or clicking somewhat more frantically in the kitchen to combine ingredients into dishes and get them to the rail in proper order and all at the same time. This is not a cooking simulation (though each night does come with a recipe card for some dish Ramsay has presented on the show, some of which look pretty good), because the clicking and dragging and ingredients available have no real-world correlation to actual plates being made (a lot of dessert courses, for example, seem to be made of nothing but seafood and dairy -- monkfish cheesecake, perhaps?), but it is a decent recreation of actual kitchen work which, once the putting of this with that and mixing in of something else becomes second nature, really is mostly about timing and forethought. In the game, each dish being cooked has a timer on it. Each ingredient requires a certain number of seconds to be prepped. And the trick is to get everything on a check (two, three, sometimes four plates, each requiring two or three ingredients) to come up at the same time.
It’s an abstraction, yes. But I was surprised at how similar the thought process was to working on an actual line. I played through the game in a couple of days, working my way up from “dishwasher” level to “chef.” And I gotta say, there were moments while playing that I truly felt a dim version of the kind of charge I used to get from watching the tickets stack up on the slide during the worst of a busy, three-turn Friday. There were also moments when I wanted to reach through the screen on my laptop and punch out the virtual Gordon Ramsay (who lent his rather unique voice to the game) for complaining about my work, my speed, my control of ingredients, everything.
So I was impressed, is what I’m saying. It was a far better game than I thought it was going to be, requiring a good sense of timing and an interesting nonrepresentational skill set which, though completely abstracted, was similar enough to that of a cook’s chops that it kept me amused. It also incorporated some of the same tap-dancing tricks that a cook or floorman will learn as he goes through his career—pre-prepping ingredients, holding fires, staggering seating and so on—which lent the experience a certain verisimilitude. And even the virtual Ramsay was a nice touch: a crazed, screaming exec standing at expo, telling you exactly what a donkey you were for fucking up the timing on table three, how hopeless you were when you burnt the desserts on six.
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My only complaint was that it was all too pat and sterile. As any cook will tell you, it’s never the things you expect that fuck you up when you’re in the weeds—never the crush of service, the bizarre special orders, the forgotten garnish—but rather, the environment. It’s the heat, the pressure, the unexpected twelve-top at five minutes before closing. It’s the sauté cook who shows up drunk, the commis who keeps ducking out to powder his sinuses. It’s never the regular nightmares that put a seasoned chef off his game. It’s the ones that sneak up when he’s not looking—those things that no one, no matter how creative, can possibly simulate.
But then I started thinking that maybe I could simulate that stuff; that I could create an environment somewhat more similar to the kitchen environment that I’d known and loved for so many years. I started thinking what would happen if I were to go back and play through this whole thing again but this time do it under less than ideal circumstances? Under the sort of conditions that a real cook might find himself. It might be fun, right?
Which is how I came up with this little bloggity jeu de cuisine: a record of my experiment, five weeks of game-time played out across five different nights, each one under different circumstantial or environmental pressures and each one serving to illustrate a different aspect of what it’s like to work in a real kitchen, under real conditions. It might not be the best way to recapture the sense of what it was like back in the day, when I still cooked for a living and ruined myself nightly for the pleasure of my customers, but it might be the closest I get. I am too old and too slow and too dumb now to be able to step back into a real kitchen -- to pull on the whites and do a sixteen-hour double in triple-digit heat. But sitting on my ass in front of a computer? Well, shit. I’ve had six years’ practice at that now. Ain’t no one out there a better ass-sitter than I am.
This should be fun…-- Jason Sheehan Up next: Week one in Hell’s Kitchen -- Fresh Meat.