Gordon Ramsay is one of the most recognizable chefs in the world. His no-nonsense, abrasive approach to cookery is a trademark that made his television shows essential examples in the reality TV genre. His personality really shines in shows such as Hell's Kitchen and Kitchen Nightmares, and while the former one is by no means boring, the latter one has created an unlikely internet following that is still growing to this day.
So, what makes Kitchen Nightmares such as fan-favorite, seven years removed from its finale? Is it Ramsay’s character, the almost absurd editing, or the meme culture which was created around the show? There is obviously no one answer. This article will explore these questions by first discussing the intricacies of the show and then the YouTube fandom which gave the show a new life. It’s important to note that the article strictly refers to the American version of Kitchen Nightmares, which ran from 2007 to 2014.
The premise of the series is very simple: The world-class chef is invited to spend a week at a failing restaurant to revive its business. During his time at the restaurants, he is served awful dishes, investigates the unhygienic kitchens, and observes the generally dysfunctional service. However, most episodes conclude with a renovated establishment, which serves fresh food and is on the right track.
One narrative element that sets the show apart and makes most episodes prime examples of reality TV is Ramsay’s ever-present arguing with seemingly deluded owners. Their constant shouting draws the viewers and gets them excited for the continuation of the conflict. And, more than often, the spectator takes Ramsay's side. Apart from the moments in which the owners break down and cry, the series leaves no space for sympathy towards them. “The show takes a gleeful, sneering approach that works because the owners are often cruel to their own staff, and Gordon Ramsay is one of the world’s great foils for ineptitude” (Frisch, 2020).
Another key element that creates tension is the extreme editing and sound effects. The shots are rapidly cut to highlight conflict and are often edited to present the world-famous chef as the icon of professionalism. In this show, he is “the gatekeeper to acceptable dining” (Golan, 2021). On the other hand, the auditory elements are used to paint a negative picture of the restaurants. Horror sounds and unnecessary combative music reflect the shock of the chef (and implicitly of the viewer) when investigating disgusting kitchens.
Given the constant focus on Ramsay’s ideas and the lack of attention to the real needs of the show’s restaurateurs, it’s no surprise that the facts tell a different story from the TV narrative. According to a survey on the website Mashed, as of 2018, only 15 restaurants out of the 77 that appeared on the show were still open. “That means that for nearly 81 percent of these restaurants the nightmare is over” (Fantozzi & Kelly, 2018).
If you strip Kitchen Nightmares of its apparent dedication to the restaurant industry, it is somewhat clear that the show is an exercise in branding for Mr. Ramsay. While his passion for cookery cannot be denied, the show ends up telling the story of arrogant owners, who are unwilling to take advice from an effective, world-class chef.
However, as time passed and the show’s official YouTube channel (5.8 million subscribers as of Oct. 2021) kept posting clips and full episodes, Kitchen Nightmares gained a new following of younger viewers. This fandom differs from the initial TV audience in personality, humor, and tech-savviness, and looks at Ramsay’s series as a glorious example of reality TV.
For these viewers, it is not only about the chef’s personality, or the apparent awfulness of the owners. For them, the show represents a rewatchable guilty pleasure that captures the eye with a bombardment of outrageous moments. As one writer for The Michigan Daily commented: “I live for the clips with those disgusting images because, once the mess is uncovered, it must be cleaned (Golan, 2021).
What is more significant is that the active YouTube channel of the show seems to be in step with the younger following. It engages with the subscribers on the platform’s community tab and posts “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” (Golan, 2021). While memes of Ramsay are nothing new, the connection between the community and the official channel is a testament to the show’s continuous appeal and its meme potential.
Is Ramsay’s show just glorified trash TV? If we consider the genre’s focus on constant confrontation, then the answer is yes. But, shows that fall into this category are also “considered so awful, you can’t look away” (Rosenberg, 2017). However, Kitchen Nightmares does not thrive on awfulness alone. The show is chaotic, funny, routinely outrageous, and in some surprising moments, quite endearing.
Frisch, B. (2020, March 13). Kitchen Nightmares Is the Competence Porn We Need Right Now. Slate. https://slate.com/culture/2020/03/kitchen-nightmares-gordon-ramsay-amys-baking-company.html?fbclid=IwAR33IEn1vxNd11_7mIb8hqxcm2zSO-7owdTFMIUw72q06UenIDi8Y-ccLLg
Golan, M. (2021, March 20). The complex feels of Gordon Ramsay’s ‘Kitchen Nightmares’. The Michigan Daily. https://www.michigandaily.com/arts/complex-feels-gordon-ramseys-kitchen-nightmares/?fbclid=IwAR0dEBLEfo-YuId8OB_pZxt0W7urmFIQOyus9ByLlRgnFU97NdfZgPy6PWY
Fantozzi, J., & Kelly, D. (2018, May 7). The Untold Truth Of Kitchen Nightmares. Mashed. https://www.mashed.com/121110/untold-truth-kitchen-nightmares/
Rosenberg, S. (2017, November 6). The case for ‘Riverdale’ and trash TV. The Michigan Daily. https://www.michigandaily.com/arts/case-riverdale-and-trash-tv/?fbclid=IwAR0FHgfUOha1cJ2itJZLtQzGqeeOSlpKYTaceQpZkZwHSAcBcVwjNEydtcQ