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Meanwhile, in Hell

October 23, 2007 10:18 AM

Hell's KitchenOn Fox’s hit summer series “Hell’s Kitchen,” viewers are told that having dinner at the show’s set/eatery is “the hottest ticket in town.” This always sounded like reality show hyperbole until it took a month of inquiries to land an invite, and then half of the available dates were snatched up within a day. Waiting hours for risotto on the set of a reality show, it seems, has become an in-demand event.

For guests, the draw is twofold: The chance to enjoy the cuisine of “Hell’s” star Gordon Ramsay for free (the chef doesn’t have a Los Angeles restaurant, though he’s set to launch one in West Hollywood next year) and the opportunity to see Ramsay’s characteristic shouting at underlings in person. Because such tirades often precipitate the chef shutting down dinner service before guests have been served, enjoying both dinner and the floor show can be tricky. Dining in Hell is not an event for the impatient or hypoglycemic.

“This is just like a regular restaurant,” guests are told before entering. “You order whatever you want from the menu – one starter, one entrée and one dessert. If the producer comes to your table, talk about the dining experience amongst yourselves and don’t look into the camera. After you’re done, fill out the comment cards about each dish.”

Yup, just like at Olive Garden.

Given the show’s studio-district warehouse location and producer preamble, you assume a visit to Hell’s Kitchen will reveal a clunky, manufactured affair. The name’s very usage in this dining context causes grammatical and punctuation identity conflict: Should “Hell’s Kitchen” be in quotes like a show title, or not? Is one entering a Fox reality program or a functioning restaurant?

The first impression is that the production takes pains to make the dining room feel like a restaurant instead of a set, mood lighting and all. The open kitchen where the show’s action largely takes place is devoid of producers or crew. Ramsay and his fledging chefs are monitored by petite mounted cameras, operated from an unseen control room supervised by Fox reality guru Mike Darnell (who distinguishes himself as a network executive who carries a president title yet personally oversees day-to-day production on his shows). A roving camera crew stops at guests’ tables, but otherwise the kitchen and dining service are uninterrupted. For veterans of reality show set visits, where “spontaneous” scenes often require laborious crew positioning and retakes, this sort of documentary-style unobtrusiveness is unusual.

As for Ramsay, he is very loud and constantly in motion: barking orders, tasting, encouraging, dressing plates, blaming. His gestures are camera-friendly dramatic, his movements perhaps exaggerated. But his performance is unceasing. The chef rages nonstop -- for hours. The reason contestants are so prone to on-camera nervous breakdowns on “Hell’s” becomes clear. When Ramsay finally orders a cook out of his kitchen -- “Hey! Hey! Get out!” -- one thinks: “Yes! Run!”

Once your food arrives, concern about getting fed turns into something else. You realize, somewhat sadly, that this is probably the most secure restaurant experience you will ever have – food prepared by rival cooks under the scrutiny of a three-Michelin-starred chef as the entire operation is monitored by cameras. This is why viewers appreciate Ramsay, despite his tyrannical abusiveness. We wish somebody with his standards ran our local bistro, the movie theater, the gas station, the cable company. There’s something guiltily satisfying about having a person in charge who screams and makes things work.

As for the food itself, it is excellent, except for one thing: A member of our party doesn’t like her heavily salted risotto. We expect the waiter to leap at the chance to return the item to Ramsay, a scenario that fuels drama on the show. But no.

“The risotto is a little salty, but that’s how it's prepared,” the waiter patiently explains. The maitre d', Jean-Phillipe, chimes in: “I sent back a salty risotto to the chef the other day, I don’t want to do it again.”

Our group is stunned. They don’t want conflict on a Fox reality show?

In the kitchen, Ramsay is howling about a raw scallop. Hell’s Kitchen -- no quotes -- it is.


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Comments (7)

I'd stand in line and wait a few hours to experience Ramsay's kitchen. It's one of my fave shows on the network that I promote. He's a real character... the food - real... the competition - real. Guess that's why they call it a reality show (I think to myself ingeniously!) :)

I'll pass on the raw scallops, though.

chad:

My wife and I had a chance to experience this "hottest ticket in town" last year. We were very disappointed. The pros- free beer, wine, and bread while you wait an hour or more to be served. The cons- there is good chance you won't actually be served the main course because they frequently run out of time or out of food. We had to split my meal because my wife was served the wrong meal and when she sent it back (more for show than anything), about 30 minutes later when we asked where her food was, they said, oh sorry, we're not serving dinner anymore.
Not recommended if you actually want to have a nice dinner, which wasn't necessarily our goal but would have been nice.

I guess I wouldn't mind experiencing it at least once. At least you could say you've been there. It's always fun seeing the "behind the scenes" of a show.

GR-Admirer:

I have been to a taping and I can assure all of you who think it would be amazing or interesting, it is utterly un-dramatic. 1) you can only hear the occasional shout from the kitchen, ("It's raw!) and NOTHING else from the contestants. Since you have no context for the shouting, it's not exciting.
The experience IS being in a restaurant. You are not a studio audience. The taping never stops to re-do something and you are seated at intervals like regular customers arriving at different times...2) there is not much to see other than food being cooked and Gordon checking his tickets and calling for service. Certainly you do not get to see anything other than the dinner service. No autographs or the like.

Matthew:

we ate at Hell's Kitchen for "Family Night" in season 4 which is episode four of the newest season premiering in April now. My children were not patient and the food was ok because it was all a family style menu like burgers and fries. Some children at another table wanted to send a letter to the chef that said WE WANT FOOD!!! and gave it to Jan Phillipe. Sadly to the children, the waiter folded it up nicely and threw it away, fueling the kids anger. A trip to Hell's Kitchen though is surely, unforgettable but I think waiting four to five hours for a burger and fries is a little strange. They also gave us our dessert and entree at the same time and my ice cream melted before I got to eat it! I wanted to send it back, but e were the last table of the kitchen and the producers wouldn't let us. I hope they lose badly because I feel getting the food out the fastest isn't right because when the other team waits for the patrons to finish eating their food before sending their desserts, I feel that it is more realistic in a resteraunt setting. Overall I would go back, but no more family nights for me because I would rather wait three hours for lamb instead of a underseasoned burger patty.

Shawn:

How do you land tickets for H-Kitchen? Did you write in? Was there a number to call? I was just stationed in San Diego. My wife and I enjoyed watching H-Kitchen while stationed in Japan. Now that we are in the States we would love the chance to get to see and experience the essence of the show. Can anyone help us?

Marcia:

How do you get to go to the famous so-called restaurant during the taping? Looks like it would be fun whether you get to eat there or not. I would just like to experience at least one time just to see what it would be like behind the scenes. I love Chef Ramsey, prolly because I am no cook....lol I have no patience and the oven/stove & I fight all the time and they win and have the marks to prove it...so you see, I appreciate every1 that goes to Hell's Kitchen and face Chef Ramsey.... :)

Where do they find the people and how do u get picked...those Hamburgers looked really good on tuesday's episode with the kids.....lol

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