In Gordon Ramsay’s first BBC reality series, 1998’s “Boiling Point,” the famously aggressive chef had a moment of uncharacteristic insecurity. A “bosses from hell” documentary team had obtained hidden-camera footage of him screaming at his staff and was set to expose him as an abusive tyrant.
Mr. Ramsay, trying to assure himself the program wouldn’t harm his reputation, said, “Nobody wants to stay up late to watch a chef shouting in a kitchen on TV.”
Nine years later, Mr. Ramsay has built a culinary and television empire based on shouting in a kitchen.
Unlike most reality stars who quickly wither if stretched beyond a single series, Mr. Ramsay has starred in four series in the U.K. (a couple of which air Stateside on BBC America) and is set to launch his second U.S. prime-time broadcast series this fall — Fox’s “Kitchen Nightmares,” where Mr. Ramsay helps struggling restaurant owners turn around their business.
Along the way he’s earned a dual reputation in the press: He’s either an acclaimed chef whose reality show tirades exemplify his quest for perfection, or he’s an abusive bully eager to profanely demean others on camera for the sake of his own glory.
Either way, the chef has somehow defied ratings gravity in both the U.S. and the U.K., despite the seeming simplicity of his angry-cook persona. While most summer reality series struggle to stay afloat, “Hell’s Kitchen” went from a 3.5 average rating among adults 18 to 49 in 2005, to a 3.7 in 2006. It hit a 4.2 this year.
His new Fox show, “Nightmares,” is billed as showing a softer side of Mr. Ramsay compared to “Hell’s.” But when he does blow up, his rages are far more cringe-inducing when leveled against bankrupt restaurant owners and proud head chefs. It’s like an evil “Extreme Makeover” that still pulls off a happy ending — sometimes.
“‘Hell’s Kitchen’ is a reality show, ‘Nightmares’ is like an unscripted drama where you go on a journey,” Mr. Ramsay said by phone from London. “This is not a situation where you need to set anything up. They just let me off my leash.”
Mr. Ramsay said he found U.S. restaurateurs as passionate and emotional about trying to improve their business as their U.K. counterparts, with some minor differences.
“They were slightly more emotional here,” he said. “They open up and give their whole life story in the first five minutes of meeting them. Nice to get down to it, but it makes them more vulnerable.”
And being vulnerable to Mr. Ramsay can be a dangerous thing. “Nightmares” in the U.K. was responsible for some restaurants wildly succeeding, and others quickly closing.
Mike Darnell, president of alternative programming at Fox, became interested in working with Mr. Ramsay after seeing the U.K. version of “Hell’s.” Mr. Darnell said he didn’t care about restaurants, cooking or even the celebrity-stuffed original “Hell’s” format. “I didn’t like the show, but I loved him,” Mr. Darnell said.
Mr. Darnell said he pushed his Fox bosses on the concept, although they were reluctant to embrace what appeared to be a cooking show. Another obstacle was Mr. Ramsay’s famously vitriolic profanity.
“When I first brought him in, we had conversations internally … like, maybe we should figure out a way for him not to curse,” Mr. Darnell said. “But it’s like saying, ‘Don’t talk with an English accent.'”
Mr. Ramsay said he’s been asked to set up a U.K. version of Food Network’s “Iron Chef America.” Any producer credit on the project would be his first, despite his self-confessed “control freak” nature.
“Let them produce, since they’re good at it,” he said. “Do I want to sit there and watch the credits and think I got another notch? No way.”
Not a producer notch, perhaps, but Mr. Ramsay does have goals.
“I haven’t achieved my goal in cooking yet — I want to achieve three Michelin stars in New York,” he said. “As soon as I come off the television, I go straight back into [the kitchen].
“Ten years ago I started out to get a reputation. Now I’m fighting to keep it and it isn’t easy.”