Friday, September 27, 2013

Chicken-Fried Grace

In my house, we watch a lot of cooking shows. We’ve watched Top ChefTop Chef MastersChoppedEveryday ItalianBarefoot Contessa, and when there’s nothing else on, we tune to the Food Network, for the inevitable food truck show (there seem to be dozens) or Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. In the fallow period between delicious harvests (the twin Top Chef shows), we find ourselves watching the two restaurant hospital-style shows: Kitchen Nightmares and Restaurant: Impossible.
Both shows star celebrity chefs (Gordon Ramsay and Robert Irvine, respectively) and attempt to rehabilitate failing restaurants. When the chefs arrive at the terminally ill establishments, it always looks like there’s no way these places have any chance of success: They owe hundreds of thousands of dollars, their owners don’t know anything about the industry, and the roaches outnumber the customers. By the time the show ends, though, the dining rooms have been remodeled, the kitchens have been reformed, and everyone has been given the tools for success.
But then what? What happens to Metropolis when Superman leaves town? As I’m sure most viewers do, I google the restaurants to see whether or not they’re still open…and I discovered something fascinating. A huge percentage of the restaurants that appear on Kitchen Nightmares are now closed. This, by itself, will not fascinate anyone. These restaurants are failing for a reason, and it’s usually a systemic reason that a facelift won’t fix. Shuttered doors are the expected long-term outcome for shows like this. The fascinating thing is that the same overwhelming percentage of restaurants that appear on Restaurant: Impossible are still open!
What’s the difference? In other words, what’s Robert Irvine doing right that Gordon Ramsay is doing wrong? I think the answer has something to do with our old theological friends, Law and Grace.
Now, it’s nothing as cut-and-dried as “Irvine preaches Grace” and “Ramsay preaches Law.” In fact, it’s really Law’s first cousin, judgment, which is at work here. Additionally, there are surely many factors that go into what keeps some restaurants open and forces others to close up shop. It is undeniable, however, that Ramsay is a world-famous screamer and provocateur, goading his “clients” into overheated shouting matches (see also: Hell’s Kitchen). Irvine, on the other hand, has a gentler touch.
Both men bring the hammer of judgment down early in an episode, shining a light (sometimes literally – cue scurrying insects) on these restaurants’ seamy underbellies. Irvine sometimes yells. Ramsay, though, knows that yelling is his bread and butter. He probably gets paid by the decibel. He seems to go in aiming to humiliate. In this sense, Ramsay is judgment personified: he’s out to crush you.
Both men end episodes full of cheery banter and hopeful proclamations about the future. But Ramsay’s damage is done. There’s been no grace, only fear. And when the source of the fear is gone? When the screaming Briton and his production crew have picked up and moved on, any “lessons” that have been learned from the culinary star likely go back out the window. When Gordon’s not there to yell at you when you mess up, what’s the motivation to do it right?
Irvine, on the other hand, seems to come beside his clients in a way that Ramsay never does. Both chefs have to do a lot of family therapy – at least as much as they do pot-and-pan training – but Irvine doesn’t steamroll the staff toward “re-launch night,” even though his timetable is shorter.
Obviously, it’s reductive to say that Irvine personifies grace and Ramsay personifies judgment. However, in comparison to Ramsay, Irvine comes across as more graceful than Mother Theresa. Judgment kills, and the results can be seen by surveying the tombstones of all the closed restaurants that Gordon Ramsay leaves in his wake. Grace makes alive, and – for a time – you can eat there.

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