Monday, 3 June 2013

Leaving a bitter taste

As a lowly student, I spent many years working as a waiter. In that time, I had to endure the indignities of ignorant customers, the mood swings of the chefs and, in one painful instance, the violent allergic reaction to a catering pack of Thousand Island dressing tipped over my head. Happy Birthday to me.

So it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, to learn that I see Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares the way prison officers must view the Oz boxset. At best, it’s a busman’s holiday. At worst, the grotesque exaggeration of an all-too-painful reality. And then there’s growling Gordon himself; a corrugated cardboard cut-out of the clichéd angry chef, in a pair of Simon Cowell’s hand-me-down jeans.

Even so, something told me I needed to watch tonight’s edition of the long-running reality yell-fest. This may be the USA edition of the show, but it’s the exact same format. As far as I can tell, the only real differences are the size of Ramsay’s car (an SUV he could invade North Korea in) and the fact that he calls coriander ‘cilantro.’

Tonight’s struggling business is Amy’s Baking Company, in Scottsdale Arizona, run by husband and wife team Amy and Samy Bouzaglo. The restaurant itself is half high-end patisserie, half Olive Garden pizzeria – an incongruous mix as confusing as the mismatched pair who run it.  According to their meet and greet with ‘Chef Ramsay’, Samy’s a former playboy who managed to score better women than Hugh Hefner, despite looking like Steve Carell in a half-hearted SNL skit. His wife, a former showgirl, answers the question ‘Whatever happened to Nomi Malone?’ for the seven of us that asked.

Amy’s one of those Christians who believes she’s got a direct hotline to God, and uses her celestial connection like a spiritual Ocado. She asked the Almighty for a husband and a restaurant, and ended up with both. As much as they might try to convince us that they’re soulmates, as a pair they’re about as appealing as Huntley and Carr.

But what of the restaurant itself – what’s going wrong, and why has someone projected the silhouette of a cock into the night sky to summon Chef Ramsay? According to Amy, they’ve been suffering from a series of unwarranted attacks by ‘online bloggers and haters’ who post dishonest reviews of the food and service. Amy’s done her best to rectify the situation, by personally attacking anyone with the temerity to review her restaurant. But now, they’ve decided to use a prime time TV show to stem the flow of negative coverage. This can’t possibly end badly.

Unfortunately, 24 hours before Gordon even rocks up, Samy is threatening customers with the audacity to ask after their pizza, following an hour’s wait. For a moment, it looks as though Amy is attempting to call the police in order to pacify her violent husband, only to then chase the customer into the car park herself, calling him a ‘pansy ass’. Given that Gordon’s idea of a disaster usually involves restaurateurs attempting to pass off Grano Padano as Parmigiana-Reggiano, he may well be in over his head.

From the moment that Gordon arrives, it’s clear that Amy and Samy have misread their contract. They seem to think that the crinkle-cut chef is here to give their hellhole a televised endorsement that will silence their critics, once and for all. And for a few minutes, it seems that their wish might come true. Ramsay’s certainly taken with the refrigerated cabinet full of chocolate-coated mammaries that pass for desserts. With a spring in her step, Amy returns to the kitchen, and that’s when it all starts to fall apart.

It doesn’t take long for Gordon to notice that none of the staff are allowed to take orders; Samy’s skills as a server make Mrs Overall look like the model of professionalism; and the reality of the customer experience is kept well hidden from the highly-strung head chef. Ordering a variety of dishes from the menu, Gordon’s in for a long wait as the items come out at twenty minute intervals, which at least gives him time to get to the bottom of the restaurant’s staff retention issues. It’s probably not helped by the fact that Samy pockets all the tips earned by the hard-working servers. That might not seem too shocking to a UK audience, but when you factor in the fact that US serving staff pay income tax on estimated gratuities, irrespective of whether or not they’ve earned them, that becomes a much more egregious abuse of the minimum wage employee.

Our hungry host chomps his way through a parade of disappointing dishes. Watching him working his way through a rapidly disintegrating ‘Blue Ribbon’ burger could rival Embarrassing Bodies for ‘shows not to watch when you’re trying to eat.’ The pizza is sickly sweet and barely cooked, and the salmon burger could pass as cat-food; criticisms all delivered with Ramsay’s characteristic bluntness. The problems really start, when he takes his feedback directly into the kitchen. Amy reacts to his comments the way Mariah Carey might, if she was told she could only travel with one item of carry-on luggage. Finally, Nigel Farage has a rival in the swivel-eyed lunacy stakes.

Het up from all the negativity, Amy decides to take it out on her luckless servers, firing one girl on the spot, then berating her for walking away and missing out on the rest of her diatribe. What originally felt like a nice dose of schadenfreude, has now become a discomfortingly unflinching descent into madness. Colonel Kurtz with a piping bag.

Rolling her eyes and screaming in such a way that suggests crucifix abuse might be on the cards, Amy rejects every piece of criticism, citing unnamed sources for a variety of glowing testimonials. The handful of customers who haven’t been poisoned by the food or roughed up by the maître d' don’t seem overly convinced. Gordon reminds the defiant pair that, until they’re willing to accept feedback, nothing will ever change. Amy storms off and hides in the walk-in freezer.

The following morning, Amy and Samy haven’t shown up for work, so Gordon stages a hastily arranged interview with former staff members, who confirm his worst suspicions. Missing tips, abused customers and the kind of staff turnover that only the Sugababes could rival, all seem like oft-told tales. Later on, the emergency summit with the Bouzaglos doesn’t go much better, and for the first time in six series, Gordon has to walk away.

The bitter aftertaste from all this, is that since the show aired in the US, viewers have let loose with a barrage of criticism on the Facebook page for Amy’s Baking Company. Unsurprisingly, the couple didn’t take the comments too well, and told everyone to go fuck themselves, before tearfully appearing on various news shows to announce that their Facebook has been hacked and the FBI have been notified.

Of course, the real losers in this whole sorry affair, are the TV viewers, who can now look forward to a new reality show being built around the dysfunctional duo. Despite having not a single appealing characteristic between them, they’re likely to be rewarded with a show of their own that will focus on their idiosyncratic approach to customer service. As with most of these shows, the element that made them compellingly watchable in isolation, will be magnified, accentuated and over-engineered, so that a generation of kids will grow up learning erroneously that bad behaviour will always pay off. And they still won’t be able to cook a decent fucking salmon burger. 

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