Why Does ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ Still Celebrate Toxic Chef Culture?

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There’s a point in most Hell’s Kitchen episodes where Gordon Ramsay stops dinner service. There’s a problem: The beef Wellington is raw. Or the scallops are raw. Or the salmon is raw. It upsets Ramsay so much that he’s forced to chuck the beef against a wall or punch the salmon, the full force of his fist making raw fish shards fly everywhere.

These meat-hurling moments are indicative of the celebration of chef anger that has made Hell’s Kitchen a guilty pleasure for 22 seasons, the most recent of which comes to a close tonight.

But they also make Hell’s Kitchen feel like it’s stuck in a mid-aughts bubble. The reality show’s peek inside toxic kitchens might have been fresh when it premiered in 2005. But since then, we as a culture have witnessed the attempts of any number of industries to reckon with their own toxic work environments. It took us thousands of years, but we’ve finally evolved sufficiently to realize that you don’t need to have the personality of a tyrannical Regency-era naval captain to get people to do their jobs. This message has been particularly resonant in the food world, which has borne more than its share of scandals. Even noted bad-boy chef David Chang has been forced to come to terms with the fact that being a bad-boy chef is, in fact, bad.

So why is toxicity still celebrated on Hell’s Kitchen? Why do we enjoy watching a multi-Michelin-starred chef roll his eyes at Midwesterners cooking for the most minor of minor celebrities? Is it really that radical to suggest that making risotto for Criss Angel’s wife shouldn’t lead to a nervous breakdown?

At this point, we all know that reality TV is unreal, and former Hell’s Kitchen contestants have gone on the record saying as much. One reported that the show’s producers would mess with contestants by swapping out ingredients in order to anger Ramsay, and it’s rumored that they also feed Ramsay his mean quips through an earpiece. Both contestants and crew have attested that Ramsay is actually a decent person off camera: “Honestly, he’s a really nice guy,” Season 15 contestant Ariel Malone claimed. “He’s actually really genuine and nurturing.” So it’s more likely than not that: a) Ramsay is playing it up for the cameras and b) we’re only shown the worst of the worst.

But that Whiplashstyle “I’m hard on you to the point that you question your value as a person because I care” attitude doesn’t fly anymore, because we know you can care about someone without telling them you’d rather eat poodle shit than the bread they baked, or calling them Toilet Brush because you think they look like, well, a toilet brush.

Perfectionism might require difficult levels of sacrifice, commitment, and attention to detail, but it never requires yelling and/or mean nicknames. And anyway, it’s counterproductive: When Ramsay’s in the kitchen screaming about undercooked lobster being served to one of the lesser Real Housewives, the contestants appear more stressed out and perform badly.

Chef Eric Ripert, who has had his own come-to-Jesus moment with kitchen rage, has said as much: While criticizing the bad example set by Hell’s Kitchen, he cited the fact that drill sergeant-style behavior doesn’t actually make food taste good. “[Y]ou’re not going to get better results if your team is scared,” he said. “Especially in the kitchen, if your staff is shaking and distracted because they’re scared, they’re not going to do a better job than someone who can focus their energy on creating beautiful dishes.”

Maybe we accept the heat of Hell’s Kitchen because we feel that bad behavior is an inextricable part of reality TV as a genre? We expect to see larger-than-life drama and sleep-deprived contestants breaking down during meme-worthy confessionals. We know reality TV is bad for us, but we watch it anyway.

Just like scripted TV, it gives us catharsis. The competition angle of the reality shows allows us to emotionally invest in our favorite contestant. We form attachments, follow them on social media, and get the feeling of justice when someone who performs well is given a prize — even if it’s only a job at Gordon Ramsay’s Pub & Grill in Atlantic City.

And Ramsay’s yelling gives us a safe space to be frustrated with people we perceive as incompetent. The contestants aren’t messing up our food, they’re messing up Tito Jackson of the Jackson 5’s food. It’s a baser feeling, but reality TV was made to feed into those baser impulses. You can’t call someone an idiot sandwich for screwing up in real life (at least without facing some degree of consequence), but Ramsay can do it on TV, because once someone steps into the kitchen, they cease to be a person and become a character.

Even so, the fact that Hell’s Kitchen has been on for 22 seasons — all without being taken to task in any significant way — sends the wrong message, because it tells us this behavior is “okay” or even necessary. As the late Anthony Bourdain said of Ramsay, “he’s supposedly entertaining on TV and showing that abusing people is the right thing to do. I think it’s totally, excuse me for the word, bullshit.”

Plenty of toxic kitchens still exist in real life, and Ramsay’s toxic TV kitchen mirrors that uncomfortable fact. But just as TV is reflective of culture, culture often reflects TV, making it crucial that we be the change we want to see in the world, especially if we want that change to take the shape of not behaving like an asshole to the people who work under you.

Ultimately, it is the duty of artists to put forward better art, and it is the duty of audiences to demand better of artists. Instead of tolerating vein-bulging anger, we can tune into the Gordon Ramsay Cinematic Universe shows where he’s nicer instead. What if we all watched MasterChef Junior instead of feeding the Hell’s Kitchen fire? Maybe it’s because the kids bring out the best in him, or make him more honest, but for whatever reason, he’s an absolute peach.

Heidi Lux is a screenwriter and satirist based in Los Angeles. Her feature, Crushed, is streaming on Tubi, and her work has appeared in McSweeney’s, Reductress, the Belladonna Comedy, and more.

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