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This story first appeared in the June 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
When Hell’s Kitchen debuted on Fox on May 30, 2005, it wasn’t at all clear that a concept centering on an almost-unknown British chef shouting profanities at completely unknown American cooking contestants would emerge as the most successful primetime food show on network television — first conquering its time slot, then the entire summer season in the 18-to-49 demo and, finally, the world. (It now airs in 350 territories, from Portugal, where it runs uncensored, to Thailand, where the constant cursing is bleeped.) Seven years on, however, Kitchen — whose 10th competition cycle premieres June 4 and which has already been renewed for two additional seasons — has been heaven for owner ITV Studios and that now-very-well-known Brit, Michelin-starred Gordon Ramsay, the show’s host and executive producer, who has turned his truth-telling, angry-man persona into one of the restaurant world’s biggest brands. In fact, the only other network food shows that have had remotely as much sustained success as Kitchen since its debut are its Ramsay-led offshoots, Kitchen Nightmares and MasterChef.
The program as most know it is a far different dish than was served in its original English incarnation for four seasons beginning in 2004 (under the same name and also hosted by Ramsay during its initial cycle). That version was “stripped,” or run on consecutive evenings for two weeks, cast with celebrity contestants and filmed live.
“You had this brilliant spectacle of Gordon yelling at these big names who you’d never seen being spoken to that way, including members of Parliament,” says Natalka Znak, then an ITV development executive and now acting CEO of production company Zodiak USA.
Fox’s alternative programming boss, Mike Darnell, was interested in bringing the program to America. “What he liked about the show was the heat of the kitchen, the pressure atmosphere and the title — he always loved that — as well as Gordon as the central figure,” says Paul Jackson, a former ITV executive who helped sell the show to the network. But Darnell would only buy Kitchen if the stripping format was dumped (2003’s I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!, also from ITV and likewise stripped, had fared poorly on ABC) and the fame element similarly excised.
“I didn’t want celebrities,” says Darnell. “I wanted what they call ‘punters.’ ” This news went over just fine with Ramsay, explains Kitchen casting director Sheila Conlin: “He wants people who are passionate about cooking, for whom this is their true calling. Iron Chef has the masters. Top Chef is the middle ground. Then you have Hell’s Kitchen, which are really the worker bees — the line cooks, the prep cooks.”
The loss of the live factor was more of a bummer for Ramsay — at least at first. “Food’s live; it’s live every night in a restaurant,” he says. “That level of jeopardy is how every top restaurant performs. The whole thing comes to a crashing halt if one thing gets screwed. So I love live. But that’s me — I’m a live wire.”
Arthur Smith, the executive producer brought in to transform the U.K. version of the show into Darnell’s non-stripped, non-live vision while retaining its raw energy, chose to make up for it by covering each dinner service like an athletic event (he previously worked at Fox Sports Net for four years). “There’s the unpredictability of it, the spontaneity, the conflicts, the breakdowns, the emotionality,” says Smith. “Then, when it’s all over, you actually get to be in the locker room with the players.” The massive number of cameras simultaneously shooting everything from the slicing of an onion in the kitchen to the furrowed brow of a patron at his or her table abets this. “There’s 82 on set,” he says. “It’s The Truman Show.”
Of course, the singular driver truly responsible for the show’s enduring worldwide popularity hasn’t been the rotating cooks in the kitchen or keen producers in the control room. It’s Ramsay — or, more to the point, his cult of pugnacious personality and the obscenity-laced perfectionism that fuels it.
“Nothing like that had been seen before on U.S. television,” says ITV head Paul Buccieri. “The way he spoke, how aggressively he spoke, was accepted in the U.K. But here it was taboo.” (Jackson notes that the chef logged a near-Tourettic 47 utterances of “f—” in various permutations during one hourlong U.K. episode.)
Znak, credited with first identifying Ramsay as an on-air talent, remains somewhat amazed by her scouting luck. “I’ve spent another lifetime looking for another Gordon — that charisma and that ability to command a camera — and nobody else ever quite compared,” she says. “It’s not anger you’re watching; it’s passion, that attention to detail.” Concurs Darnell: “He’s compelling to watch because he’s authentic. That’s why he owns the space.”
For his part, Ramsay notes that one downside of global recognition for being a hard-ass on TV is that many see his authentic indignation as merely an act generated at will: “I was in Las Vegas recently and someone said, ‘I’ll pay you $500 to call me a f—ing donkey.’ I said no. He goes: ‘It’s my birthday! Just scream at me! $5,000. Please!’ He kept going up and up. I finally stopped him at something like 25 grand. I told him that when I get upset, it’s for real.”
Cooking shows had long been considered a niche taste, best suited for cable. But Kitchen has changed broadcast appetites as the other networks chase its gustatory appeal, so far to no avail (see, for instance, NBC’s Bobby Flay-led 2011 dud America’s Next Great Restaurant). “Is high-end food too narrow for network?” asks ICM agent Greg Lipstone, who represented ITV in the Fox deal. “It’s been proven that it’s not.”
5 QUINTESSENTIALLY HELLISH MOMENTS: Contestants have shown they’ll go to extreme lengths in the heat of competition to win (or beat up the star)
One Person’s Trash …: In season three, contestant Jen Yemola is caught in the act pulling pasta out of the garbage when she is short on an order. She’ll never live it down.
Allergic Reaction: For season four’s signature-dish challenge, contestant Louis Petrozza presents a hen-in-a-pumpkin concoction that prompts Gordon Ramsay to vomit.
Put Down the Frying Pan: Before being dismissed in season six, contestant Joseph Tinnelly gets in Ramsay’s face, calling the chef “nothing but a bitch” and asking for a fight.
Just Add Adrenaline: After sustaining a broken wrist early in the competition, season-six contestant Dave Levey plays through the pain, going on to win.
Keep Chilled: Contestant Raj Brandston gets himself so worked up in season eight that he sticks his head in a storeroom fridge to cool down.
WHAT ELSE DOES RAMSAY HAVE COOKING RIGHT NOW?
He’s certainly firing on all burners as he juggles 11 Michelin stars spread across 24 restaurants, along with a constant output of TV programs, books and products (he puts out cookware with the company behind Wedgwood). His amateur-oriented competition MasterChef will return on Fox with its third cycle the same evening as Hell’s Kitchen, and his Kitchen Nightmares, on which failing restaurants are turned around under Ramsay’s tutelage, recently finished its fourth season. Yet another series, Hotel Hell, will bow later in the summer. Across the pond, Gordon Ramsay Behind Bars, which finds him training prisoners in food service, will premiere in the U.K. on Channel 4 in June. Meanwhile, on the restaurant front, Gordon Ramsay Steak opened at the Paris Las Vegas hotel May 11, and his next L.A. location, a pub called The Fat Cow, is scheduled to open the last week of July at The Grove, with a menu of alcoholic smoothies and shakes that can be ordered to-go to carry into the multiplex next door.