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What I Watched Last Night: Kitchen Nightmares

Some years ago, I was introduced to Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares on BBC America and became kind of fascinated with it. Like the American version of the show that came later, Ramsay spent his time traipsing around the United Kingdom on a mission to whip some mom-and-pop restaurant the size of a Dairy Queen into shape within the span of a few days. If I learned anything from that show, it's that food created on that island is basically unidentifiable slop even on its best days, so if you ever visit, you're probably better off just drinking your three squares a day at the closest pub.

Here in the States, our mom-and-pop dining establishments have many of the same problems as those across The Pond, except without meals involving sheep innards or eels. Their kitchens are just as filthy and disorganized, their food storage practices just as abhorrent, and the food cooked by the same stressed-out, lazy and incompetent kitchen people who seem to have developed their social skills in prison. Likewise, our dining establishments are being mismanaged into the dirt by bickering family members who probably should have found something more profitable to mismanage into oblivion, like a steel mill or a record company. In many cases, it has taken entire families generations of hard work to drive their business over a cliff, so the possibility that it might be resurrected in less than a week by one guy is pretty inspiring.

That said, you'd think having Gordon Ramsay dedicate seven days to save your own personal Titanic would make you cream in your jeans. Or if you were a really hard case, at least make your nipples tingle a little. But no. That's why another entertaining season of Kitchen Nightmares is now back on Fox.

Tuesday's episode saw Gordon being dispatched to the picturesque northern New Jersey cowtown of Whitehouse Station to tackle a place called Flamangos Roadhouse. I'm not being unduly deferential to Whitehouse Station, especially since it's on the other side of the state from the box of rocks that are the guidos and guidettes on MTV's Jersey Shore. Rather, it's because the first thing that greeted Ramsay as he rolled down the road in an impeccably-restored vintage pickup truck was an overpowering odor of cow manure that only got thicker the closer he got to town. By the "holy fucking shit!" look on his face, you just knew he was thinking of "The Smelly Car" episode of Seinfeld because detoxifying a valuable antique pickup probably isn't in the production budget.

Tuesday's project was owned by aging couple Bill and Adele Csepi and their 40-something daughter Cheryl. Ramsay notices problems the second he steps into the place, as the interior decorating scheme seems to have originated in the What In God's Name Were You Thinking? school of interior design. "It's not Flamingo's, it's not Flamenco's," Cheryl points out while explaining the name behind the Jersey meets tourista Tiki meets day-glo paint factory decor. It's a combination of "Fla" (short for Florida) and "mangos" (for mango, "a tropical fruit"), explains Cheryl.

Fortunately for Flamangos, much of its problem lies in the menu, which is roughly as expansive as the Chicago White Pages phone directory. This naturally creates major food and cooking-time management headaches for the head cook, not to mention a major inconvenience for the customers, who spend almost an hour waiting for food they're just going to end up sending back to the kitchen anyway. Even the risotto, which no human being on the face of the planet other than Chef Ramsay has ever been able to cook worth a damn.

On the other hand, at least the kitchen isn't swarming with cockroaches, the cookstoves all work, and the walk-in coolers aren't harboring a valley of mold and rotted produce. We know this because Ramsay didn't force anyone to clean anything, and he didn't have to spring for a brand new kitchen like he usually has to. Unfortunately, the restaurant has Adele, a micromanager with a less-than-sunny disposition whose presence was best summed up by one of the waitstaff as "toxic." At one point, Adele refers to a customer as "bastard" for sending back a meal not prepared to his liking. Problem is, Adele mutters under her breath within earshot of such bastards.

To make a long story short, Chef Gordon did what he always does on any of his programs requiring drastic makeovers, which is to rename the place (The Junction this time, since it's next to a railroad crossing, duh) after remodeling it into something relatively attractive, and scale the menu back far enough to prominently feature meat loaf as a special. This frees the head chef from indentured servitude as a line cook to rediscover his joy of cooking and head-chef a signature dish (chicken-shrimp jubilee this time). As it so happened, 70-year-old Tony had a meat loaf recipe up his sleeve that he'd been just dying to whip up during the eight years Adele's been forcing him to dodder around behind a food pushcart of some sort called "the trolley" like it was a walker.

Tuesday's transformation saw every stick of Tiki tacky inside the restaurant - including a life-sized fiberlass alligator mascot that looked like Wally Gator - dumped into a huge pile and incinerated by Ramsay in dramatic fashion with a flamethrower. The bonfire was necessary, he said, to keep anyone from getting any big ideas to reuse any of it after he was gone.

Later, the place goes from cramped, torched Tiki to spacious '50s-ish malt shop diner, complete with tables and chairs straight out of the kitchen of Ray Barone's mom and dad. The crown jewel, Ramsay proudly announces, is that the raw bar has become a milkshake bar! Because really, nothing tops off a good slab of meatloaf and a plate of risotto like a good shake. He's an internationally-successful chef, so I suppose he knows about things like this.

Not surprisingly, Adele is mortified, as if she just walked into an episode of Trading Spaces gone tragically wrong. She doesn't just "hatehatehate it" - she "want(s) to throw up" and go home. "He says it's going to work," Adele complains to a tableful of customers stunned into slack-jawed disbelief. "How stupid do you have to be? I would never run a restaurant like this. I would rather close the doors."

She still doesn't think much of The Great Meat Loaf Decision either, even though everyone is raving about it and ordering it by the cowload while the poor fools ordering the stuff that's always been on the menu are sending their selections back to the kitchen.

Still and all, Ramsay's job was finished and Adele eventually began "accepting" the reconstituted restaurant when the cash registers starting ringing. She began accepting it so much, we're told at the close of the show, that she started redecorating a few days after Ramsay wandered off into the sunset - illuminating yet again the enduring wisdom of REO Speedwagon when the band told the world in 1978 that you can tune a piano, but you can't tuna fish.

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Visit the What I Watched Last Night archives and see what else we've been watching. Submissions welcome.



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Posted on February 4, 2010


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