Why Kitchen Nightmares is the most Redemptive Show on T.V.

Ever stumbled upon a Jesus echo in a very unexpected, even unlikely place? Me too. And I love when it happens.

For those unfamiliar with the basic premise, Kitchen Nightmares is a show in which celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay saves a dying restaurant. He lends his restauranteur and cuisine expertise to right a ship gone horribly wrong, and does a fair amount of work outside the kitchen over the course of the episode as well. Ramsay litters each episode with every possible combination of foul words one might imagine, bleeped for network television. His language is quite off-putting to vast amounts of viewers, mainly those who have Christian or other moral sensibilities. (The UK version of the show actually has a much lower blood pressure…sometimes I think they bleep innocuous words here in the U.S. just to give the impression of injected language, but that’s another post.) I freely admit this puts this post in a tough position, because most people who are interested in a blog about redemptive value don’t watch Kitchen Nightmares, and most people who watch Kitchen Nightmares aren’t interested in a post about how a tv show echoes Jesus. But here goes. This is what the internet is for, right?

The show opens with the dying restaurant in question. Things are in a tailspin and they are days from closing its doors. In what can only be described as desperation, the restaurant’s owners have applied to the show and have agreed to let Ramsay work his magic, then air the carnage of the process for all to see. About a half of the time the owners know the problem, and half of the time they think they know, but they will soon learn they are dead wrong. But they all agree that a problem exists that needs to be fixed pronto. Which leads me to…

Redemptive Value #1 – If our lives/habits/relationships are a train wreck, we can’t move forward until we’re willing to admit things are a train wreck. This is the most basic of redemptive steps. As long as we see everything as ‘fine’ and are unwilling to acknowledge that we’re in trouble, we will continue to unravel.

Ramsay is very congenial as he orders a sampler of dishes from the menu. He chats up the waitress with charming British nomenclature, comments on the decor, and generally goes about noticing things. The sampler dishes usually come one by one. He takes one bite of each and is immediately grossed out by what’s been prepared, often spitting it back out on the [bleep] plate. The owners and chefs are shocked. How could he not like that? they wonder, trying desperately not to be offended. The process repeats. Now the owners are on edge, because their chef just served up what he thought was his A-game only to have it sent back to the kitchen half-digested.

It’s worth noting Ramsay’s chops at this point. He was educated in French cuisine, but his knowledge of all types of food is as impressive as it is encyclopedic. His restaurants have earned a collective sixteen Michelin stars at the time of this post. His flagship Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London has a three-star rating, the highest possible, and has been named the best restaurant in London. So he’s not just some guy with a flair for tv. He really does know his stuff. In short, he can out cook everyone in the room, and everyone in the room knows it. So I’m sure it’s a little intimidating to cook for someone with that much pedigree.

Redemptive Value #2 – Being in the presence of the master will force us to respond in one of two ways: either we will get defensive before we start and resign ourselves to ‘this sucks,’ or we will acknowledge we have an incredible opportunity to learn. The difference is role our pride plays. God will not make any progress in our lives as long as our pride rules us.

There’s the inevitable moment when one of two things happen: 1) the chef/owners look at each other with the look of what have we gotten ourselves into or 2) the chef/owners look at each other with the look of who the [bleep] does this guy think he is? There it is: a clue to the Pride. And remember, we’re not talking chain restaurants here. These owners have often paid in multiple thousands of dollars to their dream and are desperate not to see it go up in smoke. I imagine it’s a devastating thing coming to terms with the fact that the thing into which they have poured so much love is circling the drain. Which leads me to…

Redemptive Value #3 – Honest, critical feedback is essential, but it’s so easily misconstrued as a personal attack simply because it’s painful. This is hard for us to hear because we constantly surround ourselves with affirmation, “likes,” etc. But the truth is this: our very best is just plain sewage before holy God. “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;” so says Isaiah 64:6. We can’t ________ well enough to earn God’s approval. We might be the best _________ in history, but coming into contact with the Holy God will expose our efforts to what they are: rags by comparison. Our pride is the first thing that screams foul, because we like what we do/produce/make. We think we’re pretty good. But pretty good doesn’t get much mileage next to Holy. It would be like bragging that your lighthouse could be seen from hundreds of miles away, when God gently whispers, ‘only at night…’ and winks.

Moving forward, the next segment is the dinner service. Ramsay, now dressed in chef wear, gets a lay of the service land. He watches the food being prepared, the (in)efficiency of the orders, who’s doing what job, and who should be doing it. He corrects egregious errors on the fly with profanity-laced incredulity. He is in constant evaluation mode with  outsider glasses. This portion of the show is often intercut with patrons at varying levels of dissatisfaction. He does not suffer unprofessionalism, and explodes criticism bordering on abuse at lack of attention to detail. But this is driven 110% by Ramsay’s absolute passion for food. He becomes furious when the muggles around him don’t share the same enthusiasm for their own restaurant, and consequently make rookie mistakes.

Redemptive Value #4 – Sometimes it takes fresh, expert eyes to knock us into reality and deliver the only cure for being myopic about our environment. We all get in ruts of our own habits’ doing. But rubbing shoulders with someone with such passion is both encouraging and indicting. It holds up a big, uncomfortable mirror. And again, our pride will dictate our response. When we meet a person with such passion and conviction, hang around them a lot, and take good notes.

Then Ramsay commences to dig deeper. The foibles of the dinner service are not problems but symptoms of the real problems. The owner has a drinking problem, or is in debt up to her eyeballs. Or the chef is too arrogant and demeaning. Or the staff is on the verge of mutiny. Or the owners’ marriage is on the rocks. Tempers flare. There’s screaming and tears. In other words, the pressure gets turned up, and people’s worst fears are manifesting before their very eyes. It’s terrifying that someone is actually calling them on it. Ramsay discerns these layers with a hyper-awareness of human behavior; his ability to discern what motivates a person is pure gift. Sometimes he asks for a private two minutes. Sometimes he drill sergeants them. Sometimes he begs a person to take a swing at him so that he can go in the alley and kick their [bleep]. The vast majority of the time, he gets the result he’s after: the people he’s there to help finally admit the possibility that there could be a better way.

Redemptive Value #5 – There’s always something that makes behavior make sense. Dig deeper. This is no time for excuses, but understanding what led us to make our choices can be invaluable. It takes someone who knows us and knows our context to speak into those choices, harshly if need be, to incite a change. We’ll trust harsh words from those people. We absolutely must have people in our lives who will tell us the truth no matter how badly it hurts. The collective message of the prophets in the Old Testament was basically, ‘You’re doing _______ and you’d better quit immediately or else you’re going to get blasted by the Assyrians or Babylonians. But if you do quit sinning and turn the ship around, you’ll be blessed.’ Their words had power in part because they themselves were Israelites speaking to Israelites. Then, as now, some listen, and some don’t.

But the [bleep] really doesn’t hit the fan until Ramsay takes a trip to the fridge/freezer, whereupon he uncovers rotten food, grime and filth that would make a frat house look like an Ikea catalogue. Sometimes it’s so bad, he marches into the dining area, declares the place closed on the spot, and escorts guests out himself. Sometimes the owner knows about the state of the freezer and have been trying to sweep it under the rug so as not to think about it, in which case Ramsay lambasts them for a lack of restauranteur integrity. Or the owner has no idea because the owner is not the one who does the food ordering and organization, in which case Ramsay lambasts them for not knowing what’s going on in their own kitchen. There are two things that Ramsay will absolutely not put up with: laziness and pride. To him, those two things will sink a restaurant faster than anything else, and they must be dealt with immediately and in the extreme. But come to think of it, laziness and pride will sink just about everything.

At this point Ramsay calls a restaurant-wide meeting, high school football coach style, and says in essence it’s gut check time. Do you want to continue this or not? Do you believe in this place or not? Do you love this place enough to do whatever it takes to save it or not? This is often the lowest point in the show, when the owners have to face some tough questions staring back at them in the mirror. They are at a defining moment in their restaurant’s history, and they have some tough choices to make.

Redemptive Value #6 – Sometimes there is rotten, nasty, spoiled grossness inside of our metaphorical walk-in freezers that needs to be cleansed. It will rot us from the inside if left untreated, try as we might to hide it in the cold depths. Sometimes it gets exposed, and it’s so bad we much close down for a while. We are in dire need of a pressure washing, freshness ingredients, and a better system of soul keeping. We cannot afford to be willfully ignorant about the decay inside of us. It’s there, and there’s only one who can take it away if our pride will let him: Jesus. Yes, it’s difficult. It’s gut check time, and laziness and pride have no place in redemption.

After the locker room speech, Ramsay sends everyone home. His design team descends upon the restaurant all night and completely guts the place. They renovate, update, and remodel the dining area, shown in time-lapse. It’s unclear how much of the actual design comes from Ramsay’s head, but it always ends up looking upscale, uncluttered and spotless; a place I immediately want to go (I’m a sucker for a well-designed space). Often there’s a new sign and a new logo to round out the branding. He brings the owners, chef, and staff back in blindfolded, and Extreme Home Makeover-style, reveals their new restaurant. It is one of the best of moments of the show because it’s the moment when hope returns. They all start to believe again.

Redemptive Value #7 – Don’t underestimate the power of a well-designed, aesthetically pleasing space, because such a place can inspire. People have known this since the earliest cathedrals were built–my goodness, that’s why they were built, to inspire worship. Sometimes changing your space is the kickstart you need because a redesign packs a wallop when it comes to changing attitudes. But the key is to be intentional and curated. If design is not your gift, find someone who’s gift it is. Going to the craft store and picking out a cart full of kitsch will only make things worse. 

But Ramsay just doesn’t reinvent the space, he reinvents the menu. After the blindfold unwrapping, there is a table filled with Ramsay’s original recipes he’s created and prepared for this restaurant. He throws away old food, restocking with fresh. He reorganizes the walk-ins. He streamlines the kitchen flow. One of the usual menu problems is that it is just too extensive. Ramsay’s from the school of Do Fewer Things But Do Them With Excellence. So he chops down the offerings, but punches up the presentation and flavor with fresh ingredients. Everyone’s eyes pop out of their heads as they sample the new menu items. Often there are tears. This is the second best moment in the show; hope gets kicked into high gear, because they all realize that THIS food was created HERE, in THIS KITCHEN.  And if he can do it…

Redemptive Value #8 – A vision cast of what could be and what is possible will inspire a hundred times more hope that screaming at someone about what they’re doing wrong. The screaming is a tool to shock the system. But the vision is what gets people excited. And excitement is contagious.

More often than not Ramsay adds a bit of experiential therapy to the episode. When he deems it necessary, he asks owners to commit the actual act of throwing away, burning, or otherwise jettisoning some symbol from the old way of doing things, usually some hideous decor piece from the old design. But it’s very cathartic for the owners because it draws a line in the sand. They often struggle to make it through, and Ramsay is there not screaming expletives, but offering softhearted encouragement and–dare I say it?–compassion. Ramsay didn’t learn this in cooking school; this is his keen insight into humanity asking people to do excruciatingly difficult things in order to clear the way to move forward.

In the extreme cases of the show, the chef or the owner is so unbelievably stubborn that no amount of help will…well, help. These are the people who fight suggestion at every turn, who take all critique personally, and cling to their autonomy no matter the cost or outcome. Ramsay does his best–and it takes quite a lot to out-stubborn him–but if he reaches a point where he decides the chef’s/owner’s pride is too crystalized to change, he’ll cut his [bleeping] losses and move on. I’ve only seen this happen to such a degree a handful of times, and while it makes for a compelling narrative, it is very, very sad. By far, most of the cases end with Ramsay and owners and chefs hugging, and an effluence of gratitude.

Redemptive Value #9 – Taking ownership in your growth, however painful it may be, drives a stake in the ground which says “That was the day I changed.” Sometimes we need to jettison some tangible object that represents the old way so we are free to embrace the new. Those moments are rare and sublime. Hold them close.

Finally, the restaurant is ready for a grand reopening. There is a palpable buzz, and everyone is so optimistic because they know they’ve got a sparkling new space to show off and a powerhouse menu up their sleeve. Sometimes Ramsay asks a chef friend to look in on the kitchen and keep things moving efficiently. Old kitchen habits try to creep back in, and tempers flair, but now there is so much more of a spirit of teamwork and professionalism. Everyone, perhaps for the first time in a long time, actually wants it to work. They are rooting for each other. Attitudes are 180º different from when the show started. Snippets of dining room conversations reveal the food tastes fantastic and that patrons will definitely return. Ramsay does his closing monologue to camera and heads off into the the night in search of the next restaurant with buzzards circling.

Redemptive Value #10 – A thing has been reborn. It has new life, new energy, a fresh design, and new look, new processes, new ingredients, and new goals. The entire show, even the low points, have been leading to this. And it is achingly beautiful. This is such a profound picture of us when reception takes hold.

Most people have the idea that Jesus is compassionate, caring, and a teacher to the exclusion of everything else. But if you read Revelation or Matthew 23, Jesus looks a lot more like William Wallace than Mother Teresa. There is some space out here to think of Jesus as fiery, passionate, and in some cases, violent. No, I don’t think Gordon Ramsay will ever be mistaken for Jesus, nor should he. Perhaps it is the show that looks like Jesus more than its host. But I do think Ramsay looks acts a lot like the prophets in the Old Testament, foul language and all. Those guys were flint-faced, fiery, driven, yet poetic, keenly insightful, and eyes-up. They had passion coursing through them like lava, not for food but for the One who eternally feeds, and it bursts forth in some of the most creative passages in the bible.

Here’s the thing about creating, be it an oil on canvas, a symphony, a sermon, or a tv show: God’s fingerprints shine through, sometimes despite the artist. God put within us the ability to create, so his echo is in our work, whether we mean for it to be or not. Even a tv show about failing restaurants can give us a glimpse into the great redemptive plan God has for us all. I don’t think it’s an accident that Jesus imbues some of the most profound theological content in history in the context of a meal. His Last Supper is the first one for everyone else.photo-1414235077428-338989a2e8c0

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