Kitchen Nightmares In The Restaurant Apocalypse of 2020
In food and business alike, perhaps perfection is overrated.
There’s a television show worth watching as the coronavirus recession bears down on us. From 2007 to 2014, Fox aired Kitchen Nightmares, a restaurant-turnaround drama hosted by British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay. Every episode centers on a failing restaurant that Ramsay undertakes to rescue and renew—with a lot of insults and profanity in between. Most owners are either new to the industry or old, burned-out veterans, simultaneously exhausted and proud, humble enough to audition for the turnaround show but too arrogant to listen to the famed chef. Of course, editing and coaching from the producers plays a part too.
Much of the show’s appeal comes from Ramsay’s prickly personality, his insults and quips, and his absurd slogs through dirty kitchens and walk-in fridges loaded with god-knows-what, all the while narrating with hammed-up disgust. (“Chimichangas? Chimi-chuck it in the bin!”) He’s mean, but humorous and slightly charming: in one episode, for example, he spies an exercise bike with a missing wheel in the back room of a restaurant, and asks the waiter to go find the wheel so he can bike the hell out of there. Ramsay can also be kind, however, and most episodes feature a heart-to-heart with an owner or family member involved with the business.
It’s easy to laugh at some of the owners, especially their perennial certainty that whatever might be wrong with the restaurant, it can’t possibly be their food. It’s never not funny when they call frozen food “fresh frozen” or insist that an unidentified customer raved about the menu last week. And then there’s the clip where an owner claims that his (terrible) signature sauce came to him in a dream, courtesy of The Man Upstairs. But some of the episodes are more poignant, and very few of the defensive owners and arrogant head chefs turn out to be villains by the end. Many are people of faith. Most are husbands, wives, fathers, mothers. They mainly want to keep their businesses open and their families intact.
By and large, these people are not lazy, nor are they trying to poison their customers. They are burned out, overwhelmed, and underwater. The relentless pressure of trying to keep a sinking business afloat has rendered many of them bitter and terminally short-fused, even—or especially—to the spouses, siblings, and adult children who are often their business partners. They’ve taken their swing at the American dream, and they’ve struck out. What’s worse, they’ve often found themselves bankrupt and their families destroyed.
In “Fiesta Sunrise” (air date November 13, 2008), a family-run Mexican restaurant finds itself struggling under debt. The owner has exhausted her savings and ruined her credit, and instead of throwing in the towel, asked her daughter to borrow for her. (One is reminded of a little snippet of Thomas Friedman anti-wisdom: “When you’re in one hole, stop digging. When you’re in three, bring a lot of shovels.”) To no viewer’s surprise, the daughter finds her credit ruined, and her previously healthy marriage on the rocks. Her husband’s table-flipping meeting with Ramsay and the owners might have been scripted; her own tearful interview is probably real.
In “J Willy’s” (air date October 30, 2008) a couple is running a failing barbecue house whose menu more closely resembles the frozen aisle of a supermarket. At one point the husband reveals that his wife badly wants to have children, but because of their financial situation they are unable to afford the commitment. Despite a signature Gordon Ramsay renovation and a fire under their asses, the business folded within months of the episode’s air date and the aging building, vacant for several deep recession years, was eventually demolished, having never found a buyer.
And in “Kati Allo” (air date April 18, 2014), a failing Greek eatery where the Greek sausage is deep fried in stale oil, Ramsay has a heart-to-heart with the owners’ grown daughter, who every day witnesses the slow dissolution of her parents’ once happy marriage as their business declines. “This place destroyed our family,” sobs her mother. She doesn’t appear to be wrong.
Despite the thick overlay of personal drama and focus on business mistakes—and very little commentary on America’s broad economic situation—it cannot be lost on a viewer today that most of these episodes were filmed in the era of the Great Recession. Even in 2014, when the last season aired, there was still talk of a “recovery.” The show humanizes its subjects while obscuring the structural obstacles they face. Its mode of analysis, such as it is, is one in which hard work always overcomes bad circumstances, and in which commercial failure is always personal failure.
This may be roughly accurate in the case of lazy employees (though not in the case of layoffs): goof off or don’t show up, and you get fired and probably deserve it. But losing a business that you’ve poured your savings and life into is another thing entirely. Small businesses owners, much more so than employees, lack “work-life balance.” Their work is their life, and while this can redound to their benefit, it can also make failure that much more crushing and complete. There’s no “life” to keep free from the fallout. This is made worse by the fact that Americans have a scant script to explain failure when it occurs even as every advisable individual choice was made. And yet we saw that in 2008, and we are seeing it now. Yes, bad restaurants closed; so did plenty of good ones, and lots of average ones.
One critique of Kitchen Nightmares is that it isn’t really a turnaround show: a large majority of the featured restaurants have closed, many just a year or two after Ramsay’s visit (and one before the episode could even air). This could be because Ramsay isn’t the turnaround artist he claims to be. It could also be that a business, like an organism, cannot easily recover from an advanced state of sickness—debt, mismanagement, accumulated disrepute. Some restaurants that might appear closed actually changed names and concepts or were sold, suggesting that the owners made out a little better.
Yet it turns out that with the Great Recession now some years behind us, a look back at the fate of Ramsay’s restaurants bears out a structural explanation for their eventual failure. Using data from a 2014 retrospective piece at Grubstreet, I graphed the percentage of restaurants that survived from each season of the show. While some of the restaurants from the more recent seasons are closed today, the overall trend is still absolutely striking; it is a graph of the economy. Not a single restaurant featured in 2008 or 2009 survived, and only two survived from 2007.
Concurrent with the Great Recession was also the mainstreaming of review apps like Yelp, the rise of “foodie” culture, and a more conscious approach to eating. This might be creative destruction, but it is certainly destruction. The restaurant industry has become more competitive and more food dollars are spent in restaurants than ever before. By that measure, restaurants are thriving. But they are thriving, mostly, as a category. It is possible for the customer—or the British celebrity chef—to simply expect too much, and there is probably a point at which the expected standard no longer realistically matches the abilities of the average restaurateur. If standards have climbed so high that restaurants are increasingly not viable as ordinary family businesses, then something has been lost.
And the food is just the beginning. Restaurants never run themselves. The work routine cannot be established and then left on autopilot. The work is endless and thankless. Five percent of it, perhaps, has something to do with cooking; the other 95 percent is cleaning, budgeting, ordering, hiring, managing, filling out paperwork and paying taxes. A restaurant is not a big dinner party; it is a managerial enterprise with a kitchen and dining room attached. Many restaurants never turn a profit before going under, and many that do run on extremely thin margins and are not profitable enough to guarantee a comfortable retirement. As the coronavirus “phase one” reopenings begin, many restaurants are finding that running at reduced capacity simply doesn’t pencil out. Indeed, one can be left wondering how restaurants exist at all. Some thrive, to be sure. But many have short lives, and perhaps the continued existence of so large a number of restaurants at any given time relies on inexperienced people volunteering to have their lives ground up.
Slavery is America’s original sin, but a few sins behind is our overarching tendency to conflate economic failure with moral failure. The result is that we often punish people for trying. It is difficult to watch Kitchen Nightmares—or to drive down an old commercial strip in the wake of a recession—and spy any evidence for the Smithian view of economics as cunning and mutually productive self-interest. Rather, one wonders whether the American economy relies on something darker. If restaurants as a category run on burnout, broken marriages, bitter families, and exhausted finances, is it even moral to go out to eat? Or to put it more soberly, how can we reward and incentivize successful enterprises without perpetuating the aspects of the business that destroy human lives?
In a 2019 interview with Hot Ones, a popular online food show, Gordon Ramsay addressed “all the snowflakes and Millennials out there: the more you get pushed, the thicker your skin, and the thicker your skin, trust me, the higher you go.” Grit, determination, and success certainly describe Ramsay’s own professional arc. But one wonders how high the families from innumerable episodes of Kitchen Nightmares have gone, put through the wringer of bankruptcy and foreclosure and divorce and deferred childbearing and untold emotional pain for the crime of serving frozen pizza, or even for the “crime” of doing business in an unforeseen recession. One wonders what fate will befall the owners of thousands of shuttered restaurants at this moment, on which many owners have staked their futures and retirements. A recession at least as severe as 2008 may already be baked into the cake. And recessions, like rain, fall on the just and the unjust. The least we can do is align our own expectations with standards that are humanly possible, and meet failure with a measure of compassion.