Going Down in Flames

I attempt to cookalong with Gordon Ramsay.

Gordon Ramsay 

Always an innovator, the celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay last night expanded his repertoire of emotional abuse beyond raving filthily at the incompetents of Kitchen Nightmares and the ambitious masochists of Hell’s Kitchen. The fresh harassment arrived under the title Gordon Ramsay: Cookalong Live (Fox). Here, the host, reprising a stunt he has pulled several times in the United Kingdom, encouraged viewers to slap together a particular meal in real time, their eyes ticking between the oil splattering on the stovetop and the spittle spraying on the TV screen. “Gordon proves that everyone across the nation can prepare and enjoy a three-course home-made meal,” reads a line of promotional copy for the original. Of course, no one will ever be able to prove that everyone across the nation can prepare Pop-Tarts, and the group at our table decided it would take a special breed of degenerate to unreservedly enjoy eating anything after enduring Ramsay’s agitating performance. Noting that Cookalong’s recipes were designed to feed four, we had invited another couple over to guinea-pig out. “I found the whole thing pretty stressful,” said the husband. “And you weren’t even doing anything,” said his wife.

Joining a frantically cheerful Ramsay in his Los Angeles studio were hundreds of fans and three beaming B-list celebrities—actress Alyson Hannigan, singer LeAnn Rimes, and entertainer Cedric the Entertainer—each of whom diced up shallots and sliced off hammy quips as the situation required. Via satellite, Ramsay shared moments with an averagely grouchy Whoopi Goldberg in New Jersey and an attractively aproned pair of military wives living near Camp Pendleton in California. By way of Skype, 16 other teams of “cookalongers” checked in from various corners of the country. There was a cheerleading squad in the mix, a phalanx of firemen, and some widdle-biddy children who popped up on tape at one point. These were proud emissaries of the real America, and it was quite politic of Ramsay never to mention that, with Cookalong beginning at 9 p.m. on both coasts, they would be dining on a schedule best suited for Argentineans.

For a first course, we had angel hair pasta with shrimp, chili peppers, and tomatoes, and it tasted “totally good.” The light dusting of lemon zest proved delightful. Condolences are probably due to a few viewers who, following Ramsay’s instructions to Cedric about massaging the chilies with their bare hands, never thought, in all the commotion, to wash up before touching a spicy finger to an unwatchful eye or perfectly innocent mucous membrane.

The main course was Steak Diane with sautéed potatoes and peas, which seemed appropriate. This whole cookalong concept feels like a throwback to the days when Mamie Eisenhower still held some influence as a style icon, and Ramsay’s recipe for this dish feels like it’s straight out of the 1961 edition of The New York Times Cookbook, where everything, even the boiled eggs, seems to require a pint of cream and a cup of sherry. In the matter of Steak Diane, Slate advises its readers to stick to the unfussy prescriptions of The Joy of Cooking. But if Ramsay ever stopped making a fuss, then he would cease to exist—hence this show’s great moment of flagrant idiocy. The chef instructed the audience to flambé the sauce for the steak: You were to put brandy in the pan with the mushrooms and everything and then tip the pan into the burner’s gas flame and then watch the alcohol blaze away. Good TV! But Ramsay’s target demographic obviously lives in electric-stove suburbia, and he had no guidance for it whatsoever—not even a moment’s warning against trying to make do with a lit Virginia Slim. Bad, TV, bad! We quarantined the heavy-creamy sauce in a gravy boat, and the steak tasted “totally good.”

For dessert there was to be a “quick tiramisu” served with store-bought Italian ladyfingers. By the time Ramsay got around to it, he was awfully punchy, as if fatigued by the effort of restraining his belligerence for the better part of his time slot. “Cedric, do you like ladies’ fingers?” he asked. Cedric hedged on that one. Plowing on, Ramsay recommended sticking the tiramisu mixture in the fridge for a few minutes to thicken it: “LeAnn, do you like it thick?” LeAnn didn’t commit to a position on the issue—but she did enchant the studio audience in recounting, at her host’s urging, a litany of recent car wrecks, running down the list as if plugging her most recent projects. “I had an accident with a golf cart!” she confessed to wild applause.

Chez nous, we encountered inexplicable trouble getting the tiramisu’s whipping cream to whip. Instead, we sunk our teeth into the mild debacle of Cookalong itself. There had been zero satisfying food-porn close-ups of the dishes. There had not been a single useful tip or handy hint offered. The show had progressed with such great speed and turbulence that it did not even fulfill its core mission: There was no time to watch the commercials. (Or so I felt; our male guest took a more nuanced view, venturing that Fox had indeed fulfilled its obligation to advertisers: “One way to make sure people don’t turn the channel is to keep their hands occupied.”) We wonder if the show’s primary intent was to reposition Ramsay as something other than the seething ogre audiences have come to know. (The female guest wondered, “Does he have an interest in doing that, in rebranding himself as ‘not a dick’?”) We put the unwhippable cream in a cocktail shaker with some brandy and a couple of dashes of vanilla extract, then strained that into highball glasses and grated some nutmeg on top—ad hoc Brandy Alexanders. They tasted “not terrible!”

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