Sympathy for the Devil

In defense of Gordon Ramsay.

Gordon Ramsay

Gordon Ramsay attends the Fox All-Star Party on Aug. 1, 2013, in West Hollywood, Calif.

Photo silhouette by Slate. Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic/Getty Images

We have reached a certain unanimity about the middle-aged white men who dominate our small-screen landscape: that Breaking Bad’s Walter White is a walking Greek tragedy refitted for the never-ending Great Recession, that Louis C.K. is our existential bard of morality and ethics and how to be good, and that Gordon Ramsay is Satan in a chef’s jacket. Everyone hates Gordon Ramsay. If a Ramsay-hater feels her resolve fading, she can simply consult Grub Street’s useful “20 Most Despicable Things Gordon Ramsay Has Said and Done, Ranked.” Everyone has ample opportunities to hate him, too, as Ramsay hosts roughly two-fifths of the Fox television lineup (including MasterChef, Hell’s Kitchen, Kitchen Nightmares, and Hotel Hell), is owner-proprietor of approximately one-sixteenth of the world’s dining establishments, and has insulted, screwed over, and/or instigated feuds with about one-eighth of the global foodie elite. His bellowing omnipresence has also made him obscenely rich and therefore still easier to hate: Ramsay pocketed $38 million in 2012 alone, making him Forbes’ top-earning celebrity chef, and according to Ad Week, Ramsay “has delivered north of $185 million in sales for Fox” just in the past year, including advance commitments for his latest show, MasterChef Junior, which premieres Friday.

That Ramsay is so reviled and yet so popular is no paradox. His on-air personality fulfills the same sadistic Schadenfreude that powers so much of reality TV. As with Simon Cowell, the fundamental contradiction at the heart of Ramsay’s charisma is that his sadism is intended to help beleaguered line cooks become the very best line cooks they can be. This is Ramsay’s sacrifice to the novice chefs of America: His name is no longer synonymous with sublime cuisine but with throat-shredding tantrums bouncing off the walls of a disgusting pantry full of moldering food in the bowels of an exurban strip mall’s second-most-popular family restaurant. His appeal partly rests on the assumption that Ramsay has to be standing in that disgusting pantry not just for a paycheck but because he thinks he can help these people clean up their pantry and accounts and wait staff and relationships with one another. The man could be literally anywhere else in the world right now, doing anything, and likely earning money for it, but there he is, waving a slimy block of congealed ground beef at the hapless owner of the Fiesta Sunrise in West Nyack, N.Y.

That’s sad, because nobody remembers anymore that Gordon Ramsay is a great chef. He used to collect Michelin stars the way Kanye West collects Grammys. His lucrative decline from culinary enfant terrible to apoplectic mass-market jester is rooted in the same quality that made him such a phenomenon—the same quality that he urges all of his victim-students to nurture in themselves: his insane, carnivorous notion of a work ethic. The man cannot stop working, and so he has taken what could have been an impeccable brand and worked it to death.

Ramsay came to prominence in the U.K. in the 1998 Channel Four documentary miniseries Boiling Point as a young, terrifyingly ambitious chef in single-minded pursuit of a third Michelin star. His perfectionism was surpassed in intensity only by his astonishing verbal abuse of his staff—all of whom, by the way, had just quit their jobs in solidarity with their tyrannical boss to follow him to his new, eponymous restaurant. (The show waits nine minutes before unleashing Ramsay’s first-ever televised shit fit, triggered by a glimpse of a bright blue Band-Aid on a waiter’s finger.) The Ramsay of Boiling Point was frequently appalling, but he was also an underdog worth rooting for: a true up-by-his-bootstraps success story, having traveled from a bleak council estate through some of the toughest kitchens in England and France (his mentor was the even screamier Marco Pierre White) to, by the mid ’90s, the gig as head chef at Aubergine, the London restaurant so exclusive it famously turned away Madonna. Ramsay would be denied that third Michelin star for another three years, a tortuous wait depicted in the 2000 sequel Beyond Boiling Point. As is the case with so many monomaniacs, though, finally harpooning his white whale wasn’t an entirely positive development for Ramsay; he could find nothing left to chase but fast-track empire-building and cheaply produced reality TV.

Not that all of that cheaply produced reality TV was terrible—quite the contrary, at least with the programs Ramsay made in the U.K., including the genuinely food-centric The F-Word, the frequently charming travelogue Gordon Ramsay’s Great Escape, and especially, the original incarnation of Kitchen Nightmares. Premiering in 2004, the U.K. Kitchen Nightmares provided an intimate, borderline meditative look inside businesses with a fighting chance of survival helmed by not entirely delusional owners. (The central quandary in the episode set at an upscale restaurant in Inverness is that the food is just too fancy.) The editing and sound are far less concussive than in their American counterparts, while Ramsay’s seismic eruptions feel more like natural phenomena; he achieves a fond rapport with many of his charges, even easing into the role of ad-hoc therapist.

The problem with even the best Ramsay TV, though, is the problem with all of Ramsay: There’s just too bloody much of it. Even Fox, the Ramsay Network, can’t handle the full Ramsay. Network head Kevin Reilly passed on a U.S. version of his British hit Gordon Behind Bars, in which Ramsay teaches cooking, small-business skills, and old-fashioned diligence in a south London prison; Reilly explained to the New York Post, “We have a lot of Gordon on the air right now.” Yet Gordon Behind Bars is a show after Rupert Murdoch’s heart—less a Jamie Oliver–ish endeavor to improve prisoners’ diet and job prospects and more an expression of Ramsay’s umbrage that Britain is too soft on her sedentary, TV-watching convict population: “I thought we were a nation of grafters,” Ramsay told the Guardian by way of explanation. “I thought we had the spirit of working harder than anyone.”

Ramsay is a grafter through and through, and that’s both the key to his kingdom and his tragic flaw. He is a man who can’t say no. Even taking into account his haul of lucre for Fox, Ramsay’s past few years have been a study in failing upward: His London gastropub Foxtrot Oscar got caught serving premade “boil-in-a-bag” meals; he lost his longtime contract with Claridge’s hotel in London; he faced a class-action lawsuit by employees of his Los Angeles restaurant the Fat Cow; and endured a string of closures in London, Las Vegas, Prague, Dubai, Melbourne, Doha, and Cape Town.* What’s damning about that list isn’t that Ramsay has botched or closed so many restaurants in so many cities, but that he had that many restaurants open in the first place, while also fronting and managing a television fiefdom.

Imagine an alternative scenario: if the 1998-vintage Ramsay, flush off his Aubergine triumph, had looked to the 10-years-older, multi-Michelin-starred Thomas Keller as a role model. It wasn’t until four years after the opening of the French Laundry that Keller opened nearby Bouchon, and it was a decade before Keller opened Per Se and Bouchon turned into a (modest) franchise. Keller has published a few cookbooks, dabbled in olive oil and dinnerware, pops up on television to roast a chicken now and again, and that’s about it. He and his food could scarcely be more revered, and that’s not just because he’s a genius. It’s also because Thomas Keller has been an exquisite conservationist of his own brand, which is to say you’ll never see Thomas Keller in a Specsavers ad.

A staunch Ramsay advocate would counter that Ramsay is a populist, but being a man of the people should not mean having to smell all the rancid meat of the people’s kitchens, or even having to smile indulgently at the people’s precocious children preparing brasserie-ready meals in MasterChef Junior, which is a good look for Ramsay only insofar as there’s little chance he’ll start yelling at a 9-year-old for serving a too-rubbery octopus salad. He seems a little exhausted, a little checked out in MasterChef Junior, which is also a good look, as it summons the faintest hope that Ramsay might check out altogether for a little while and give us the chance to miss hating him. I can’t help but wonder if Ramsay ever feels a twinge of regret for allowing the bacteria of America’s most infernal dining establishments to poison his reputation. Because when others see Gordon Ramsay throwing an elk quesadilla at another man, they see a clown. When I see Gordon Ramsay throwing an elk quesadilla at another man, I see a clown, too, but also a tragic figure—a crying-on-the-inside clown, a clown who throws the elk quesadilla out of anger at his pupil but also, perhaps, anger at himself.

Correction, Sept. 26, 2013: This article originally listed both Doha and Qatar as sites of closed Gordon Ramsay restaurants. Qatar was removed from the list, as Doha is in Qatar. (Return.)