This past Thanksgiving, I was completely overwhelmed as I tried to cook a holiday meal for myself and my kids for the first time. Panicking in the face of a turkey that had been out of the oven too long and stuffing that wouldn’t heat through, I found myself paraphrasing a Gordon Ramsay tirade to help myself calm down and breathe: “I’ve got turkey dying on the pass, and the stuffing is STONE COLD!” Then I laughed, remembered he couldn’t see me, and microwaved the stuffing.
A couple minutes later, my older daughter walked into the kitchen. “Table one, three cover. Three turkey, two mash, two stuffing, one apple, heard?” I nodded, but didn’t respond out loud. “Hey,” she called, in a surprisingly accurate Scottish-by-way-of-England accent. “Hey, Muppet? Did you hear me?”
“Yes, chef,” I said back. Ten minutes later, dinner was on the table, and we all ate.
This was a minor miracle. For the past three years, the only meals that my two kids and I could all eat together were chicken fingers and pizza. And it wasn’t the first such miracle; all of a sudden, my 11-year-old was desperate to try beef Wellington, and my 7-year-old was begging me to make her scallops. The tipping point for this change? Watching Hell’s Kitchen, the show my kids have affectionately dubbed Gordon Ramsay Screams at People. The behaviors that Gordon Ramsay models on the show have completely changed my family’s relationship to food.
My kids and I are all autistic. Some people would call us “picky eaters.” Medical professionals would call us “sensory avoidant in relation to food.” To further complicate dinnertime, my kids have vastly different tolerances around food. My older daughter would eat a wider variety of fruits and vegetables, but hated most meats and found any attempt at flavoring “too spicy.” My younger daughter’s diet had eventually settled on about a dozen foods: applesauce, chicken nuggets, pizza, Cheerios, peanut butter and jelly waffles, strawberry yogurt, and apple chunks, mostly. You know how parents often say that they expect their kids to eat the same meal as their parents do, because they aren’t short-order cooks? I’ve been cooking three different meals at dinnertime every day for four years. If I didn’t do it, there’s no way all three of us could eat.
Back in November, I was in dire need of some stress relief after a really long day. My boyfriend recommended something that seemed peculiar at the time: Hell’s Kitchen. I’d heard of chef Ramsay’s reputation as a bully in the kitchen, shouting at people and calling them names, and wondered how in the world this could be stress-relieving instead of stress-inducing. Still, I didn’t have a better idea and thought I’d give it a try.
One episode into Season 10, I was hooked. I loved how Ramsay was quick to insult the contestants when they screwed up, but even quicker to compliment them when they did something right. I loved the challenges, where the chefs explored food creatively and showed off their skills. And weirdly, I did find the show relaxing.
A few days later, my kids caught the tail end of an episode and wanted to watch with me. Since I already swear like a sailor and Hulu bleeps out the words that school would find most offensive, I said, “Sure.” It seemed like a fun way to get in some extra family time with two busy kids. That first season, they let me watch episodes after they went to bed, content to find out who had been eliminated the next morning. But when I started the next season, they were absolutely clear: They were watching with me, every episode, and if I watched one without them, I’d be watching it again with them. At first it was just watching the show together, but then they started playing games about being chef “at the pass” and shouting “RAW!” along with Gordon. And then the way they related to food started to change.
On Hell’s Kitchen, Ramsay often talks about how the protein is the star of the meal. For various reasons, autistic kids often struggle to get enough protein. A lot of meats have weird textures, need to be chewed thoroughly, and tend to be heavily seasoned. Many parents need to resort to protein shakes or even heavy-duty iron supplements to keep their kids healthy. We were getting to that point—until Gordon (and after this happened, I claim my right to call him Gordon and have said that if I ever meet him, I will kiss him on his big Scottish mug) demonstrated his homemade scrambled eggs on a YouTube video.
My youngest was fascinated and requested scrambled eggs for dinner—something she has steadfastly refused for years. Then there was the turkey she ate at Thanksgiving, enjoying how she could pull the stringy breast meat apart into tiny, easy-to-chew pieces. Now she’s eating sliders, chicken, and scrambled eggs regularly. She has tried different types of sausage, salmon, and even a scallop. The scallop didn’t take, but I was assured that they were not rubber or raw, putting me ahead of many Hell’s Kitchen contestants.
“Just One Bite”
This is the classic tactic that parents try to get their kid to eat something. And for a kid who isn’t nervous about food, it might work. But many autistic kids also have sensory processing disorders. SPD means that their brain does not process sensory information in a typical way. That pleasant burst of citrus at the end of a bite of fish might be delicious for me; for a kid, it might make their mouth feel as if it were on fire. If that happens to you more than once or twice, eating new things becomes terrifying. And what is problematic is different for everyone. I love bright and spicy flavors, but the squish of peas in my mouth makes me violently ill. That fear of a horrifying sensation that takes over your entire body becomes almost insurmountable. It’s easier to just avoid eating new things that might be a problem.
But from the signature dish challenge through every dinner service, Gordon tastes (nearly) every dish, and he demands that contestants do the same. He gives feedback on flavor and texture, and sometimes, after critiquing the presentation, even Ramsay finds that something he thought would be awful actually tastes “quite nice.” Whether he knows it or not, Gordon is mimicking the advice of my daughter’s occupational therapist: Engage food with all your senses. Look at it, smell it, and touch it before you even try to taste it. Sometimes, step one is to allow a scary food to be on your plate. This helps you demystify the food. You can identify ways in which it’s familiar to other things you’ve eaten or find senses that aren’t overwhelmed by food. My oldest will try things that are visually attractive, for example. I can slice baby carrots lengthwise and arrange them around a circle of dip like flower petals, and she adores them.
But it’s one thing to have Mom or your OT say these things to you; it’s something else entirely to have the cranky TV chef eating the way people suggest you eat. Suddenly, the whole process seems a lot more doable.
Cooking Gives You Control
I love to cook, and as my kids’ diets narrowed to mostly things that came out of the freezer and went into the microwave, I didn’t just worry about their health. I missed being in the kitchen, making chili and eggs and cheddar broccoli soup. While I enjoy the creativity involved in cooking for myself, cooking also gives me complete control over what’s in my food. I’ve learned, after nearly 40 years, to tolerate a lot of things I hate (though I’m still never going to eat peas willingly). But when I’m cooking, I get to leave out not just the peas, but chives, cilantro, tomatoes, and sour cream. I get to make food I love, not just tolerate.
I also love cooking for other people. It’s a fun challenge to adjust flavors and temperatures and presentation for the person or occasion. But that only works if the people for whom you’re adjusting the food are able to tell you what’s wrong. For my kids, food was just food; if one version of a slider was bad, all sliders were bad. But Gordon never just says “yuck.” Instead, he explains why he doesn’t like a dish: The vegetables are underdone, the meat is overcooked, the presentation is unappealing, or the spices aren’t on point. The goal is for the chefs to learn from the feedback and do better next time. This means that food is now changeable, and that change here is desirable.
A little while back, I made sliders for the kids, and I made them medium-rare (because Gordon and I agree that this is the appropriate temperature for beef). My older daughter loved them, while my younger daughter absolutely did not. After a minute, she was able to explain that she liked “the brown parts, not the pink parts.” Next time, I cooked them medium-well and added another meal to our acceptable list.
Ultimately, what Gordon Ramsay and Hell’s Kitchen did was to change our family conversation around food. My kids got familiar with words like risotto, sliders, and capellini, even as they learned to call me a doughnut and a Muppet. Instead of being scared of foods they hadn’t tried yet, they have begun to consider food an opportunity to try something new. They consider the possibility that something new might be good. For an autistic kid—for any kid—that curiosity is key to growth.
Gordon Ramsay elevated our family’s food experience into something that’s more fun for all of us. I get to cook, and my kids are excited to eat. The furious rants of an angry man have made dinnertime in my home the most peaceful it has ever been.