Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares Was a Food TV Trailblazer

The original British version of Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares set a precedent for food TV that few others shows ever reached.

Gordon Ramsay promotional shot for Kitchen Nightmares season 6
Photo: FOX Image Collection | Getty Images

Midway through the very first episode of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, the 2004 restaurant docuseries starring celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, the mercurial cook’s unusually calm voiceover pauses a moment. Ramsay is considering a change in approach to reach Tim, the uninspired 21-year-old chef of Bonapartes in West Yorkshire.

“Maybe it’s me,” Ramsay muses. “I should try the ‘softly softly’ approach.”

Ramsay does opt for the “softly softly” approach, operating slightly more gently with Tim than his usual bombastic bouts of yelling. Ultimately the strategy is unsuccessful. After one night of success, Tim falls back into bad habits at episode’s end and Bonapartes would close within a year … leading to its owner Sue pursuing an unsuccessful lawsuit against Ramsay, alleging that production staged portions of the episode. Ramsay was awarded £75,000 plus court costs.

That bit of behind-the-scenes drama may sound familiar to casual American TV watchers who know Gordon Ramsay from his intense, enthusiastically profane performances in food reality shows like Hell’s Kitchen, Master Chef, and the glitzy American remake of Kitchen Nightmares. What surely seems less recognizable to the American TV-watching crowd, however, is Ramsay’s moment of patient self-reflection. Perhaps screaming at this kid isn’t the best way to get things done? Perhaps different people require different methods of motivation?

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Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares already enjoys an elevated perception among some viewers. The show won a 2006 International Emmy for best non-scripted entertainment, and the 2005 and 2008 British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards for Best Features. But even with all its accolades and fond remembrances, Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares still feels like it doesn’t get quite enough credit for the singular restaurant documentary series it was, nor how it depicted a less rehearsed version of a current international mega celebrity.

Gordon Ramsay is one of the most famous TV cooking personalities in the Western world currently. Ever since his journey to achieve three Michelin Stars was first documented in the 1999 British docuseries Boiling Point, the Scotland-born chef has been a mainstay of food television. In that time he has maintained a brand of the abrasive, yet hyper competent and exacting culinary mastermind. Despite making plenty of personal and professional mistakes in his career, as any chef it oft to make, Ramsay’s public image is that of “the chef who has all the answers … and also who yells a lot.”

That’s a perception that Ramsay has been able to maintain through many TV projects, including Fox’s Next Chef – the second season of which is set to premiere in the coveted post-Super Bowl timeslot on Sunday, Feb. 12. What makes Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares such a fascinating watch in hindsight, however, is that public perception wasn’t quite in place yet. Ramsay’s first foray into documentary television presented a kinder, more accommodating version of his “character.” And the result was one of the most insightful TV series about the restaurant industry ever aired.

Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares resembles the acclaimed docuseries that preceded it, Boiling Point, far more than any of the Ramsay properties that would follow (including the show literally also called Kitchen Nightmares). First premiering in 2004, the British version of the now internationally-recognized concept comes across as a more a staid nature documentary than the crass reality TV series that had begun to populate the TV landscape during its time.

The score is bare: only some jaunty piano strings in-between scenes. The pervasive reality TV sound effects are non-existent: only the ambient noises of pots and cutlery clanging in the kitchen. The omniscient, over-expository cooking show narrator has been replaced by Ramsay, himself, quietly muttering his observations about his surroundings into a microphone as though they were diary entries. And all in all, there’s far less of a sense of exploitation in the proceedings.

That doesn’t mean that Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares isn’t fundamentally exploitative. Like every television endeavor made for profit, the show’s primary purpose is to entertain its audience and therefore make its benefactors money. The show’s stated mission, which is to help struggling restaurants, is certainly only secondary. Watching Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, however, it’s easy to suspend one’s disbelief about all that.

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Ramsay’s desire to actually help these restaurants often comes across as achingly sincere. Each episode of the series drops him into a floundering business for a full week, which now seems like an eternity, with the modern iterations of this concept delighting at giving their “fixers” only 24-72 hours at most. And Ramsay uses his time wisely, getting to know the staff’s strengths and weaknesses and the culture of the town surrounding each restaurant.

In that aforementioned first episode, “Bonapartes,” Ramsay quickly works out that Chef Tim’s desire to make elevated fine dining from a bar’s basement is not going to fly with the working class citizenry of Silsden. Something like that may seem like an elementary observation now in our current media landscape where even the most casual foodie knows everything there is to know about the restaurant industry, but that dynamic plays out time and time again in Kitchen Nightmares‘ 35 episodes (which include 27 original visits and 8 “revisits”) to great surprise and effect each time.

Meanwhile, Ramsay frequently uses collective plural pronouns like “we” when describing each restaurants and what needs to be done, fully ingratiating himself as part of the team and part of the solution – not merely operating as an onlooker giving directions. The Ramsay of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares is eminently likable and oftentimes goofy. Also: virtually every episode sees him doing an onscreen interview while taking his shirt off for some reason.

Now, it’s entirely likely (and maybe even probable) that this early incarnation of Ramsay is as carefully constructed as the decibel-bursting cartoon that frequents television now. Even if it is though, this Ramsay makes for far more compelling television. This first version of Kitchen Nightmares understands a central entertainment truth: the struggle of running a successful restaurant is already inherently harrowing and doesn’t need an interloper constantly shouting over it.

As Ramsay himself notes in his opening monologue “two-thirds of restaurants don’t survive past their first birthday.” And very few of the restaurants featured on Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares ultimately survive, with Reality TV Revisited putting the success rate at 20% as of December 2021. The people featured on Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares are largely small business owners engaged in a titanic battle for their financial survival. Ramsay isn’t just there to bitch about the food (though that is undoubtedly fun) but to take a real, holistic appraisal of what isn’t working and why.

In the best episode of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, and maybe one of the best episodes of food television ever, Ramsay actually has no complaints about the food! And instead of lowering the stakes, it actually heightens them. If it’s not the food, then what is it? Season 2 episode 3 of the series finds Ramsay visiting Momma Cherri’s in Brighton. As is customary for each episode of Kitchen Nightmares, Ramsay samples the joint’s menu right off the bat. Much to his surprise, he finds that owner and operator Charita Jones’ soul food offerings are all quite good!

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Knowing that the quality of the food doesn’t need fixing frees Ramsay and the episode up to explore the many other ways in which a restaurant can fail. Though the food is indeed good, the menu is too unfocused and imposing. Jones’ hasn’t created a professional enough environment in the small restaurant, leading to confusion among staff who frequently arrive late or know little about the food they’re serving. And of course, circa 2004-2005: many of the citizens of this southern English coastal city are charmingly unfamiliar with the cuisine of the American Deep South. The back half of this episode is filled with remarkable shots of British faces lighting up upon consuming a well-seasoned chicken wing.

In no time at all, Momma Cherri’s became one of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares biggest success stories. It became so successful, in fact, that Jones quickly expanded the restaurant into a larger location next door and even got into wholesaling and merchandising. But when Ramsay and the show returned to Momma Cherri’s for an update in its fourth season, the restaurant was once again in dire straits. A classic example of growing too big too fast, Momma Cherri’s closed its doors for good in 2007.

The original, classic Momma Cherri’s episode and its 2006 followup illustrate what’s so great about Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. It’s not afraid to depict the cold, hard realities of restauranteur life. At its core, it’s a show about failure. In fact, Ramsay is never shy about reminding the people he’s tasked with helping about his own failed restaurants. Kitchen Nightmares acknowledges that it’s possible for for a cooking uber mensch to enter your life, fix everything that’s wrong, and then fail at the end of the day anyway.

If that’s not a kitchen nightmare then we don’t know what is.

Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares is available to stream via Pluto TV and Freevee in the U.S. and U.K. and The Roku Channel, Plex, and Tubi exclusively in the U.S.