As entertaining as the U.S. Kitchen Nightmares can be—largely because of the reliably satisfying sight of Gordon Ramsay hollering at arrogant, incompetent restaurateurs—the American series is a significantly dumbed-down, defanged version of the UK original. Fox’s KN adds a stentorian narrator to tell us what we already know, along with cutesy sound effects and a predictably saccharine rags-to-riches dramatic arc. Worst of all, the American version tries to solve problems with money, by having Ramsay and company pony up the dough to make major cosmetic and infrastructure improvements to their shitheap-of-the-week. All it costs the proprietors is their souls, or at least their public images, once the whole country sees how inept a TV crew with a game plan can make a Long Island line cook look.
Undoubtedly the UK Kitchen Nightmares indulges in some editing trickery of its own, but it at least feels more authentic—with far less trumped-up drama. The UK formula is simple: Ramsay rolls into a failing restaurant, orders some food, tells the camera why it sucks, then storms into the kitchen to dress down the staff and inspect their stores of rotting food and rusting ovens. Then he goes back to his room and takes his shirt off. Then he has the staff clean the kitchen, restock with fresh ingredients, and design an easier-to-prepare, crowd-pleasing menu. There are a number of lessons to be learned from the original Kitchen Nightmares, but the main one is this: too many chefs try to become the next Wolfgang Puck before they know how to fry an egg or book a proper dinner seating.
The four episodes on the Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares: Complete Series One DVD set—plus four “Revisited” episodes—are as packed with hubris and comeuppance as any Greek tragedy, and unlike the darkest-before-the-dawn uplift of the U.S. KN, these episodes don’t always end happily. Some of the chefs and owners are just too stubborn, or too hopeless. But even the worst of them enjoys a much more collegial relationship with Ramsay than the subjects of the U.S. version, who tend to get bullied, not mentored. In the UK, Ramsay seems to know these people, and even when he’s berating them, he shows genuine affection. Yes, Ramsay markets himself as a man with a palate so refined that he pukes up awful food. But the Ramsay Myth also requires that he favor the workingman, not the delicate genius. Ramsay pushes simplicity, common sense, value, hard work, and reliability. He's a bootstrapper. And though Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares offers plenty of opportunities for schadenfreude, it’s much less condescending, either to the viewer or its subjects, because it’s hard to look down on people whom Ramsay so earnestly wants to help.
Key features: The original uncensored episodes. (Honestly, it’s strange to hear Ramsay without the bleeping.)