By Cameron Surette
For roughly seven years, celebrity and Michelin Star chef Gordon Ramsay has come to the aid of failing restaurant owners in order to turn their situations around. Each hour-long episode follows a routine structure. Gordon arrives on location, samples the food (he usually hates it), observes dinner service, and then inspects the kitchen and its employees (at this point, the drama really starts to rear its entertaining head). Then, after Gordon tears apart the restaurant’s owners and staff with his criticism, the show does a full makeover of the restaurant, which includes changing the menu, décor, and maybe adding some new equipment. Following the makeover, Gordon observes one more dinner service (to see if everyone learned their lesson) before leaving. This show and its formula clearly worked as it was on the air for seven years; which is a pretty sizable span of time for television. But this was not Gordon Ramsay’s first bout in rescuing restaurants. “Kitchen Nightmares” originally aired as a different series in the U.K., “Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmare.” The U.S. and U.K. versions are very similar; both having Gordon as the lead and both following the same premise: salvage a tanking business. That being said, the two versions of the show are different as well. “Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares” became more exaggerated in the U.S. as “Kitchen Nightmares.” The U.K. version doesn’t constantly have music in the background for dramatic effect, nor are there as many explosive face-to-face confrontations between the owners of restaurants and Gordon. Gordon also narrates the U.K. version between scenes in a much more serious, almost somber tone. Moreover, Gordon does not redecorate the restaurant in the U.K. version. Also, when he leaves the restaurant in this version, as per usual, the restaurant is on the path to recovery, yet the feeling is not as cheerful as the U.S. version. In short, one feels more real than the other, but why? By examining some of the history of format trading reality television and the similarities between reality television shows in the U.S., we can understand not only why Gordon’s show had such a long run, but also why “Kitchen Nightmares” is not quite “Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares.”
To start, “Kitchen Nightmares” is a format of “Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares.” When a show is formatted, it basically means it is adjusted and redone for the audience of that country. British reality television has had a history of translating well in the U.S. since the ‘90s. Shows such as “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?,” “Big Brother,” “Survivor,” and “Pop Idol” (formatted as “American Idol”) were all licensed and adapted for the U.S. All of these shows have had great success in the states, and it was not due to luck. Formatting is actually low risk. According to Jean K. Chalaby, if a show has positive ratings in one place, chances are it will do well in another. Jean K. Chalaby (http://journals.sagepub.com.proxy3.noblenet.org/doi/pdf/10.1177/0163443711427198) also explained that between 2006 and 2008 (“Kitchen Nightmares” premiered in 2007), 445 formats gave way to 1,262 adaptations in 57 territories.
To better understand this phenomenon, let’s briefly analyze the U.K. and U.S. versions of “The Office.” There is no doubt that the two shows are both mockumentary comedies, but again, there are differences. Take Ricky Gervais’s character, David Brent, and Steve Carell’s character, Michael Scott. Both are bosses trying to relate to their employees through unconventional and unprofessional means, but Steve Carell takes it to another level. He is more hyper than Ricky Gervais, and therefore more ludicrous. And it’s not just Michael Scott and David Brent. The entire cast of the American version are quirkier, and perhaps more immature than the drier U.K. cast. This is not to knock either version of the show, but rather to illustrate how the U.S. version has been adapted to accommodate American comedy, which is generally zanier than English comedy. Although there was already a formula for success, the show had to make slight adjustments before being pitched to American audiences. This is why we see a less serious version of Gordon’s show in the states. There are generally more gimmicks and more lively (bordering on outrageous) behavior compared to the more tame and serious U.K. version.
Furthermore, the U.S. version is more sugar coated than the original. The ending to each episode seem to be much more upbeat in “Kitchen Nightmares” compared to “Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares.” To illustrate this, in season three episode 3 of “Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares,” after Gordon is done giving his last regards to the business owners, he steps outside and remarks that if the restaurant can do what Gordon taught them, they may still be operating a year from the time the episode was recorded. In this instance, Gordon makes no promises. His last word still hints at the possibility that the restaurant could close, even after he gave his aid. This is in contrast to “Kitchen Nightmares.” In season three episode 3 of “Kitchen Nightmares,” Gordon’s final word on the restaurant he just saved is much kinder. He remarks that although he completely overhauled the place, from menu to decoration, the restaurant’s biggest asset is its family, which will make it successful. This is a nice, feel-good sentiment at the end of the episode that leaves the viewer with happiness and hope for that establishment. But here’s the kicker: this episode of “Kitchen Nightmares” featured “Sushi Ko,” and after a quick search on the internet, one will find out that they are closed. Although one version left the audience with some hope, but no certainties, and the other left the audience with a lot of hope, the fact is that these are real restaurants, and restaurants don’t always make it. This is another factor that makes “Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares” feel more believable than “Kitchen Nightmares.”
Now that we’ve established the difference in tone between “Kitchen Nightmares” and “Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares,” we need to understand each show’s techniques. In other words, how is the show produced? In the original version, there are far less one-on-one interviews than the U.S. version. But why are there so many individual interviews? To hear the opinion of the person? Well, sort of. The opinion is not as important as the way it is said and the drama it creates. Drama is entertainment in the reality television genre. Shows like “Hell’s Kitchen,” “Flavor of Love,” “The Bachelor,”, and many others all use this device. The contestants often tear each other down in these interviews or are shown sobbing for a multitude of reasons. An example of this would be in season seven episode 2 of “Kitchen Nightmares.” The owner and chef, Pete Fafalios, in an one-on-one interview remarks that he would be willing to pit his pizza up against anybody else’s in the country. The immediate response for the audience at this point: Gordon is about to eat this poor man alive. Also, in the U.S. version, there are cameras set up everywhere, whereas in the U.K. version, there are only a few and they typically only follow Gordon. Compare the following clip form “Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares” to “Kitchen Nightmares”. The U.K. version clearly has less cameras and they are all positioned in the same room as Gordon, while the U.S. version has many cameras in multiple rooms. Again, the reason for this is to catch anything the people in the restaurant have to say, whether it be the owner, an employee, or a customer. These sound bites can be used to promote the next episode, or portray more drama to the audience.
Gordon Ramsay having it out with a stubborn cook.
Gordon Ramsay being accused of planting a dead mouse in the restaurant.
To recap, “Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares” is more rooted in reality than “Kitchen Nightmares”. The overall mood of the two shows is different and one (the U.K. version) portrays life in a truer way than the other. In addition, format trading reality television is a lucrative practice with less risk than producing an original concept. For this reason, “Kitchen Nightmares” had a long run. Also, by analyzing the delivery and production of formatted television shows and comparing them to their original, we can explain why “Kitchen Nightmares” is not quite “Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares”.