Years back, I discussed how Gordon Ramsay was a Blackstone joint and why he was spun the way he was. This was before it was pseudo-analyzed as something that could never be really understood, or something, as it often is now in all this fluff online. He was a guilty pleasure then and now, and truthfully I respect his screen presence; his reactions when not blown out of proportion or staged for a bit are indicative of lots of hard work and perseverance. Authentic. To run a kitchen successfully, efficiently and to find the harmony in doing so – why you fucking had the idea in the first place – requires a lot of straight up dickishness, or at least what appears to be so. In reality it’s standards and expectations plainly spoken when you don’t have the time to finesse the message. You can’t, or you are buried and fucked. And someone who can’t take a bit of railing when they fuck up most likely won’t be able to dig themselves or anyone else out of a premature grave.
The humming food service kitchen is something to behold. Unfortunately that’s not super prominent in Ramsay’s productions. They focus on individual triumph, but not so much chicanery. Honest winning, I guess, in this little bubble that has a never-ending supply of fish and beef and much more from all over the world delivered to the Las Vegas desert within a business day.
And each of the top contestants is featured in a little vignette about their “hard luck story” – truly they have mined some terrific people from horrific circumstances – their inspirations, traditions, and what their ethnic background means to them. It’s…a little much – maudlin and bereft of deeper meaning – quite often, and some are set up to be clownish renditions (mama mia!), but mostly it’s inoffensive or corny. The most racist element I have seen was cloaked by a really whitewashed anticolonialism when an American Indian woman won a competition – she was predictably portrayed as doing it “for her people” to a nauseating degree when that’s not necessarily been the entire focus of another individual simply winning for themselves. Then there was also the blue eyed Cuban Alejandro who spilled tears before Ramsay because he had never eaten pasta until he came to the states at 12 or something. Yes, he had never set eyes on even a box of Barilla before hitting the glorious american shores.
Does this “room”, this theatrical allowance for something pitched to them as diversity, reflect some split among people running the show(s) who would like to not be fully viewed as the lunatic Nazis they really are? I don’t know, it’s doubtful, but there is much more naked, bared teeth aggression in other types of media that these productions come no where close to matching. But then again, it’s meant to be a closed circuit.
My husband and I have joked about what I would say in one of these story telling situations if I put my name in the hat and got lucky in relation to other contestants who talk about cooking with their tiny grandma and how they are unique for “food being a big part of my life”. And you know, how I (or anyone) cooked my way out of a cardboard box with only a Bic lighter and a tin of corn or something before turning it all around with the thoughts of my elders guiding me. Something really interesting like that.
So I have thought about that, what makes me enjoy cooking? What drives my so-called “dedication” to crafting food? Why do you want the proverbial trophy, as these things must go now. Who are you, tell us your name, tell us your story. Make it about your ethnic grandma from the old country, or just why you’re such a sad sack generally and need to slay yourself repeatedly for $250,000 from people who shit out that much on an average night. See, this is why we only joke about these things. Oh my god. How debasing. To have this raw emotion extracted from you and developed and refined for glaring studio lights, and then have the rights to it owned by some very weird people.
The senior prom was a big to-do at my high school. Everyone was meant to feel like royalty before being shipped off to college, trade school, etc, and we crafted humorous “senior prophecies” for each other based on our plans and just who we were as people then. Everyone received a little scroll to open and read aloud during the formal sit-down dinner. It was a good time actually. Mine “predicted” that I would be a cutting edge designer of padded rooms, with all kinds of new features as never seen before, and this is because I was majoring in interior design and up until that point had worked as a cook in a nursing/convalescent home for the mentally insane, as it was put at that time, in the mid to late 90s.
Thinking about this made me recall how much I worked then. A couple of teachers let me out of class to work shifts even. My boss eagerly set me up on shifts during my school breaks when I “came home” from my university hours away. I enjoyed it all throughout my high school career and for a little while into college, but it started at a very bleak time. My father had lost his long-held job when that era’s corporate punishment really got into full swing, not long after the USSR was taken down. As things grinded on in those years, private companies and firms with clear agendas for doing as little as possible by paying as little as possible bought up care facilities at fire sale prices all over our region.
My supervisor then was a classmate’s much cooler and older sister. Her motto was “you can sleep when you’re dead”. We partied a lot and worked even harder. She was a talented, nurturing, and highly regarded and credentialed dietitian who always knew the right things to say and how to work a room – any room, this skill wasn’t limited to the institutional kitchen or dining room. She also cared passionately about our patients, and her guidance shaped how I look at food and put it together to make a satisfying and balanced meal. It created part of my identity, in fact.
This early occupation also shaped how I have approached every divergence in my overall career. I mean, it’s always somewhat tripped me up to call the people I served food to “my patients”. But it’s true – there was a carefully engineered nutritional structure to their meals and some had specific requirements. And I have found that whether you are working with students, customers, clients, or patients, you must approach them holistically. How else can you read and balance the needs of those you have been tasked with serving?
I really loved cooking for them. And my supervisor queen gave me lots of latitude creatively. There are few things I hold closer to my heart than seeing those patients’ rarely expressed happiness flash over a meal they knew they were not only going to eat by necessity but also enjoy. It was a bleak time in a shoddy place that was a fleck of dust on a map dot in nowheresville. Alcoholism, abuse, and precarity plagued my home life, but I could do that, and it was important.
On the bright side, the small community was generally supportive of the institution. Some of the residents were criminally convicted. There was one man in his 30s who had killed a friend of his at 12 or 13, and he had been committed since. He and others were allowed a walking period around town in the afternoon and evening for hours based on the honor system. They always returned, where else could they go? They had a good meal and a warm bed waiting for them. No one in the general public approached them menacingly or in an inappropriate manner that I was ever aware of, nor did they reoffend while among the public.
It pains me to think what this large scale privatization accomplished by blocking these avenues that worked for people who made grievous mistakes at one time but can remain part of society with specialized care, and then funneling more money than god has into state prisons and related contractors. This barely registers as a question now in what we call public squares which is testament to how effective the initiative was.
The summer before my junior year, the company that had recently bought the facility called upon my supervisor and an employee of her choice (me) to an old folks nursing home hours away they had also recently acquired as all the staff had collectively walked out. To scab, basically, but! they wanted these facilities to turn a profit and like Ramsay’s public representation of Blackstone spells out, there are standards. And, also, we were dedicated workers in our field who cared about people stuck into these black holes.
This one was in such bad repair it was shocking. Everything on the outside was overgrown to the point you couldn’t be sure if you weren’t entering a forgotten mausoleum. Thankfully, the residents were indeed alive, but medicine and housekeeping carts stood as if they were suddenly abandoned. The hallway walls were grimy and frankly it was spooky. The kitchen was a wreck, and it needed a thorough cleaning before we could properly cover some shifts, two doubles over a weekend. However, lunch had to come first. Through all the mess and disorganization, we pushed out tuna melts we were surprised we were even able to pull off. It was also the first (and only) time my boss had made me cry, but to be fair this was a situation that neither of us had been pushed into before, and she knew I was still just 16. The state of this place would have thrown anyone off. We did the thing though, conquered in that little bubble, and then cruised around in her Mustang with the top down smoking cigarettes.