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Kitchen Nightmares Is Back, Still Horrible, Still Captivating

1:02 PM EST on November 9, 2023

A screenshot from Kitchen Nightmares, where Gordon Ramsay is telling off some poor soul for serving bad food.

Image source: Kitchen Nightmares, Fox

After a nine year absence, there’s a new season of the Gordon Ramsay-helmed Kitchen Nightmares, a reality television show so vile and also so divine that I cannot decide if I’m happy to see it return. I have also watched every single available episode.

Kitchen Nightmares began life as a somewhat more refined British reality show airing on Channel 4, where chef Gordon Ramsay visits failing restaurants and tries to get them out of debt. The much more sensationalistic American version, which airs on Fox, positions Ramsay as not only a chef expert, but also a health inspector and marriage counselor. Each episode sees Ramsay visit a restaurant that is almost at the point of collapsing—not only is the food bad, but the family that runs the restaurant is at each other’s throats and the kitchen is disgusting. The sheer amount of drama in every episode made this show an essential part of the Twitch “TV Meta,” where streamers watch and react to television shows. There is always something to react to—each second of the show is engineered to be as dramatic as possible.

This new season of Kitchen Nightmares is more of the same, though it remains as compelling and repelling as it ever was. This show is the pinnacle of reality television in my eyes. It finds moments of real, human drama and then pushes on them until they seem like a matter of life and death. Every episode features at least one person crying, with over the top sound effects of doors slamming underscoring how fucked everyone is. The show is edited towards these moments of spectacle, and it wants to gross you out as much as it wants to pull on your heartstrings. 

In the first episode of this new season, Ramsay scours every inch of a disgusting kitchen before the camera lingers on a cavalcade of grease from a stove that’s never been cleaned. It’s like watching the killer walk up behind someone in a horror movie—you know something awful is coming, but as the grease flows and flows you can’t stop watching.

My husband, who is wonderful, refuses to watch Kitchen Nightmares for reasons that I find totally reasonable. As demonstrated by Nathan Fielder’s brilliant HBO show The Rehearsal, reality television is mostly lies. Once you have footage of people doing something, especially if you commit to getting as much footage as possible, you can make it look like pretty much anything is occurring. And shown in the fallout of America’s Next Top Model’s former contestants speaking out about how they were treated on the show, the presence of a television crew and producers can coerce people towards emotional breakdowns—which are the juiciest kind of reality television scene you could imagine.

People are having emotional breakdowns constantly on Kitchen Nightmares, which is not all that surprising. The people featured on the show are usually deeply in debt, and working in a volatile industry. (I, too, have cried at my various journalism jobs because I felt so overwhelmed by the pressure.) What Kitchen Nightmares offers the viewer is a narrative of escape—escape from familial trauma, from debt, from failure. By the end of the episode, the restaurant owners are given a new restaurant, a new menu, and new hope for the future. 

Sure, the vast majority of these restaurants fail—Kitchen Nightmares has a success rate of about 19 percent—but the show isn’t actually made for the harsh eventuality. It exists simply to create that happy image in the finale, where the failing restaurateurs praise Gordon Ramsay for saving them before the credits roll. It’s intoxicating, even if I know it’s not real.

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