Confession time: I am totally addicted to Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen. And Kitchen Nightmares. And his autobiography is darned fascinating too. Got my husband hooked as well, so now when we retreat to our room for a quiet evening we’re as likely to turn on a Ramsay show as to watch Castle (Pete’s current favorite) or figure skating (not Pete’s current favorite).

Before anyone points this out: Yes, OK, listening to Ramsay talk to ANYONE on American TV requires immense patience for bleeping, and he throws plates, kicks trash cans, and admits to having four children and never changing a diaper.
Whatever. He’s made his choices; they’re not the same as mine. (Anyway it’s a tiny bit difficult to compare a woman’s life with a man, as “not changing a diaper” isn’t exactly a choice for most mothers. Topic for a future post, I think.)

The truth is that I find chef memoirs (whether in book or screen form) compelling. I like to eat. I LOVE to cook (in fact, when I have a bad day, I yank out my recipe books and get to work). But there’s another aspect of food that engages me–how a chef runs a restaurant kitchen, since that involve 1) creating something, 2) figuring out how to do it over and over and over again, each time maintaining the quality, and 3) learning how to direct other talented people as they help out, since it’s impossible to work alone.

1) feels painful, when you’re in the middle of it, but it’s nothing compared to the challenges of 2) and 3). I think that most creative people, by definition, are lousy at doing what we do again and again and again at the same high level, since repetition and creativity originate in different parts of the brain. And creativity mostly happens when you’re entirely alone. In fact, creativity is fertilized and nurtured by aloneness, which makes directing others an enormous challenge for creative people.

Yet if you’re any good at what you do, you end up with 2) and 3) eventually. You either figure out how to cope, or you crash. I follow Ramsay’s doings and tribulations because they’re an enormously magnified version of the challenges I face. (ENORMOUSLY magnified. But still.)

These past weeks, we’ve been watching the later seasons of Hell’s Kitchen, and this has thrown me into contemplative mood. I’m watching as Ramsay (who’s spent years in kitchens, turning out plate after plate of identical risotto and sea bass and creme brulee) motivates his twenty and thirty-something competitors by giving them highlights of the life-that-will-be if they become top chefs: limousines and expensive meals, beauty treatments and red carpets, photographers and champagne. Inevitably, the recipients of these favors gush all over the cameras: “This is what it will be like to be a top chef! Now I REALLY want the prize!”

Much as I enjoy the shows, this has started to rub me the wrong way.

Cooking, I think, must be like writing. You do the same thing day, after day, after day, after day. You’d better enjoy it for itself, not for the rewards. There are certainly high points, and of course we all look forward to them. I eat at better restaurants than I used to, and I’m not dying to go back to Denny’s (not that there’s anything wrong with that…OK, I’m not sure I can make a case for that, actually). Occasionally I get to go to book parties, or swan around New York in a really nice dress, and you’d better believe I enjoy it. But there’s no way that those very occasional rewards make the day-to-day slog worthwhile.

If you’re a writer, or a cook, you’d better find some satisfaction in the slog itself.

Or else you’re in big, big trouble.

Showing 14 comments
  • I, too, am fascinated with this show. But I think it’s because I CAN’T cook, and I don’t much like it and am always on the hunt for those “as many food groups as we can lump into one slow-cooker” kinds of recipes. (thank god urban dad is not a foodie)

    But you’re right. You have to like the slog of life. And everyone has it. Urban Dad wouldn’t trade his career in teaching for any other job. But dragging himself off to grade and prep on a Saturday a.m. instead of hanging with the kids is not fun.

    Ok, I’m meandering. And mostly because I’m just stalling having to load the Urban Kids up for Spanish class.

    BTW, if you’re interested in chef’s bios, this guy has an interesting story:

    He has one of the best restaurants in the world here in Chicago, all of five minutes from us. And he nearly died of tongue cancer while in his early 30s! It’s a very interesting story.

    Ok, seriously. Time for Spanish class.


  • Katie

    (sorry, hit the tab key by mistake, didn’t know that would submit my comment!) Anyway, my recommendations:

    1) Too Many Cooks: Kitchen Adventures with 1 Mom, 4 Kids and 102 Recipes, by Emily Franklin
    2) Talking with My Mouth Full by Bonny Wolfe
    3) Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl

  • Janice in NJ

    Once a year a dear friend has a huge New Year’s Day party where he cooks for his crew. He’s a Executive Chef in NYC. Once a year on New Year’s Day he fills the house with his staff and his friends and he cooks and he cooks and he cooks. He makes it looks easy. Quail cooking in the fireplace. All kinds of amazing dishes that keep coming in round after round of spreads on the table. All the time he is hanging out in and out of the kitchen with his guests. Cheeses. Meats that he’s cured in the wine cellar of the restaurant. And the wine, oh my! It’s quite an event.
    The first year that we were invited, I didn’t know WHAT we were going to. So I made cookies and brought them. Duh! His wife politely thanked me for them and set them aside. She was great. But I was mortified. What was I thinking? The party went on for HOURS and we eventually had to go home because our kids were small and were starting to fall asleep. So we left before the desert was served.
    The next day, our chef friend called me on the phone. He had a question. I’m SURE that they had been drinking too much wine, but he called to have me settle a dispute. His top pastry chefs needed to know… How did I caramelize the sugar in my cookies? Everyone loved them! They were the hit of the dessert table!

    Heath Bit’s O Brickle Toffee Bits, folks. 🙂

    Isn’t life grand!


    P.S. I suspect that our lives would be more interesting too if we had a TV producer who was desperate for ratings around to keep things spicy. They have a way of inserting conflict into everything. As it is, only the squirrels seem interested in knocking over my garbage cans. 🙂

  • Roxie

    If you should check out his show the F-Word… we get it from Netflix. My husband and I enjoy this in a different way than his other shows.

  • Sebastian (a lady)

    I haven’t seen much of Hell’s Kitchen, but I will definitely watch Kitchen Nightmare’s when I stumble into episodes. I see them as much as leadership lessons as anything else. 9 times out of 10, there are people who thought having a restaurant would be far more fun than the reality. They didn’t see the amount of work involved and are mentally and emotionally quitting.
    I’m a former military person, so I love to watch the group dynamics as someone has to decide if they are going to lead or not.
    In a way, it’s also not unlike homeschool burnout. The glossy photos and laudatory articles don’t capture the daily grind (Math? Again? Yep, and reading and writing and science and all the rest too.) I think there may also be a lesson in the idea that he nearly always simplifies the menu. Too many items means that the chef can’t stay on top of things. Fewer items, with a few powerful highpoints. Then introduce an occasional seasonal special.

  • April in Vermont

    My husband is the chef-owner of a fine dining restaurant, I’m a labor and delivery nurse, and we hs, so we are often slogging big time. We laugh at how these three jobs have so many things in common–the constant chaos, the pressure of people’s expectations, the need to respond quickly to emergencies (although I can argue that burning 15 creme brulees might be a slightly different caliber emergency I face at work, but still), the need to delegate. Of these three jobs, his is the most glamorous. I admit I never get tired of watching him in the kitchen: the sheer intensity, the creativity, the perfect timing. It’s this amazing talent to cook 60 or so meals within a few hours every single night. I love it, and I admire him for doing it.

  • Heather

    The chef makes me nervous. Josh and I are with Pete… totally addicted to Castle. Also, there is something very, very wrong with Denny’s.

  • Bethany

    Yes, remember Eggs over my Hammy? That’s Denny’s isn’t it? Kind of yucky . . .

    I think everyone can probably relate to finding satisfaction in the “slog.” Mothering definitely has its rewarding side, but there’s lots of day-to-day slog that I have to find satisfaction in too.

  • Jules

    If you have BBC America, check out the British version of Kitchen Nightmares. It’s much better than the American version. Also check out Ramsay’s The F Word

  • Melissa

    “listening to Ramsay talk to ANYONE on American TV requires immense patience for bleeping”

    at least you have bleeping. they don’t have bleeps on Australian TV anymore, we hear the actual words. I would rather hear the bleeps. I don’t watch Ramsay anymore because of the foul language.

  • Kathy in Calif.

    Can we be friends?

    (I look forward to your blogs, but wish we could chat over a cup of coffee looking through cook books in California!)

  • Sherry Matheny

    I have a question, but not related to your post. (Sorry, just not that in to Mr. Ramsey) 🙂
    I have a teen who is reading the Ancient World book for her History this year with some other teens, and I am wondering if there is any kind of workbook or something you would recommend to go with it. Can’t wait for the next book to come out by the way!

  • strider

    Great point.

    This has been a topic of discussion between my husband and I both when he was job-searching, but also when considering my evolving role over the years and the future of our children. When it comes right down to it, if you’re going to spend 40-60 hours per week (or more!) doing something, it really should be something satisfying and enjoyable. I would much rather have lower cash flow with higher job satisfaction than a higher income with mediocre or low enjoyment.

  • Myrrh C.

    I feel much better knowing that you watch Hell’s Kitchen too 🙂 And how you feel about food and cooking only solidifies my sense since the moment I began reading TWTM that we are kindred spirits. Now if only you would let me give you a complimentary MBTI assessment, assuming you haven’t already taken it, but I bet you have, and I’m dying to know whether you’re an INFJ like me or perhaps an INTJ…or?

    (reposted because I accidentally mistyped my email address in the first one and made a typo)

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