Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Your Own Private (Kitchen) Nightmare

I've been trying to figure out why I am obsessed with watching a television show called Kitchen Nightmares. I think it's quite popular, but just to not assume that anyone reading this is as interested in this media train wreck, let me describe what I think it's about.

Gordon_Ramsays_Kitchen_NightmaresKitchen Nightmares is about the externalization of our worst struggles onto people, places, and food. In this television show from the Fox network, a very dashing British chef, Gordon Ramsay-- who I will say has such a well-developed presence in USA reality cooking shows, it's quite impressive-- visits struggling kitchens around the country and helps them to shape up.

Almost all shows have the same formula. The deluded owners of the small restaurant, with debt in the thousands or more, marriage falling apart, children who are oppressed, and antiquated systems in the kitchen and dining room, try to prove to Chef Ramsay that their restaurant is the best in the world. This, of course, is not the case. The show quickly progresses to various reveals of filthy kitchens and broken families. Chef Ramsay doles out the tough love and accountability, and we witness a transformation. Couple reunites, dining room is redesigned, menu made over, and conflict resolved.

These moments of transformation are the ones I jump to when I'm watching the show. It gets pretty gross seeing rotten food, mice, screaming matches, and poor dining experiences over and over. But I never get sick of the transformative moments. They look pretty scripted to me, or if not that, then distilled into pat conversations with not a lot of process involved.

But even if I absolutely don't believe the transformation, the acceptance of responsibility gets me every time. I see families hugging, or doing something on the other side of these conflicts, and I feel full of emotion. When the owners walk into their redesigned space, I feel a thrill of joy at someone's dreams being realized. When there is the inevitable struggle at the re-launch, I am rooting for them to get over themselves and step up to do hard work and keep things together. And they do, by and large.

Gordon Ramsay is the closest thing to a modern day messianic figure that I have encountered. He is the latest and greatest great white hope. He is sometimes rude, and often swearing, but he has a mission-- to save the poor under dwellers of local cuisine, and he is good at his chosen task. Or at least the show is produced well enough to catch me in the constant cycle of desperation and salvation it offers.

I am certain that it's drama manufactured and canned for viewers. It's reality tv, yes? And I've only gotten roped into reality tv with cooking shows. But it doesn't matter, somehow. I'm right there with the families, and I'm moved.

At some point during watching a show, I had the thought-- I want Gordon Ramsay to come and do a Kitchen Nightmare intervention to my family. I want him to come in and share hard truths, and then I want it to be fixed.

I want a remodeled house for my parents, complete with all the things they need to be happy for the rest of their lives. I want a level of calm and togetherness that I remember from my childhood, from road trips around the country, my father smoking a cigar, the sweet smell wafting over the bright red carseats to my face, as I leaned agains the window, looking out, counting cars. I want the difference between the front of house and kitchen to be clear, and each of us to have our roles, each integral to the running of our flagship restaurant-- family.

I want a messiah to come and make the years of confusion, angst, and conflict away. Just away.

It's no accident that this is so compelling, given the complex and painful history I have with my family of origin. And it's no accident that I skip the conflicts-- because I know them well. I think some folks must watch the show for the spectacle, like the Jerry Springer of restauranting. But I want the resolve, the beauty and order of the finish. And I know it doesn't happen like that.

There is no messianic truth-teller. We don't resolve and move on as if we were following a script. We struggle, we backslide, we hurt and heal and hurt again. And we stick with it.

Things with my father have been going really well. I helped move he and my mom home yesterday. After a couple of weeks of holding our breaths to see how his open heart surgery would fair, he is back where he wants to be. He has bird feeders full of seed, millions of photographs from a life of observation to sort through, and quiet that he needs to rest deeply into his healing. My mother is back in her element, comfortable with her home, and with a long list of numbers to call in her community for support, attention, care.

I have left them in their un-remodeled home, with the same baggage and history that we started with at the beginning of the weekend. But this return feels better, even without Gordon Ramsay knocking down our doors. It's not easy, or clear. But it's real and honest, and it suffices. We don't do it right, but we do it, make family, choose family with each conversation and aid we offer each other. Without it, there would be nothing to heal, and we are all worthy of healing.

We just have to heal ourselves, and each other.


  1. Thanks. You took my breath away.

    1. You are welcome. Keep on breathing, and thanks for reading my blog.

  2. I watch this show for the same reasons. Certainly easier to watch someone else go through this than imagine being in the middle of it.