Why Chaotic TV Kitchens Are a Bunch of Hooey
Photo credit: Alex Hinchcliffe/StockFood
The frenetic kitchens portrayed on television shows such as “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Restaurant Nightmares”—in which acid-laced expletives are just as likely to fly as pieces of meat—are not merely good television. They’re real: Where else did the famously ill-tempered Gordon Ramsay learn his meat-tossing ways, but from the lauded Las Vegas chef Joël Robuchon, who once launched a plate at him?
But in an op-ed for the Daily Meal last week, legendary French chef Jacques Pépin took Ramsay and abusive television chefs like him to task for perpetuating what he believes is a myth. Such bad behavior is neither standard nor even acceptable in a restaurant kitchen setting, according to Pépin.
"In these reality shows, the confrontation and the bitter drama are not conducive to producing good food," Pépin wrote. "A good kitchen is quiet most of the time. It is disciplined, well structured, and clean." Teamwork is important, he wrote, not the sort of cutthroat competition that boosts television ratings.
Alfred Portale, executive chef and co-owner of Gotham Bar and Grill in New York City, has upheld such standards in the 30 years he’s spent there.
"At Gotham, you can almost hear a pin drop,” he told us. “The only person that’s talking is the chef who’s calling the service. I think people work much better that way than when it’s a war zone.”
Portale has worked in those frenetic kitchens before. During his training in France, he recalled watching a chef strike a cook:
"It’s sort of a traumatic experience to see something like that, to see a chef riding someone mercilessly. It’s cruel and it’s not productive. People who are motivated by fear? It’s not what you want."
Portale ticked off a few restaurants that he admires for their cool, calm, and collected kitchens. Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in Napa, California, ranked high, as did Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s eponymous New York City restaurant.
"Having an open kitchen, we have a lot of pride in how we perform on a daily basis," Jean-Georges sous chef Thomas McKenna told us. Cleanliness is critical, with chefs changing whites mid-service should they be splashed with sauce, but silence is the kitchen’s superlative quality. "There’s no yelling or banging—we communicate as quietly as we can. The more chaotic the kitchen, the more that reflects on the food.”
Other famously quiet kitchens have achieved not-so-quiet levels of success: Noma in Denmark, the now-shuttered El Bulli in Spain, and Alinea in Chicago. Surely the focus and organization that comes with a hushed environment have something to do with it, and perhaps the solution for foundering restaurants is to adopt a less charged kitchen environment.
At the very least, they should stop throwing plates.