Thursday, June 13, 2013

What I Learned From Gordon Ramsay

Right now, I only consider two programs as appointment television: Hell's Kitchen and Kitchen Nightmares, both helmed by the colorfully foul superstar chef Gordon Ramsay. I believe in negative reinforcement. Repulsion is as powerful a motivator as inspiration. I've only regularly watched Ramsay at work for about a year, but it's enough for a few takeaways.

You can be honest, but you don't have to be brutal. I've seen Ramsay compare at least half a dozen dishes to various forms of excrement. Even if they did look or taste like that, somebody will one day ask the Michelin chef if he actually has tasted excrement. (Maybe they already have and I just haven't seen it.) Say it's dry, it's bland, it's runny, it's overcooked, it's raw, it's disgusting. Don't tell me I should be scooping it up with a shovel.

Leading a kitchen is like leading an battalion. Before I started watching Kitchen Nightmares, I never know about restaurant expediters -- those who bark out dishes to the cooks and prod them to get plates out. They are the drill sergeants of the kitchen, and though annoying, they get the job done. Ramsey demands the restaurant owners he works with learn to lead. Most of all, they need to communicate. I've had my own troubles with communicating to reporters. I pray for GOD to help me with that. But somewhere in my mind, I hear Gordon, pointing at me and saying, "There's your battalion!"

You have to provide an experience, not just a meal. Gordon has told restaurant owners they have to have serve what people can't make themselves. Simple dishes won't do, unless they're simply "stunning." The service, the presentation and the flavor all has to come together. Right now in broadcast news, we are learning to compete with so-called distracted viewers who text and surf the 'net on their smartphones while watching TV. Holding their attention is not easy. My colleagues and myself are learning new ways of thinking and presentation.

If you lose your passion, what's the point? Gordon can see who's cooking to win and who's just simmering. My friend and colleague Kris Pickel once told me about the news business, "When you stop caring, it's time to get out." This is perhaps my biggest challenge. During 2011, I nearly quit the business. The mass shooting that injured Gabby Giffords, a deadly crash involving a Sheriff's helicopter, a pipe-busting deep freeze, and a devastating wildfire all happened within in the first six months of the year, and I couldn't turn it off like people outside the business. Fortunately, I got the chance to move off the night shift and onto the day shift before I threw in the towel. It was the best thing I could've done short of quitting. I'm confident the people who know me see renewal.

I have never sampled any of Gordon Ramsay's dishes. Maybe if I get back to Las Vegas and one of his restaurants, I'll try one. But it's not about the food, it's about the chef. Ramsay told a CBS reporter who asked him about his cursing that people don't understand his passion. I wished somebody would've asked, "Do you eat with that mouth?"

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