We call it “the bleep”–the 1,000- hertz signal that commonly replaces the word fuck on network television—as if it were syllabically complete, an utterance with a start and a stop. But that’s not what the bleep sounds like: it sounds like the squawk of a robot locust, like a momentary irruption from a perpetual, sourceless band of electronic affront. The face onscreen lurches forward. The nostrils flare, the front teeth come down over the bottom lip in the beginnings of the F formation, and there it is: a string of sonic asterisks. Strong language has breached the frequency, and outer space is offended.
Nobody, right now, is getting bleeped more than Gordon Ramsay, who has just returned to Fox with Hotel Hell, a new reality show—one of about half a dozen on which he’s starred in the United States or Britain, depending on how you score it. Ramsay swears a lot. Ozzy used to swear a lot on The Osbournes, but that was dithery burned-out swearing, a species of profane incoherence. Ramsay’s swearing, by comparison, is intently focused and deliberate. A master chef and restaurateur with a small constellation of Michelin stars twinkling behind him, Ramsay has been the one, out of all the televised food-people, to most successfully and remuneratively translate the verbal violence of the high-end kitchen to the small screen. The steaming expletives, the tyrannical perfectionism, the ladle-in-hand bullying … “You got any bite back, as a guy?” he demanded of a disintegrating sous-chef in the 1999 documentary Boiling Point (the British viewing public’s first glimpse of him). He was swollen-looking, covered in sweat. His face, jutting beneath the heat-wilted plumes of his blond hair, was already geologically creased with stress—and he wasn’t yet 35. “You got any bollocks, you?” The sous-chef affirmed in a dismal voice that he had. Roared Ramsay, Britannically: “Have you bleep!” (U.S. translation: “Like bleep you have!”)
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Ramsay was well mentored in the art of abuse. As a soccer-mad Scottish teenager, he apprenticed under Rangers manager Jock Wallace, a legendary Tartar who liked to check his players’ fitness by punching them. And in the late ’80s, before striking out on his own, he worked in the kitchen of the Byronic bigmouth Marco Pierre White, famous for bouncing pots off his underlings and ejecting patrons who asked for salt and pepper. It has been suggested that the Ramsay patter, with its precision blowups and competing streams of belittlement and endearment, artfully blends the styles of these two men. He goes at people. He breaks them down. Six-foot-plus and beefy, Ramsay likes to lean in, brow lowered, into head-butt range. Sometimes, for maximum devastation, he’ll drop a love bomb, a last-second twist of compassion: “Talk to me … What’s going on?” His victims explode or run away. Sobbing is heard from locked bathrooms. He produces, by the seething gallon, what students of reality TV call “character leakage.” He is a star.
In America we know him for Hell’s Kitchen, MasterChef, and—my favorite—Kitchen Nightmares, in which he barges into a collapsing restaurant in West Babylon, New York, or Lighthouse Point, Florida, or Toluca Lake, California, swears a lot, huffs and puffs, sniffs fastidiously at a crab cake (“Was this frozen?”), massages his temples, accuses the maître d’ of running around “like a bleeping baby rhinoceros trying to have a shit,” howls with disgust as he plunges his hands into a bucket of rotten chicken, promises to “work my balls off” to make the place profitable, masterminds a wave-of-the-wand overnight redecoration, and leaves everyone tear-stained but (usually) happy and hopeful, with crab cakes expunged from the menu. His bleep-driven tirades are cruel, personal, monstrous. You plonker. You donkey. You doughnut. How dare you, fat-arse? You bleeping bleep! But then he comes back with his charm, his hugs, his blunderbuss geniality: Good to see you. Likewise, likewise. First name, please? Thank you, my darling. Smile, you!
At the Juniper Hill Inn, in Windsor, Vermont—one of the stops on his new show, Hotel Hell—the washed-out executive chef declares, “Gordon is going to come into this place and say this place is bleeped.” It’s hardly a prophetic statement. That’s what Ramsay does, after all—he walks into an establishment and calls down the gods of bleep upon it. But can he extend his Gordonian critique over the operations of an entire hotel, its management and ambience and so on, and not just its suppurating kitchen?
Well, of course he can. At the Juniper Hill Inn, he finds the front door locked, the lobby overstuffed with tasteless antiquery, and his bedroom tainted with sewage-smell. Then he sits down to have lunch, and what do they serve him? Bloody crab cakes. And once he finds out that the staff members aren’t getting their paychecks on time, or their tips … “You disrespectful, disgusting man!” he bellows at the innkeeper, Robert Dean II, a wearer of fleecy vests whose inflated opinion of himself as a hotelier appears to be lodged inside his body like a small, pumped bladder. Ramsay goes on: “Robert’s world! Robert’s bubble! … You’re not the Great Gatsby!” (Literary allusions, it must be said, are not a customary feature of the Ramsay repertoire.) “Excuse me … Ex-cuse me!” attempts Robert, groping for some indignation of his own. But Ramsay will not excuse him: “You pompous bleep!”
Ramsay’s shtick succeeds so triumphantly on reality TV because he plays an agent of reality—bubble-burster, puller-down of fantasies. Before the restaurant or hotel in question can thrive, some manager figure, some kitchen Ozymandias, must have his personality demolished. This is Ramsay’s moral arc, crude and compelling. The egotist must be stripped of his illusions, drastically exposed to his own weakness. The creeping pathology that has grown like a skin over the kitchen, the waitstaff—even some of the customers—must be torn off.
It’s the same program every time, more or less. First, forehead-slapping astonishment at the systemic vagaries of the place (“Wow! … Unbelievable!”). Then empathy for the depressed and maltreated staff (“You’re kidding me!”). Then a full-frontal attack on the owner, the bleep bombardment. And finally, after tears and sighs, a back-to-basics reconstruction. Cut that menu in half. Ditch the sauces. Start buying local produce. Sell that ridiculous furniture. Price your food reasonably. Be who you are.
All of this occurs behind the scenes, of course, which is another reason for Ramsay’s success: he dramatizes the divide between the backstage churn of the kitchen, where people are beating each other to death with wooden spoons, and the front of the house, where the maître d’ glides like Jeeves and coiffed diners nosh in bovine contentment. Out of the culinary inferno come the pretty little dishes, the tiny towers of food, to be picked at and admired.
Ramsay’s one weak spot, the chink in his mental armature? Silence. He can’t bear it. Chefs must always be badgering, exhorting, browbeating, insulting. Noise in the kitchen, at all times. Nothing unique here: Ramsay is a true modern man, living in dread that two seconds of silence will suck him beyond retrieval into the cold hell of himself. We all need the chatter, do we not? The twitter, the flutter. But Ramsay is particularly loud and naked in his fearfulness. At the Juniper Hill Inn, the executive chef reacts to familiar waves of Ramsay pressure (“Come on!”) by going half-catatonic: his eyes are dead, he won’t say anything. A terrible quiet descends over the kitchen. Ramsay crouches and raises his hands to his head. “It’s … so bleeping painful now!” he moans. Silently, sullenly, the chef works his skillet. Ramsay is close to panic. “Open up!” he begs. An abyss yawns and stretches: here comes emptiness. The brain-hum sharpens to a whine. So escalate, quickly. Fill the void with imprecations, boost the language until that robot locust squawks again. Hurry! Bleep.