Gordon Ramsay, Drill Sergeant: How 'Hell's Kitchen' Is Just Like Boot Camp

The Michelin-starred chef's reality show is the most realistic depiction of military training on television today



Sergeant Airborne has my parachutist helmet retention strap in his fist, and pulls, craning my neck back. He is tall. I am short. My neck feels as though it will snap.

"What are you doing, Airborne?" he shouts in my face. At the U.S. Army Airborne School, we are all called Airborne. There is no correct answer to his question.

"Do you know what this is?" He jerks the strap and my neck stretches helplessly, like a bobblehead doll under duress. Again, there is no correct answer. The best course of action is mortified silence.1

"I'll tell you what it is. It is a towed jumper. Your chute has not deployed. You are caught on the aircraft. You are probably dead. While the jumpmaster pulls you in or cuts you lose, we're losing drop zone. You're dead and you're killing soldiers on the battlefield."2

He pulls harder. My back bends to compensate. Balance is now a pressing issue. "No attention to detail. Worthless." To the ground I go.

In my day, helmets modified for airborne operations were rigged with a parachutist retention strap. Its purpose was to help stabilize the jumper's helmet when exiting a plane and entering the tunnel of air blasted through the propeller. This feeling is not unlike colliding with a freight train. (With the change in ballistic helmet design, the retention strap's utility has since been reduced to securing Army-issued MAG-1 prescription eyewear to the face, in lieu of the cheap rubber band otherwise provided.) By the second week of Airborne school, I have donned my helmet and fastened each end of my retention strap a hundred times or more. My carelessness in this instance is a trivial mistake that would have been caught in the real world a dozen times over, yet here I am, single-handedly losing the war.

Sergeant Airborne notices my boots. A single bootlace has inched its way from my blousing. "What the fuck is wrong with your laces?" There is no correct answer, though an honest one would involve the miles only just run, punctuated by cursory visits to the barbecue pit. ("Why is this called the barbecue pit? Because this is where we smoke you.")

"No attention to detail. Are you trying to kill everyone?"

I am marked.

On this day, we are learning to activate the parachute canopy release. When a paratrooper lands on the battlefield, he or she doesn't touch down gently, ballerina style, like a frosted-hair skydiver wearing Tevas and Oakleys during the Superbowl halftime show. Paratroopers hit the ground like an asteroid, and are dragged across the drop zone by crosswinds, over rock and sand and water and debris. The canopy release collapses the chute. The sooner the chute collapses, the sooner the dragging stops. More than one paratrooper has had his or her face torn from the skull for failure to collapse a parachute.

I know how to activate the canopy release. I just cannot figure out how to reattach the damn thing for practice drills.

"Come on, Airborne, it's not a Rubik's Cube!"

Once I work out the technique, my releases aren't fast enough. Sergeant Airborne lays into me with renewed interest. Pushups and flutter kicks are involved--motivators to wake up.

He will forget about me in an hour. But right now I am his, and I am everything wrong with the Army. Everything I do will kill someone. Because I don't care. Because I am lazy. Because I am weak and useless.

I eventually go on to earn my Airborne wings, and to make scores of jumps from a half-dozen types of aircraft. And my actions will result in no deaths, injuries, or paperwork for safety officers on the ground. And I will never forget to secure my retention straps. But that day, at that moment, I am nothing more than--as paratroopers scornfully put it--a dirty nasty leg.3

These memories do not wash across my mind over a case of beer at the VFW. They come to me every time I watch Gordon Ramsay eviscerate a chef on Hell's Kitchen.

This week the show enters its ninth season. For the uninitiated, Hell's Kitchen is a reality show featuring 16 restaurant professionals competing for an executive chef position at one of Gordon Ramsay's restaurants. It's American Idol for food, where each week Ramsay eliminates a contestant.

Chef Ramsay, standing six-foot-one with a solid build, cuts an intimidating figure. For all his multimedia success--20 books, two documentaries, six television shows, and an iPad app--he is a genuine master chef, one of the most successful and critically acclaimed in the world. He holds 12 Michelin stars. (Just ask. He'll tell you.) As proven on his soft-spoken but frank restaurant turnaround show, Kitchen Nightmares, he's got the business acumen to match his culinary skills. He is a chef if the word has any meaning, and it is fair to say that he is among the best at what he does.

And he has a temper.

Hell's Kitchen is a fine-dining crucible. Dinner is served each night to a full house, and a looming Ramsay, inspecting each dish going out, intensifies the pressure of orders flooding in.

"This chicken is raw!"

He identifies the person responsible, and drills into them. "Are trying to kill someone?" He shouts in their faces drill sergeant-style, using profanity that would make a Roddy Doyle character blush. He berates and insults, taunts, and threatens. "I wouldn't feed this to a pig! You are useless." He then probes for--and invariably finds--imperfection in the cook's every action. "Your station is fucking disgusting, you lazy cow."

He halts kitchen service and calls everyone to the failing chef in question. "Look at this! Does this look like medium well? It's fucking bleeding!"

He throws food, kicks trash cans, corners the intimidated.

Even compliments--"not terrible"--are punctuated by, "Why can't you do this every time?" or, "... now piss off."

It's lowest-common-denominator entertainment, yes. One might argue that brows don't get much lower than this on television, but one probably hasn't seen Jersey Shore. Still, in my eyes it's not cruelty for the sake of being cruel. His methods do serve a purpose. He is testing prospective chefs for grace under fire, for cognitive structural integrity under high-pressure situations.
Civilians often wonder about the point of basic military training. Boot camp. Why does the drill sergeant yell so much, anyway? Why do they frighten and belittle and terrorize?

Several reasons. Shouting broadcasts the message effectively. When a recruit is dressed down for polishing his boots in a slapdash manner (or not scrubbing clean his or her toothpaste cap, or not buttoning the inner-pocket of a coat on a hanger, in a locker, on a 95-degree day4), other soldiers are listening, learning, eager to avoid a similar fate. A violently corrected mistake is a mistake unlikely to be repeated by anyone. When an instructor has zeroed in on a soldier and is picking apart his or her every deficiency--from a stray string on a lapel to an insufficiently close shave to a lack of motivation--the instructor is introducing the Softest Generation to the concept of disapproval, and to the idea that none of us are very special. The instructor is preparing the soldier to keep a clear head and maintain bearing in the face of adversity.

More importantly, the nonstop antagonism builds confidence, teamwork, and leadership in recruits. Though basic, Airborne School, and any number of military training grounds are Army games specifically designed for the soldier to initially lose, those who persist do adapt to the pressure. Eventually, the shouting becomes background noise. The intimidation stops intimidating and the message transcends the delivery. And the mistakes once made become inconceivable, embarrassing, almost laughable. Platoons become a team, singled-minded in purpose and hungry to overcome any obstacle.

That is why Hell's Kitchen is the most accurate depiction of military training ever committed to the small screen. Gordon Ramsay isn't just building network ratings; he's discovering and cultivating bulletproof chefs. He's building restaurateurs capable of handling anything, skilled enough to avoid mistakes of carelessness, and sharp enough to think on their feet no matter the dinner crowd. He obliterates laziness from the chefs' repertoires, and instills focus and composure over a burning stove. As the weeks progress, the individual is shed, replaced by the team, and Ramsay's shouts give way to muted satisfaction.

When his protégés respond "Yes Chef!" all I hear is "Yes Sergeant!"

Forget Full Metal Jacket. To know what it's like to face a drill instructor's wrath, watch Gordon Ramsay storm through a kitchen.

1 Though it took a very long time for me to learn this. Apologizing and excuse making in the Army is just about the worst thing a soldier can do under any condition. "I'm sorry" invariably results in, "Yeah, you are sorry," or a renewed verbal assault on a now prostrated soldier. Absorbing the blows is pretty much the only avenue of escape. Call it the Rocky III defense.

2 During dozens of jumps from dozens of aircraft, I've pondered the circumstances under which a parachutist retention strap might ensnare a plane soaring at 140 knots. Each end of the unfastened strap peeking from a paratrooper's helmet is only a foot long. Stretching credulity, I could imagine decapitation or simply losing a helmet in the prop blast upon exit. In both cases, however, the helmet would simply fall to the ground, with or without a human head inside. In neither scenario would it interfere with the static line pulling free the pack tray and canopy, though in both cases, it would be a very bad day on the drop zone, except for the medics, who would receive excellent training.

3 The origin of leg as an insult is in dispute. Modern usage tends toward a retroactive acronym--low energy ground solder. (Legs are also known as flat-liners due to the lack of Airborne wings above the U.S. Army nametape.)

4 Not that I'm bitter, Staff Sergeants Harvey and Garcia.