"This is just like a regular restaurant," guests are told before entering. "You order whatever you want from the menu – one starter, one entrée and one dessert. If the producer comes to your table, talk about the dining experience amongst yourselves and don't look into the camera. After you're done, fill out the comment cards about each dish."
Yup, just like at Olive Garden.
Given the show's studio-district warehouse location and producer preamble, you assume a visit to Hell's Kitchen will reveal a clunky, manufactured affair. The name's very usage in this dining context causes grammatical and punctuation identity conflict: Should "Hell's Kitchen" be in quotes like a show title, or not? Is one entering a Fox reality program or a functioning restaurant?
The first impression is that the production takes pains to make the dining room feel like a restaurant instead of a set, mood lighting and all. The open kitchen where the show's action largely takes place is devoid of producers or crew. Ramsay and his fledging chefs are monitored by petite mounted cameras, operated from an unseen control room supervised by Fox reality guru Mike Darnell (who distinguishes himself as a network executive who carries a president title yet personally oversees day-to-day production on his shows). A roving camera crew stops at guests' tables, but otherwise the kitchen and dining service are uninterrupted. For veterans of reality show set visits, where "spontaneous" scenes often require laborious crew positioning and retakes, this sort of documentary-style unobtrusiveness is unusual.
As for Ramsay, he is very loud and constantly in motion: barking orders, tasting, encouraging, dressing plates, blaming. His gestures are camera-friendly dramatic, his movements perhaps exaggerated. But his performance is unceasing. The chef rages nonstop -- for hours. The reason contestants are so prone to on-camera nervous breakdowns on "Hell's" becomes clear. When Ramsay finally orders a cook out of his kitchen -- "Hey! Hey! Get out!" -- one thinks: "Yes! Run!"
Once your food arrives, concern about getting fed turns into something else. You realize, somewhat sadly, that this is probably the most secure restaurant experience you will ever have – food prepared by rival cooks under the scrutiny of a three-Michelin-starred chef as the entire operation is monitored by cameras. This is why viewers appreciate Ramsay, despite his tyrannical abusiveness. We wish somebody with his standards ran our local bistro, the movie theater, the gas station, the cable company. There's something guiltily satisfying about having a person in charge who screams and makes things work.
As for the food itself, it is excellent, except for one thing: A member of our party doesn't like her heavily salted risotto. We expect the waiter to leap at the chance to return the item to Ramsay, a scenario that fuels drama on the show. But no.
"The risotto is a little salty, but that's how it's prepared," the waiter patiently explains. The maitre d', Jean-Phillipe, chimes in: "I sent back a salty risotto to the chef the other day, I don't want to do it again."
Our group is stunned. They don't want conflict on a Fox reality show?
In the kitchen, Ramsay is howling about a raw scallop. Hell's Kitchen -- no quotes -- it is.