Looking at his catalog, you can see how drastically (and how inexplicably) that trend has escalated. Hell’s Kitchen modified the showdown format by adding a live restaurant service to the mix, Gordon Behind Bars put the chef in a prison, where he made incarcerated men run a food business to raise money for the jail where they were being held, and Next Level Chef features… a triple-decker kitchen, a rising and falling ingredient elevator, something called Mid-Round Madness, and more rules than I have space to explain in this piece. Pitching the show to friends requires ten minutes and a conspiracy board. Meanwhile, the actual cooking challenges couldn’t be simpler. So far this season’s have included “Mexican” and “sandwiches,” and last night was “Chinese.” There’s seemingly too much going on in the background to ask for anything more.
While these twists aren’t inherently evil, none of them feel necessary. After all, audiences seem content with the simplicity and peace of The Great British Bake Off (that is, when it isn’t busy putting its Great British foot in its mouth), and I’d argue contestants don’t actually need to be hazed for audiences to care about them. In fact, it’s harder for us to get to know someone when they’re busy juggling knives, figuring out how to braise a goat testicle, or enduring verbal abuse from an angry Brit.
Ramsay’s wrath had an unmistakable impact on food TV, pushing its stakes higher and higher. But sometimes we get glimpses of a different, wholesome Gordon Ramsay, whether with the kids on MasterChef Junior or in a famous clip where he scrapes a knife across a pie crust, showing a blind contestant how good her bake had come out through sound. It’s an incredibly sweet moment from a man who owes every dollar he’s made to the swear jar, a type of kindness I believe Bake Off judge Paul Hollywood is incapable of. This version of Ramsay’s persona makes room for contestants’ personalities to shine. It allows the chef to be present—still a key part of the show—while focusing on the person doing the cooking.
Beneath the bleeping, beneath the gags, there seems to be a kindness inside of chef Gordon Ramsay—and that’s what I want to see more of. Viewers are looking for something new, and I don’t mean yet another contestant torture device. If Ramsay’s going to stay king of the food competition, somewhere in those next 20 shows I want Heaven’s Kitchen and Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Sweet Dreams. I want something where Ramsay’s talent is an asset rather than a distraction. If that makes me a fool, then wrap my head in sourdough. The idiot sandwich was me all along.
Editor’s note: A former Bon Appétit employee appears on the current season of Next Level Chef on FOX.