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Tyranny, Subjectivity, and Collective Punishment on TV’s “Hell’s Kitchen”

Posted on October 14 2010 8:00 pm
Scott Spiegel blogs at He can be reached at

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I wanted to like the cooking show “Hell’s Kitchen,” but after watching the first two episodes of the current season, I find I must label it a grim, joyless spectacle blotting the landscape of reality TV.

The program is currently in the middle of its eighth season, and while it obviously has a big following, I can’t help but compare it to the far superior “Top Chef,” which just finished its seventh season (and recently won the Emmy for Outstanding Reality-Competition Program.)

Though the general formats of the shows are parallel, the similarities end there.

On the Season 8 opening of “Hell’s Kitchen,” head chef, judge, and dungeon master Gordon Ramsay grouped the contestants into two teams—guys vs. girls. The first task was for each chef to cook his signature dish, and the team that racked up the most points won the challenge.

The team component was pointless and divisive, because no one on a given team worked together, and every member of the losing team was penalized for the failures of the others. The teams tied, but Ramsay declared that the girls lost, because one of their chefs had the single worst dish of the night. The punishment that all underwent—not just the chef who made the bad dish—was to clean up the girls’ and guys’ kitchens. This created enough bitterness and resentment toward the losing chef that the next day she experienced migraines and nausea, curled up on the kitchen floor, and was rushed to the hospital by an ambulance and declared too sick to return to the show.

On “Top Chef,” the focus is first and foremost on the skill and performance of individual chefs. Host Padma Lakshmi occasionally groups competitors into teams for particular challenges, but only where the chefs must actually work together.

Ramsay frequently screams at the entire group of contestants and blames them for “collective” mistakes. Sometimes he orders everyone to leave their stations and come over to where he’s standing during a time-sensitive challenge and listen to a lecture from him, just because a few of them screwed up.

The name “Top Chef” implies being the best, cooking the most creatively, and rising to the top of a field of tough competitors.

The name “Hell’s Kitchen” suggests being masochistic enough to endure the grueling torture of an arbitrary, fiery-tempered sadist.

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