In 2015, Gordon Ramsay held up a slice of white bread to either side of a woman’s head and barked, “What are you?” The woman, dressed, like Ramsay, in chef’s whites, responded meekly, “An idiot sandwich.” It was hilarious in the ridiculous way that only something that rude could be. I first saw the exchange floating around online in the form of a captioned GIF, a perfect reaction meme; it wasn’t until months later that I realized the clip was taken from “Hell’s Cafeteria,” a parody sketch that aired on James Corden’s Late Late Show (and that the “idiot sandwich” of a woman was the actress and TV personality Julie Chen). Ramsay has regularly gone to such extreme — and extremely entertaining — lengths to humiliate contestants on shows like Hell’s Kitchen that even this seemed realistic.
More recently, on Twitter, Ramsay’s spent the past few weeks dragging users’ struggle plates. In between tweets promoting a handful of his different ventures — a restaurant in Singapore, a new episode of MasterChef Junior — there are sick burns. In response to a photo of one user’s chicken, he said, “Your [sic] supposed to roast the chicken not take it to the crematorium.” To another, who’d sent in a picture of a poached egg in a bowl of noodle soup, he said, “Looks like toxic scum on a stagnant pool.” To yet another, who’d asked for feedback on some empanadas, all he could muster up was “Sad.” It’s hard to tell how many people, if any at all, are participating in earnest. What’s clear is that people enjoy being roasted by Ramsay, and watching strangers get roasted by Ramsay.
But is there something about him that feels especially relevant now? If America’s fascination with the character of straight-talking reality star wasn’t apparent enough, it was confirmed by the election of Donald Trump. The president’s tyrannical manner of speaking, masquerading as honesty, was cited as his greatest quality during the campaign. Trump and Ramsay are, of course, very different. But the root of the fascination that empowered the former to the presidency is the same that has propelled the latter into cult status.
Some of the qualities Ramsay demonstrates are ones that we’re taught to seek in ourselves, for better or worse: perfectionism and hard work as a panacea. Ramsay’s biography — a soccer star derailed by an injury, who had to fight his way from a council estate to culinary school, and who battled his way through multiple renowned kitchens to earn (and maintain) several Michelin stars — is aspirational. A 2007 New Yorker profile suggested that Ramsay’s relationship with food and fine dining was borne almost by accident: “I did not pod beans at my grandmother’s knee, gather forest mushrooms nor chase farmyard hens,” he said then. But, wrote Bill Buford, “food ultimately provided Ramsay with his first employment: a part-time job, a catering-school scholarship, a pub kitchen, a hotel restaurant in London, until 1988, when, flipping through a magazine, he came upon a picture of Marco Pierre White.” Ramsay, an outsider from the Midlands, got a job with White as a line chef and somehow turned that into an empire. It’s the sort of up-by-the-bootstraps tale Republican dreams are made of.
In the years since then, he’s become synonymous with one-liners that are borderline verbally abusive. On YouTube, thousands of compilations splice together his most ridiculous barbs: the time he called someone a “paninihead,” the time he flung a burger across the kitchen like a frisbee. Many of the clips come from Hell’s Kitchen, on which a dozen amateur cooks and professionals must compete for a job running a big-name kitchen. Across the show’s 16 seasons, Ramsay is a complete asshole, tearing through the kitchen with little respect for anyone — man, woman, or maitre d’. He seems to find joy in questioning their intelligence, deriding their looks, and ultimately instructing them to “fuck off.” The show has been criticized for Ramsay’s persona and for what has been alleged as an inaccurate portrayal of professional kitchens and restaurant hierarchies. “The cruel rivalry and conflict depicted in Hell’s Kitchen may be good for ratings, but it is unjust to dedicated cooks and unfair to the trade,” wrote Jacques Pépin, one of the first-ever celebrity chefs. “In my opinion, nothing good enough to eat can be concocted under such conditions.”
But outside of Hell’s Kitchen, Ramsay deploys multiple personalities, some far less abrasive. On Kitchen Nightmares, the now-defunct show where he intervened — though not particularly successfully — to help restaurants claw themselves out of financial ruin, public health violation-level practices, and poor management decisions, he plays a role one desperate restaurateur described as “white Oprah.” He takes on arrogant owners and lazy chefs, for their own good and for the good of abused staff and abused patrons. By the end of every episode, he’s reintroduced, at the very least, a sense of hope and possibility where it no longer existed.
In an era where brash-talk is all around us, and becoming increasingly normalized as a style of communication, Ramsay perhaps feels like a welcome contrast.
Elsewhere, on MasterChef, he’s gentle and patient with contestants; when he does flip out, it reminds me of the way Tyra Banks does in the now-infamous scene from America’s Next Top Model in which she yells at a contestant and then immediately softens: He roasts because he cares, like a parent. On MasterChef Junior, he’s a doting teacher-like figure who stresses the importance of believing in yourself and not giving up. And on late-night TV, where he’s become somewhat of a staple, he’s the charming culmination of all of the above: witty, loveable, able to laugh at himself. When I asked a friend and fellow fan what she found most appealing about Ramsay as a TV persona, she asked, “Which one? Kitchen Nightmares? MasterChef? MasterChef Junior? Hell’s Kitchen? Hotel Hell?”
Yet it’s still Ramsay’s dickishness that seems to attract people the most. Over the past few months, I’ve noticed more and more friends, acquaintances, and strangers referencing him. Late last year, a Hell’s Kitchen clip of him having an exasperated meltdown as he waited for a portion of lamb sauce — a much funnier moment than snippets of him calling women bimbos and violently punching undercooked cuts of sea bass — became a minor meme. “Look for this meme to keep going strong throughout January, and for people to incorporate it into any new meme formats that show up throughout the month. Or until Ramsey [sic] finally finds his lamb sauce,” wrote the Daily Dot in January.
The angry persona can be grating, and sometimes even disturbing. But in an era where brash-talk is all around us, and becoming increasingly normalized as a style of communication, Ramsay perhaps feels like a welcome contrast: His roasts are self-aware, entertaining, and ultimately harmless. It’s just food, after all. And Ramsay knows this, too. Perhaps because he learned, rather than inherited, his affinity for fine dining, he doesn’t seem to have the precious, pretentious approach to food so many others working at his level do. He acknowledges, on programs like Kitchen Nightmares, that small towns across America need restaurants, too; that food can be good without being expensive; that, for some, it’s simply a means to an end. He doesn’t expect every chef to serve a beef Wellington, just that they don’t keep cooked chicken stored next to raw chicken. And he acknowledges, on Twitter, that regular people eat regular things — he won’t shame you for eating a rainbow bagel, just for eating a rainbow bagel that looks like a dog chew. He may be a dick, but he’s a benevolent dick.