“You F*@&ing Donkey!”: Finding Life Lessons in Trash TV

Hell’s Kitchen is a perfect example of a trash TV favorite
Image by Ralph Klein from Pixabay

“You cook the scallops in a non-stick pan, so they don’t stick. That’s why it’s called fucking non-stick!”

It doesn’t matter how many times you watch the clip; there’s no stopping the snorts of laughter. Is it the intonation of Gordon Ramsay’s line? Or is it the basic common sense getting hammered into a stranger? Maybe it’s nothing more than plain old trash TV delivering on a promise of entertainment. However you look at it, the formula works: you bust out in giggles.

Behind the famous insults, backbiting behavior, and trash talk, though, you can start to tease out lessons buried within the scripted drama. (If you haven’t figured out reality TV shows employ scores of writers by now, you might need a support group) I’m not talking about cooking lessons, either. While I muttered comments over glimpses of raw fish and lamb wellingtons, I found myself frowning over a bigger picture — one I never expected to find in a session of good old binge-watching.

Welcome to Hell

Hell’s Kitchen is currently enjoying its twentieth season, packing Millennials into the infamous routine of challenges and dinner services. Even if you’ve never watched an episode, odds are you’ve encountered a pop culture reference to the show. Gordon Ramsay’s insults are the stuff of legend, making their way into memes and everyday language. The Simpsons included a parodied version of the show, granting it a level of notoriety they only reserve for a select few (in my humble opinion, anyway).

And while Ramsay demonstrates the docile (and more accurate) side of his personality on Master Chef, Master Chef Junior, and Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted, most people know him best for the volatile character he cultivated on the show. It’s why they tune in, waiting in anticipation for the explosion and colorful litany of words to spew forth. The average viewer couldn’t care less about cookery or the mechanics of running a restaurant. No: you want drama, screaming, crying, and the promise of food smashed into tiny pieces and sprayed across the kitchen. And Hell’s Kitchen delivers — cut and edited for maximum Ramsay fury.

“You Donkey!”

I came to the Hell’s Kitchen audience late in the game. Trash TV never interested me. The few censored clips in commercials proved enough to dissuade me from tuning in. I only clicked on the show the past few weeks out of curiosity. Okay, curiosity and the fact that COVID-19 binging drained our other television resources. (Who knew how many programs you could get through in a year-and-a-half of staying in?)

My husband’s a cooking fan, and we’d already devoured Master Chef. Considering the nurturing side of Gordon Ramsay depicted there, I found myself confused and conflicted. How could a man who cared about the fragile dreams of people display THAT level of ire and vitriol? (Yes, I live in a bubble sometimes) Why not give those original 2005 episodes a glimpse and see what the fuss was about?

Talk about bursting a bubble. I struggled with the urge to laugh, cry, and turn the television off — the trifecta of trash TV. This was motivation? Screaming, yelling, and throwing food? How could the man expect anyone to accomplish a dinner service in that kind of environment? (And why would anyone agree to show up for a meal they KNEW they’d likely never receive?) I couldn’t decide who was the bigger idiot: the contestants, the diners, or me.

Because I couldn’t stop watching.

Gordon Ramsay’s method clearly worked. The show never followed the winners, but a quick internet search provided plenty of answers. Restaurants opened, careers launched. That brutal boot camp created effective leaders. And I found myself studying, not the insults (though my brain continued to snigger) or background drama, but the guidance behind the words. If you strip away the Hollywood scripting, what do you see? A training platform that refuses to accept anything less than the best. It intrigued me — though probably NOT the way the show intended.

Not to worry: I’d get involved in the drama before too long. (Probably still not the way they planned. Drama’s drama, though — isn’t it?)

“Just a Waffle House Cook”

Then came Season 3. (Let me pause here to note that I didn’t watch the seasons in order. Streaming services being what they are, I missed 3–9 initially) When the women threw insults towards Julia because of her background experience, my brain short-circuited. Out of nowhere, the trash TV program turned into a metaphor for life. More than that, it connected to MY life. And I started to see everything in a different light.

Regardless of the profession, people stagger into “levels.” Walk fresh-faced through the door, and you’re a beginner, amateur, or newbie. (Odds are you can think of several more derogatory words, but let’s keep things polite) When you have decades under your belt or certifications, you get to call yourself a professional, expert, or supreme leader. (Please don’t use that last one) Those who flounder in the middle — well, you don’t get cool labels. And everyone uses those levels to decide your worth, competence, and qualifications. Usually unfairly.

People new to a project can bring fresh ideas. You never know what background they might bring. Someone that’s been around understands the way things work. Or they can possess sage advice. The point is, EVERYONE deserves the chance to get seen and heard. Yet that doesn’t seem to happen. Instead, we want to look for that level and dismiss people if it doesn’t meet our expectations. And (as the women’s team discovered with Julia) it can come back and bite you in the ass when you do.

I felt the sting of their words. No, I didn’t know Julia. And it wasn’t because I can barely cook pancakes. Those words “just a waffle house cook” paralleled the way people look down their noses at people like me; people without major publishing credits:

  • “Oh, you’re not a journalist.”
  • “You didn’t major in Creative Writing?”
  • “So I wouldn’t have read anything you’ve written.”
  • “You don’t have English degrees?”

And the lesson broadened to ANY person in that kind of situation. We turn into snobs, expecting everyone to sit on an ivory pedestal. Meanwhile, we forget they might have phenomenal talent. One they didn’t spend years of schooling to attain. (You read about this ALL the time!) We’re so focused on checking for their “level” we don’t take a moment to pay attention to their skills. And I’m no less guilty of this than anyone else.

Plenty of authors on the shelves never went to school for English. And most of the chefs of the world? They got their start in incredibly humble origins. (I could go on and on, but let’s keep this concise) So maybe it’s time to stop and pay attention to someone BEFORE making an assessment.

A Question of Confidence

Once that lightbulb went off, the paparazzi flash followed. I started to see more and more lessons emerging from an absolute nightmare of a show:

  1. Moving forward into the era of women empowerment, we’re continuing to fail to support one another. Get us in a group, and we still tear each other apart. The female mind refuses to acknowledge the need to back one another up. Instead, we insist on fighting for everything we can reach.
  2. Prejudice based on appearance doesn’t want to leave, either. If you’re extremely attractive, have an unusual feature, come up short in height, tower over everyone, etc., you’re going to encounter impediments in your climb to success. And you can either throw your shoulders back and confront that adversity, or you can decide to go the shallow route (looking at you, women) and play into the hands of the prejudice. And then you get to wonder why no one takes you seriously.
  3. There’s a delicate balance when it comes to confidence. You need to believe in yourself if you’re going to achieve your dreams. Fear and doubt won’t get you anywhere. However, when you cross the line into arrogance, you’ll alienate yourself to the point of failure. And finding the tipping point is like standing on a hair balanced on the blade of an axe.

I know, pretty heavy thoughts to emerge from watching a man shout, “Pay attention, you doughnut!” I’m also 100% confident the network executives didn’t foresee that kind of thinking when they pitched Hell’s Kitchen. And maybe I’m the only person in the history of trash TV to find these kinds of lessons.

But I’m a better person for those hours spent watching food splatter across a kitchen.

Even if I giggle when I open the cabinet and see the non-stick pan on the shelf.

Freelance science writer, meanderer of thoughts, and complete animal nut. My life is governed by a tiny demon (or possibly a flerken - still running tests).