I am a huge fan of Gordon Ramsay and his popular TV show Kitchen Nightmares, in which he travels to restaurants on the verge of failure and tries to turn them around in less than a week. Chef Ramsay (sometimes) accomplishes this using his expertise in the industry, very high standards, and tough brutal love. A well-known swearing enthusiast, Chef Ramsay seasons each episode with enough salty language to make a sailor blush and his unwillingness to lower his standards or tolerate laziness in the kitchen, often results in spectacular confrontations.
The show originally aired on the BBC, but is now shown on Fox. Though the program has been unnecessarily amped-up and dramatized for American pea-brain attention spans, the show still follows the same basic pattern. On day one, Chef Ramsay goes to the failing restaurant, meets the owner(s), attempts to eat lunch, and then goes back to the kitchen to give them a righteous bollocking for serving him a disgusting meal. That evening, Chef Ramsay observes dinner service and identifies the problems with the restaurant. On day two, painful changes are made with the usual resistance from owners and staff, often with wailing and gnashing of teeth. Chef Ramsay acts as a dictatorial battlefield commander, encouraging cheerleader, and sometimes even gentle counselor, depending on the situation. On day three, owners and staff arrive to a newly renovated and decorated restaurant and there is a grand re-opening, usually featuring a fresh new menu, higher standards, and renewed energy.
There is some criticism that Kitchen Nightmares is “just TV.” Perhaps. But I have seen every episode from the beginning and while I certainly understand the business of TV, production, and ratings, I honestly believe that Chef Ramsay is trying to help these people. I see it in him. I hear a lot of complaints about his language and bearing, but I like to compare him to a military drill instructor. Ramsay’s behavior is nothing compared to a DI, but there isn’t a red-faced, apoplectic DI in existence that wants anyone in his company to fail. They care. Ramsay is no different. And even as he is swearing a blue streak at a chef who has just tried to poison him with old crab meat, his tone is much different on Kitchen Nightmares, than it is on his other contest-style shows, like Hell’s Kitchen and MasterChef. He’s here to help.
I got word that Kitchen Nightmares would be shooting in Austin at a Greek restaurant named El Greco. I started checking around and finally found El Greco’s Facebook page, where there was a call for diners who wanted reservations during the shoot. I sent an email and a producer got back to me and told me I had to fill-out a survey and then wait and see if they would accept my reservation. The survey was simple. It asked if I had ever dined at El Greco. I had never even heard of El Greco, so that was easy. It asked if I knew of El Greco’s reputation (no), did I eat at other Greek restaurants around town (yes), and then it asked me to take five factors in determining where I eat (recommendation, menu, scene/vibe/atmosphere, review, and price) and put them in order of importance to me. I returned the survey and within a couple of days, my reservation was accepted!
My lunch companion, Kang Lee, looking incredibly happy that I chose him to be food poisoned with me. He had never even heard of Kitchen Nightmares! Chef Ramsay’s trailer is in the background.
On the day of filming, we arrived early with our signed release forms in hand. We checked-in, had our photos taken, and were given a couple of simple instructions such as – no cell phones or cameras allowed in the restaurant, don’t look at the camera and don’t engage Chef Ramsay, unless he speaks to you. After that we stood in line around the side of the building and a producer sent us into the restaurant, party by party, staggering us so that the restaurant wasn’t unfairly put into the weeds. After that, we were real patrons enjoying having lunch. We ordered and paid for our own meals. Nobody asked us to sit anywhere in particular and we were allowed to stay as long as we liked. As you can see from the finished episode, we stayed longer than any of the other patrons. My hope was that I would have a chance to meet Chef Ramsay, but it didn’t work out.
In fact, after the initial instructions and the fact that there were people walking around with professional video cameras, there was no indication that this wasn’t an ordinary lunch service. Well, our waiter did seem to be a little jumpy, but that was to be expected and at least he gave us helpful and friendly service.
The biggest surprise to me about the whole shoot, was how linear and uninterrupted it was. I was expecting there to be many start and stops from the director, but that was not the case at all. Except for editing to tighten everything up, Chef Ramsay’s initial visit occurred just as you see it in the episode. The only out-of-sequence editing I saw was when he was served the stuffed zucchini before the lamb shank. I noticed this, because when he is served the zucchini, Kang and I have already left. A moment later, when he is served the lamb shank, we are back and visible in the background again.
Speaking of lamb shank, I should get on to my lunch. The El Greco lunch menu was very strange. Except for side dishes and three other items, everything on the menu was $9.99. The Greek Burger was $8.99, the Lamb Chops Plate was $10.99, and the Braised Lamb Shank was $16.99. Two of those items are with a dollar of the rest, so basically, only one item didn’t cost $10. So, a cup of soup – $9.99. A small salad – $9.99. A soup and salad – $9.99. A lamb gyro – $9.99. Wait, huh?
Here is the old menu:
To me, the Lunch Lamb Chops Plate looked to be the best deal, but I was told they were out. Uh oh. I hoped Ramsay wouldn’t ask for that. “Fine,” I told the waiter, “I’ll have the Braised Lamb Shank.” The waiter told me that market prices for lamb had required them to raise the price of the lamb shank to something over $20, but he assured me that it was the finest lamb imported from New Zealand. I snickered to myself and thought – yeah, I’ll be the judge of that. I was unhappy about the price increase, but it was a special occasion, so why not? I ordered the lamb shank and a side portion of Greek salad.
The food was disappointing. The salad was a watery, goopy mess. The lamb shank was microwaved to within an inch of its life and covered with a tomato sauce, which normally I would have hated, but in this case was welcomed for its ability to mask the condition of the meat. Lamb shank? The pain in my stomach made it feel more like a prison shank. I was told that I got the last lamb shank, but as it happens, Chef Ramsay ordered the same thing and they managed to find another one. God knows where they found it.
For dessert, I ordered the baklava. Traditionally, this comes as a layered pastry of phyllo, ground walnuts, butter, and honey. El Greco served their baklava rolled, so that on the plate it looked like a small, curled…cat poop. It looked disgusting. I suppose it tasted fine, but I couldn’t get over the serving presentation or temperature. I was told that baklava is traditionally served cold. That’s fine, but I can now say for certain that I do not care for cold pastries that taste as though they have just been pulled out of the refrigerator.
The lamb shank, side salad, tea, and dessert came to $28.33. That is a really expensive lunch, especially for a small Greek cafe, located near a university campus. For what was delivered – yeah, I got shanked.
The Kitchen Nightmares episode followed the template, with Chef Ramsay helping diffuse the staff problems, updating the decor, and improving the menu. While almost anything could be seen as an improvement to the bare, lazy decor (basically an industrial canteen with photos of Greece on the wall to add some color), the update wasn’t much better and was one of the weakest of the series. Chef Ramsay banished the microwave (in a dramatic fashion) and updated the menu here:
By the end of the episode, the owners and staff had come together to smash plates in a Greek tradition of celebration!
My intent was to revisit El Greco after Chef Ramsay made his changes, but sadly, El Greco closed before the show even aired. Based on what I saw in the episode, it was a bit of a Greek Tragedy. It appears as though most of the problems stemmed from family infighting and the resultant lack of passion for the food and for the restaurant. It seems clear to me that by the time Chef Ramsay arrived, nothing could have saved that restaurant. Though the restaurant has closed, and maybe because the restaurant has closed, I hope that the family has a chance to come together again. I wish them well.
The full El Greco episode of Kitchen Nightmares is available on YouTube here:
Luckily, there are other very good Mediterranean food restaurants in Austin. I recently discovered Pars Mediterranean Supermarket and Deli, located in the strip center at Burnet and Research (next to Trudy’s). It’s a warm, unfussy Persian joint with friendly owners and simple, but delicious food at a reasonable price. On weekdays, you can tell a joke for a free side dish. Opa!
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