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'Are you that stupid?' Mill Street Bistro, the finest episode in the history of reality television

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Gordon Ramsay's "Kitchen Nightmares" recently ended its run in the United States. Before it left, it gave us a two-hour odyssey of vanity, failures, and humiliations that must never be forgotten.

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This is a story of two men, Gordon Ramsay and Joe Nagy. Gordon has been cooking professionally for about three decades, owns one of the top restaurants in the world, and is one of the most accomplished chefs who has ever lived. Joe is a guy in Ohio. This is Joe, on Gordon:

 

This is from an episode of Kitchen Nightmares, a show that is no longer being made. It is being told on a sports website on absolutely no particular occasion nor anniversary: this story is itself the occasion. "Mill Street Bistro" is a two-part episode that transcends both Kitchen Nightmares and the vast majority of modern television. There is, of course, yelling and screaming and lying and freezer-burned seafood and crying.

But "Mill Street Bistro" is a deeply strange and frustrating tragedy. Our damsel-in-distress resists salvation and is revealed instead as the antagonist, an Idiot-Tyrant. Our presumed protagonist, Gordon Ramsay, is consumed with frustration and angst, ultimately accomplishing nothing and saving nobody. The protagonist's cape hangs on the rack, unworn, and by the end of this darkness, every character in the cast remains as perfectly still and unchanged as a weed in the light of dawn.

It is a story that ought to be told in four parts:

I. JOE NAGY, who was SELF-TAUGHT by OTHER PEOPLE, outlines his RESTAURANT PRETENSIONS and EMOTIONAL NEEDINESS;

II. the EXPOSURE of JOE NAGY's FRAUDULENCE and the CRUMBLING of his FAÇADE;

III. the TERRIBLE WRATH of GORDON RAMSAY rains upon the head of a SMALL MAN and his FAKE BISTRO;

IV. JOE NAGY is ROUNDLY DEFEATED and continues to FAIL, but QUIETLY and awash in his own HUMILIATIONS.

This episode is free to watch on Hulu. Part 1 is here, and Part 2 is here. What you're about to read here is not a recap or a review so much as an examination of a uniquely tragic figure and the man who won't stop screaming at him.

PROLOGUE: A 60-WORD INTRODUCTION TO KITCHEN NIGHTMARES.

Kitchen Nightmares is a show in which Gordon Ramsay visits a failing restaurant, identifies its problems, frowns and yells and curses a lot, and eventually provides solutions to get the establishment on the right track. His ideas work. Half the time, the restaurant promptly undoes all of Ramsay's changes after he leaves, and the business is run into the ground.

ACT I.

joetorcycle

JOE NAGY, who was SELF-TAUGHT by OTHER PEOPLE, outlines his RESTAURANT PRETENSIONS and demonstrates his EMOTIONAL NEEDINESS.

Arriving on his two-wheeled steed is Joe Nagy, owner of the Mill Street Bistro and the sort of man who, while smugly talking down to you about the shitty carrots in his restaurant, will refer to Four Seasons hotels as "the Five Seasons."

You may wonder why Joe would think anything would be called the Five Seasons, or whether anyone has even considered a fifth season of climate. I reckon it's the Season of Joe Nagy, darker and colder than Winter, when the trees grow leaves that are already dead.

I cannot spend another word on Joe without first strongly recommending that you regard Joe Nagy as a fictional character. While it's true that Kitchen Nightmares is classified as a reality show, the end product is considerably twisted and warped, even by the standards of reality television. This episode is clearly edited, re-arranged, overdubbed, and manicured to make him look worse than any human could possibly be.

The real-life Joe Nagy is surely far closer to a reasonable human being than the Joe of this episode. So please note that when I say that Joe Nagy is an eminently mean, artless bumblefuck whose only redemption is his eventual learned ability to fail without making noise, I'm talking about the near-entirely fictitious character we see before us.

Joe's driving passion is to put on airs and impress you. This quote nicely sets the table (restaurant term):

I want Chef Ramsay to critique my restaurant and say, "you've got something, Joe."

He perceives his restaurant as a fine-dining establishment, and seems to believe that the locals of Norwalk, Ohio, don't deserve him. (Though he will later deny this, he was accused by a former employee of calling them all "hillbillies.") One remarkable triumph of Kitchen Nightmares is that over the course of its six-year run on primetime network television, its producers managed to keep finding restaurant owners who didn't understand the show or how it worked. Gordon will not visit your restaurant, shower you with compliments, shake your hand, and leave. That is never, ever how this show has worked.

But this time, just like most times, the owner willfully ignores the name of the show he's appearing in and refuses to consider why they wanted him on the show. Joe is blinded by his need to be congratulated. While showing off his farm to Gordon, he nonchalantly explains that he, I don't know, spent a decade in the forest with restaurant-monks, fencing with meat cleavers and balancing himself on bread boxes and holding buckets of broth over his head or some shit like that?

Note Gordon's response. "Yeah. Yeah." He's been shooting this show for five years. He knows he's being bullshitted, and is happy to play along with this man's stories for a while before destroying him.

Anyway, did you catch that?

I am self-taught by old-school Europeans.

self-taught
old-school Europeans.

That is Joe: with each boast comes a reinvention of elementary logic. He will invent a word like "functuality" and then tell you he's got it in spades.

Many, many Kitchen Nightmares have featured owners who don't come off as particularly intelligent people. When these people are nice, or at least decent people, I take no pleasure in their mockery. Neither does Gordon, who tends to soften considerably and focus on restoring their confidence.

But Joe Nagy -- again, fictional Joe Nagy -- hits the trifecta. Dumb, egotistical, and mean. He rips his employees and makes them feel like garbage, sometimes driving them to tears. He sees his restaurant as among the best in the world, persistently meddling in the kitchen and undermining his own chef.

His emotional neediness is evident nearly every time he's on screen. Joe, the next hour and a half are going to be very bad for you.

ACT II.

duhhhh

The EXPOSURE of JOE NAGY's FRAUDULENCE and the CRUMBLING of his FAÇADE.

BAD IDEA: Joe keeps a fake fireplace running in his restaurant on 95-degree days. BAD IDEA: He makes his servers wear name tags, but rather than ordering them name tags with their names on them, he shoots them on with a label maker. BAD IDEA: He calls his specials "features," a thing no restaurant ever does. BAD IDEA: His idea of fine dining is "elk quesadilla."

Wherever he walks, terrible ideas clank and rattle behind him like tin cans strung to his belt.

BAD IDEA: Gordon says his fish is not "fresh," as advertised. Joe argues that it isn't advertised as fresh, and then Joe counters by pointing to a thing that proves that Joe is totally wrong.

BAD IDEA: Joe tries to play a game of gotcha about a very basic culinary principle with one of the most highly-esteemed chefs who has ever walked the Earth.

It's a thing so easy for Gordon to explain that I can fit the entire thing in a Coub and still have time left over to include the most impotent follow-up argument imaginable. Joe seems to think there's no game hunting in Scotland. In fact, throughout this episode Joe mutters a lot of "pffft, he's from Scotland, what does he know." Joe, a man in Ohio, appears to have nothing but contempt for Scotland because it is a different place.

Those who are only casually familiar with Gordon Ramsay might wonder why he doesn't just lay into him here. Oh, that's coming. He's just saving it up for now. But my God, is it ever coming.

For now, Gordon's happy with openly mocking this man. BAD IDEA: Joe has posted a big "QUIET" sign in the kitchen and discourages his cooks from talking to one another, which is a very important thing for cooks to be able to do.

Joe's standing right there. Gordon is happy to openly mock him in front of his employees. A man like Joe is not the sort of man who would be a good sport about this, and Gordon knows this is a jackhammer to Joe's ego. He just doesn't give a shit, that's all.

And this is the moment Joe is officially established, not as a flawed protagonist or party in distress, but as the villain. Gordon likes the restaurant's staff, and wants to make life better for them, but he sees nothing in Joe worth liking. In fact, nobody in this story does, not even for the most fleeting of moments.

This story was once about a man's mission to save another. It is now a fight, and the only weapons at Joe's disposal are very poorly-conceived lies.

This is what Joe would be learning right now if he ever learned things: you've got to be smart to pull off a lie. Or, at least, you can't be stone-stupid.

I swear to God, the only thing Joe cares about is being validated. We know Joe doesn't value notions such as art or integrity or treating others well, and now we have to genuinely wonder whether he cares about money, or saving his business, or anything but receiving compliments and validation. We know that he's desperate for those things, so desperate that he is appearing on "YOU ARE DOING THINGS WRONG: THE TELEVISION SHOW" and expecting to be told he is great.

This comforts me, actually, because it further reassures me that this is not representative of the real-life Joe Nagy. He's a victim of Gordon and the producers stacking the deck against him. Nobody could possibly be this much of a dillweed.

The reckoning is at hand.

ACT III.

gordonyell

The TERRIBLE WRATH of GORDON RAMSAY rains upon the head of a SMALL MAN and his FAKE BISTRO.

Again, many of those who are only casually familiar with Gordon Ramsay's oeuvre tend to pin him as the yelly, screamy, and completely unreasonable character he plays on Hell's Kitchen. If that is 100 percent Gordon Rage, then his Kitchen Nightmares self rarely pops above 40 percent Gordon Rage.

It takes a very special sort of small, stubborn, unliking, unlikable, conceited dimwit to elevate him to such rage. Gordon Ramsay is never more eloquent than he is when he reduces a man to a buttoned-down bag of shame.

The sky cracked in two and Hell fell out of it, all above us all along.

 

Do not worry. Joe is more than capable of engaging Gordon in debate. He has this great idea. His idea is to take what Gordon says, replace all the "you's" with "me's" and throw a "not" in there, then say it back to him.

 

 

"You want me to blow smoke up your phony ass."

"I don't want you to blow smoke up my phony ass!"

"Why are you fucking around like this?"

"I'm not fucking around like that!"

Listen for this the next time a four-year-old argues with you, because they do this exact same thing: they'll parrot back the negative of what you just said, and they don't quite get that they could edit it down if they want to.

You may recognize this particular model of dumb and stubborn. I sure do. We all know folks who will never change, too yoked to what they have decided is true to, their ability to learn atrophied by disuse. Joe's trajectory is straight as a meteor's. It is evident to every person in this episode of Kitchen Nightmares, a show about effecting change: this man will never change.

There is nowhere for Joe to go but nowhere. He has achieved perfect stasis. Gordon is an agent of movement, of excellence, of passion. The two cannot rule together. And so Gordon serves him the ultimate indignity: he casts him out of the kingdom.

Joe will deny this. He is the king! This is his kingdom!

Joe was kicked out of his own kitchen.

 

It is the ultimate indignity. It is brought about because Joe will not stop making elk quesadillas, a dish Gordon told him time and again, with no room for confusion, is a terrible dish that should be taken off the menu. At the outset, Joe was supposed to be the helpless man tied to the railroad tracks, waiting for Gordon to save him. Instead, he is the train itself. He is fixed upon the track, knowing no other option but to make the same crummy food for miles and miles.

On television, people are conquered by guns or fists or legal proceedings or Machiavellian dealings. The defeat of Joe Nagy was far more exotic, and much more difficult to accomplish: he was defeated by shame.

 

ACT IV.

headinhands

JOE is ROUNDLY DEFEATED and continues to FAIL, but QUIETLY and awash in his own HUMILIATIONS.

Joe has been blown off his tracks: a pretend chef without a kitchen, a king without a kingdom. The only further humiliation he could possibly suffer would be by his own hand. This is Joe, and so this is exactly what happens. He staggers into the dining room, and does the least dignified thing a restaurant owner could possibly do: he wanders from table to table, telling his tale of woe to any of his customers who might listen.

Joe, don't do this. No, no, no, no, no. Please no. I can't take this.

I can barely watch. Joe, here is your lonely triumph: you have led me to pity you.

He continues to grouse outside the brick and mortar of the walls of the kingdom, having engaged in conversation with this poor woman who looks like she desperately wants to leave.

Joe is reaping the harvest he sowed simply by being Joe: heartless, mean, stubborn, and vain. Gordon hates him. His employees openly delight in seeing him fail. His customers want nothing to do with him.

Joe, on Gordon:

I said, "I'd love to see you, you know, fucking do what I do."

Not only does Gordon Ramsay do what you do, he has done it for decades. Not only that, but he has done so on international television, where you could easily see him do what you do, for longer than a decade. Not only that, but HE WENT TO YOUR TOWN AND INSIDE OF YOUR RESTAURANT AND DID EXACTLY WHAT YOU DO RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU. He is literally doing that right now while you are out here begging the customers you once resented for some crumb of empathy or companionship.

A wind has swept in from Scotland, across the sea and into northern Ohio, where it has blown the ego of Joe Nagy into another county. A boy will find it in the woods and wonder who it once belonged to, and why "functuality" is scribbled all over it.

At the end of this episode, Gordon hosts an American Cancer Society walk in town. Joe is not there, and it has nothing to do with food, but it is welcome, because it is the only way Kitchen Nightmares can end this episode with any modicum of joy or meaning.

Joe is failing now, but he is finally doing so in relative silence as a food runner. With a new chef installed and Gordon overseeing a dinner service, everything hums, save for all the times Joe brings food to the wrong tables. On one occasion, Joe brings a table the wrong dish, realizes it minutes later, takes it from the table, and tries to take it to another table, apparently unaware that this is a very basic no-no that anyone who has ever worked in the food service industry knows you are not supposed to do.

Men do not change. Men do not change. Gordon leaves the Mill Street Bistro with one immutable law, above all else: Joe must not do any more of the cooking.

He must not be anywhere near the kitchen. When he cooks, things happen like elk quesadillas and french onion soup with raw onion sitting in it.

Men do not change. Men do not change.

Men do not change.

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