Right now we're inundated with shows that feature celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay. Not only is Hell's Kitchen on several nights a week, but thanks to Masterchef and Kitchen Nightmares, Fox pretty much has him on year-round. And BBC America airs the UK version of Kitchen Nightmares as well. It's a whole lot of Gordon Ramsay to deal with. So when I saw that the second season of another show of his was airing on BBCA, I was less than enthused, to say the least. But then after my mother (a lover of all shows Ramsay) watched several episodes and raved about them, I felt compelled to at the very least check it out. You know how moms can be.
Tonight is the finale of the four-episode season of Gordon's Great Escape and I strongly advise you check it out (you can watch snippets here). It shows off a whole new side of the screaming chef, and hopefully next week's Gordon Ramsay's Shark Bait special will follow suit (even though I am a little less interested in a new season of F-Word, in which he searches for the best local restaurant).
What's appealing about Great Escape is that, basically, the chef goes to far-flung locations in order to learn more about the culture and its style of cooking, not unlike Anthony Bourdain in No Reservations. Season 1 covered India and Season 2 was about Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and ends in Thailand. But while Bourdain's point is to show us what lies off the beaten path, Ramsay's mission is usually to learn how to "master" the local cuisine with some sort of big end goal, which can entail showing one of the local mentors what he can do or preparing local foods for royalty of that region. And while I typically watch Ramsay to see him berate people who can't properly cook, it is kind of refreshing to see him struggle a bit with learning these whole new flavor profiles. Sure, he's got a stronger base to be cooking from than your average Joe off the street, but "mastering" a particular kind of cuisine in the span of the week, while traveling from village to village, is no easy feat. And the locals have no problem telling him their honest opinions about his interpretations of their foods.
In addition to seeing him with the shoe on the other foot, discovering how he deals with different cultures is fun as well. Watching him in a little boat in Vietnam trying to catch fresh squid was hysterical, as was watching him freak out while tarantula hunting. It makes this guy who often seems like a profanity-spewing robot seem more human.
That's not to say that the F-bomb isn't dropped a lot -- it's essentially Ramsay's signature dish; it has to be there. But instead of cussing out people, he's cursing the idea of eating duck embryos or squid beaks. And instead of calling people donkeys, he's actually quite comfortable in the student role, only berating himself when he royally screws up.
On Kitchen Nightmares (especially the UK version), we get to see Ramsay as a more caring individual who genuinely seems to want to help these struggling restaurants. But he does so with his bullish style and always seems to get his way. It's a change of pace to see him not try and change the recipes that these chefs have been preparing for years. Instead, he's just appreciative of the experience and their hospitality -- even when he's breaking their teeny tiny chairs and falling to the ground. To hear him speak about how much a certain town in Vietnam worshiped rice and carefully prepared it was lovely, as was his utter frustration when some of their treasured grains spilled to the ground.
That's not to say that I don't enjoy Hell's Kitchen, Kitchen Nightmares and, to a lesser extent, Masterchef, but Great Escape just has a charm about it that I can't help but enjoy, along with a nice slow pace and plenty of travel porn. I just wonder how Ramsay has the time to go abroad for a month when he's filming episodes to keep his other 300 shows perpetually on the air.
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