The longevity of “Hell’s Kitchen” can’t be summed up in a word: There’s the passion of Gordon Ramsay molding the contestants into world-class chefs, the emotion of their backstories and the drama of the challenges designed to test their skills and the dinner service, which plays out like opening night on Broadway.
But there’s another reason: The show is different from any other food show on TV. “Fox runs a show, I run a restaurant,” says Ramsay. “I don’t cast. I want the best young chefs in America. I like the uneducated rough diamonds.”
And that’s another reason for the series’ success: authenticity.
“At 7 o’clock, when the first customer sits down, it’s a restaurant,” says Ramsay of the show’s production schedule. An exec producer had once asked him to wear an earpiece during taping in the first season. He got immediately frustrated and popped it out and stuck it on a hot plate. He hasn’t been asked to wear one again.
“We do have a pretty good recipe,” says Kent Weed, the longtime exec producer of the show along with Arthur Smith. “It started in 2004, when we were sent tape of this chef called Gordon Ramsay who was very well-established in the U.K.”
The show was “Hell’s Kitchen,” then a hit for ITV, although the concept was different. “We fell in love with Gordon. Right away. And we also fell in love with the title.”
They also saw tape of Ramsay’s U.K. series “Kitchen Nightmares,” which showed more dimension to Ramsay’s personality.
They thought they had something. At that time, it was a huge risk. “There had never been a successful food show on network television — nothing, not even close,” says Smith, who was also exec producer on Ramsay’s “Kitchen Nightmares,” which ended its seven-year run this year.
The first season of “Hell’s Kitchen” did well. “Oh, it’s because of the novelty of it, people said, but then the second year was better, then the third year …,” says Weed, with Smith picking up the thread, “There were times when the show was No. 1 in the 18-49 demo. The show has been a great utility player for Fox.”
“It has aired on Monday,” says Weed.
“Tuesday,” says Smith.
“Wednesday,” says Weed.
“Thursday,” says Smith and “summer spring and fall,” says Weed.
“At 8 o’clock and 9 o’clock,” says Smith. “I don’t know any show that has been on this long with so many time periods than we have.”
For Orly Adelson, president of ITV Studios America, the success of “Hell’s Kitchen” is twofold.
“One is Gordon’s personality. No nonsense, passionate, charismatic. He ignites both the contestants and the viewers. How many people can do that?,” she says.
“You need that first ingredient to make a great show. The second ingredient is to cast it in a way that you can tell really interesting and compelling stories every week. It’s important that it’s a long story arc. You can take all these and add a really good ITV production team with the really good producing team of Arthur Smith and Kent Weed.”
Weed and Smith are just as passionate about making interesting TV as Gordon is passionate about food. Their enthusiasm for Ramsay and the series is palpable.
“One of the big differences between our show and the U.K. show is that we had real chefs,” says Smith, noting that at the time, most of the people on reality series were “pretty people.”
And they behaved outrageously. “The people who go on ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ are real chefs. They’re not trying to get a spinoff show,” Smith adds with emphasis.
“There is no script,” Ramsay says. “You can’t say, ‘James is going to struggle with the sea bass. Claire will have trouble with the scallops.’ ”
That spontaneous level of drama is inherent in the restaurant’s dinner service. While the chefs get intense training and come into the show with top skills, “Nothing can prepare you for that barrage of pressure in a restaurant,” says Ramsay.
Weed agrees, noting that the show’s technical level is designed to show everything but not be intrusive. “It is ‘The Truman Show.’ ”
The “Hell’s Kitchen” set is built specifically like a real restaurant, according to Smith, and while there are close to 90 cameras covering the action at dinner services and cooking challenges there are no cameras in the kitchen.
“The chefs never see a camera. There’s no cameramen or operators during dinner service,” says Weed.
“We are very careful to keep it organic. It is raw and real,” says Smith. The producers use strategically placed robotics and camera blinds. “If you see a mirror, chances are there’s a cameraman behind it. And there’s lots of mirrors in ‘Hell’s Kitchen,’ ” says Smith. “It is a technological marvel.”
“It looks like NASA,” says Weed.
But it’s still TV, so while the “Hell’s Kitchen” challenges can be theatrical, such as having the chefs dig through sand sculptures to find geoduck clams that look like large pink slugs, they are designed and programmed as teachable moments.
“If (the chefs are) disorganized the night before, I try to do a challenge testing that,” says Weed. “They had a poor time communicating during one service so we put the lists of ingredients for the dishes they had to cook on their backs so they were forced to communicate. We move the goal posts but it has to resonate with the (service) night before.”
The winner gets a job at one of Ramsay’s far-flung restaurants. “Hell’s Kitchen” might just be the hardest job interview on the planet.