Arts and Culture

'Hell's Kitchen' Claims about Araxi a Tad Overdone

Cooking show says winner gets to be 'head chef' at a top Whistler restaurant. Actually, no.

By Steve Burgess 13 Oct 2009 |

Steve Burgess writes about television and film for The Tyee.

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Celeb chef Gordon Ramsey: The profane game.

A famous restaurant might throw a party to announce the arrival of a new top chef. There's no party for the hiring of a new busboy. Tuesday night in Whistler, Araxi is throwing a big party to celebrate an event that falls somewhere in the middle. Araxi will be crowded with folks eager to see who comes out on top after the two-hour finale of Hell's Kitchen, the Fox-TV reality series (airing locally on City TV). Three contestants are left. The winner, we have been told, gets the position of Head Chef at Araxi. That sounds exciting. But would big audiences watch a 13-week audition for a line cook supervisor?

Hell's Kitchen is hosted by Gordon Ramsey, the celebrity chef and human aneurysm who has been entertaining Fox TV audiences for years with his particular brand of staff abuse. Every year he scythes through stands of culinary hopefuls to find one chef who can take the heat. This is the sixth season for the American version of the show, based on an earlier U.K. version. Past prizes have included top positions in Ramsey's restaurants, or places such as Green Valley Ranch Resort's Terra Verde restaurant in Las Vegas. This year it's head chef at Araxi. Quite an honour, considering the many awards Araxi has been winning under executive chef James Walt.

Ah yes, James Walt -- who still works at Araxi. And will continue to do so. So won't it be rather awkward for poor James to toil under the direction of some youngster whose recent work experience mostly involves trying not to flinch when struck by Chef Ramsey's spittle?

"The Hell's Kitchen winner won't be running the kitchen," Walt said while signing copies of his new Araxi cookbook at a recent launch. "I run the kitchen."

So then -- will the winner be second in command? Third?

Walt pondered a moment. "Maybe fourth," he said.

'Top Chef', this isn't

Fourth? It doesn't exactly give good promo. In this case, "head chef" may be the semantic equivalent of being a Starbucks "partner," a.k.a. employee.

A job at Araxi is a great gig. Depending on the structure of the kitchen staff, fourth in line could certainly be a position of some responsibility. It probably gives the winner seniority over the line cooks. And Araxi's own press releases have made it clear that the Hell's Kitchen winner would be working under the direction of Walt. Which makes sense. But sensible scenarios don't make good TV. No one ever said Fox was in the documentary business.

Among reality TV chef contests, Hell's Kitchen is probably not the gourmet's choice. That would be Top Chef, airing in Canada on Slice and featuring some contestants who actually boast Michelin stars. By contrast, Hell's Kitchen contestants often seem to have been selected for their suitability as cannon fodder. While Top Chef is more about food, Hell's Kitchen is about watching people suffer. (A call for contestants recently appeared on the Manhattan Craigslist).

But Walt met the contestants and observed them under pressure during filming. He came away impressed. "It was very tough," he said. "These were talented and skilled people. I couldn't have survived it -- I would have been eliminated right away."

The story of Araxi's involvement with Hell’s Kitchen suggests that reality TV may be a rather incestuous little world. Apparently it started when a producer for perennial Emmy winner The Amazing Race had dinner at Araxi and then raved about it to the Hell's Kitchen team back in L.A.

Those two shows occupy different galaxies in the reality TV universe. Shows like Amazing Race promise straight cash prizes, while your Hell's Kitchens and Apprentices promise real-world success. The latter are far more problematic. Cash is cash -- let the competition begin and the winner/winners receive the cheque. But no reality TV show can truly promise career success as a prize.

Where are the winners now?

A July 3, 2007 New York Post story reported that winners of the first two seasons of Hell's Kitchen failed to occupy the promised positions, for reasons that may have been professional or personal. On the other hand, Danny Veltri, last season's winner, is indeed working as advertised at Fornelletto in Atlantic City, a sous chef under Stephen Kalt.

Big promises notwithstanding, the last chef standing after the Tuesday night finale will get a good job in a fine kitchen. But will the winner be surprised at the true nature of the prize? A spokesperson for the Top Table restaurant group says not. The winning candidate (already known to Araxi management) is reported to be well-aware of the true nature of the job and "very excited about the opportunity to work under James Walt."

Whether Hell's Kitchen viewers would be equally excited by that outcome is another question. But after 13 episodes of dealing with Gordon Ramsey, even washing glasses for James Walt would probably be bliss.  [Tyee]

Read more: Food

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