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Kitchen Not-So-Confidential

British chef Gordon Ramsay sharpens his knives in "Hell's Kitchen."

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"I think you're a plank," Ramsay says, looking at it, then politely explains that in Britain, "plank" means "idiot."

Ramsay then announces that the restaurant will open that night, and the hopefuls scurry off to learn the menu (which, curiously, has no prices).

And then the fun begins. It's no surprise that a dozen people who've never met can't run a fine restaurant's kitchen particularly well. What is somewhat shocking is how clearly Drill Sergeant Ramsay lets them know that.

He will not send out a table's food until all the dishes ordered are perfect. When a plate offends him, he tends to thrust it into the offending chef's chest, usually employing a few bleeped-out bons mots.

This perfectionism tends to slow down the service slightly, and when a table full of bronzed and buttressed blondes comes up to Ramsay's station to complain, he asks his longtime maŒtre d', Jean-Philippe Susilovic, to "escort them back to plastic surgery."

"Nothing upsets Chef Ramsay more than when customers come to the kitchen," the asinine voice-over helpfully explains.

It is, of course, thrilling for those of us who've never so much as sent back an overdone steak to see pushy California weenies — especially the ones in the second episode — leveled by Ramsay's acid tongue. It's not as amusing to see Ramsay pick on poor Chris or the marvelously named Dewberry, who explodes in Southern-accented queeniness and threatens to walk off the set when Ramsay calls him "one big [bleep]ing overgrown muffin."

If by this time you're wondering why anyone would want to cook Ramsay so much as a grilled cheese (which future series villain Andrew straight-facedly assures us is impossible to do properly "until you've done it a few times"), and you're depressed by the Stockholm syndrome that seems to be setting in among the contestants — "Yes, Chef," they respond wearily to his insults, the grease stains on their chests shimmering with shame — you're not alone.

In fact, unless you've seen Ramsay's softer side in his "Kitchen Nightmares" series on BBC America, you'll probably think he's nothing but a bully. But there's a method to his borderline psychosis, and "Hell's Kitchen" producers do their level best to minimize your exposure to it.

"Kitchens are run on emotions," Ramsay says in an interspersed interview. "But the most important thing is, it's not personal." In later shows, he praises people who aren't great cooks when they display teamwork, the key to a well-run joint.

Tell that to the pair of unlucky sods who are picked by the leader of each night's losing team to go up on the chopping block, "Apprentice"-style. Ramsay doesn't seem to relish this part of the show as much as the producers do: Eliminated contestants have to remove their chef's jackets in front of everyone, the snaps popping loudly like a self-administered firing squad.

Then, to make sure we get the point, the loser is interviewed in front of a Dumpster while Ramsay impales his or her jacket on a coat rack. He does this with a slightly embarrassed air, as if it were a contractual requirement, the price of doing a reality show on American TV, and that's the first time we see that his high standards might not help him here.

"Hell's Kitchen" isn't much like the Rocco DiSpirito vehicle "The Restaurant" from a couple of years ago — this new show is far more formatted, even though Ramsay boasts that it's relatively unscripted for a reality series. But its close view of the dark side of eating in public is bound to give some viewers déj… vu, if not a little indigestion. S



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