30 September 2007

Culture Kitchen Nightmares

[Editor's note: As I have been, and will continue to be, swamped with work, travel and visitors, I have called in a few pinch-hitters to comment on things MTBE-esque. Below is the first installment of guest-bloggers, an entry from our own lizzie b on food, South Asiana and television. If there was just a little Russian-inflection, it would be a clean-sweep of MTBE themes. Feel free to contact me if you have your own idea for an MTBE post that you'd like to write!]

While vacationing in London in May, Buster PhD Candidate and I sampled Kitchen Nightmares, a BBC Channel 4 production, in which authoritarian chef Gordon Ramsay takes command of failing restaurants to turn them into tasteful, profitable enterprises. He groans, hollers, and grimaces his way through décor updates, staff firings, and menu overhauls until he reaches the inevitable conclusion: a climactic dinner seating packed with smiling, chewing customers. Now, KN has come to America, on Fox naturally. And last Wednesday’s episode featured a Midtown desi diner, perfect fodder for one of MTBE’s new American-bureau writers.

No doubt Dillon’s—the Bangladeshi-owned New York restaurant—had problems: two long menus, one 'Indian' and one 'American’; no chef on staff who could cook the 'American' dishes; atrocious decorating; cockroaches and flies everywhere; incompetent front-of-house staff. Problems that clearly call for some boot-camp assimilationism, via an aggressive pug-faced Briton, recalling a familiar colonial script, though one that Fox’s production team seemed blissfully unaware of.

The episode’s cultural insensitivities are almost too boring and predictable to examine. First, Ramsay immediately renames the restaurant Purnima, an authentic nature-inspired Sanskrit name; nevermind that the owner, Mohammed Islam, and the chefs are Muslim. Second, the only restaurant staff interviewed are the English-speaking ones. We aren't privy to the head chef's thoughts on the kitchen makeover; we don't even know his name. Instead, Ramsay's berating via translator: "Tell him—in a really nice way—your food is [bleeped out]!" Finally, there’s the extra Jenna, a young white server, whose hand-wringing at the train wreck helps the audience figure out what to feel.

But the defining moment of the episode is the invitation of ostensibly renowned chef Vikas Khanna to take charge of the kitchen. He immediately retools the menu with "classic Indian dishes" formulated "for an American palate." Khanna, a self-proclaimed gifted spiritualist straight out of 2003’s Guru, has taken the foodie route of celebrity gastronomy with a dash of self-publishing; but the real product is his "unique vision to use food to express love for our communities," including blind children, the hungry, and travelers with disabilities. Cue colonial script #2.

The results of the make-over? "This chicken tikka masala would rival any chicken tikka masala in England," proclaims one happy diner as the episode climaxes, inadvertently emphasizing the primacy of Western standards in the judgment of South Asian food. I could only dream of Khanna in the kitchen whispering, Vijay-Prashad-style: "See, staff, the Americans want our labor—that is, our work in this restaurant—but they do not want our lives—that is, food that would challenge their palates."

Back in the real world, it turns out that a blander menu and generic Orientalist décor doesn't guarantee success. According to a suit filed against Ramsay by the general manager who left the restaurant at the end of taping, Dillon's/Purnima is today less profitable than ever.

(For anyone interested in the inner workings of reality TV, you can read the suit for yourself. Don't be put off by the legalese. The writing gets juicy fast. Among other tidbits, it's alleged that most of the diners in the triumphal scene were extras hired at $75 per head, unbeknownst to the restaurant staff who thought they were real customers.)


Younglan said...

The episode was fun, it was a great drama...martin was a perfect example of a reality tv star. In the end we all loved the calmness and control of VIIIIKKKAAS

Sammy said...

OMG....i love vikas