Friday, February 15, 2013
“Sour sucker?” I thought I must have heard wrong.
“It’s one of my signatures: margarita mix, lemon Absolut vodka and a splash of Midori, garnished with a sour gummi worm, served in a Mason jar.”
It sounded god-awful and looked like something meant to appeal to alcoholic preschoolers, but I and everyone else assembled made smacking sounds with our lips and fawned over the mixologist like cocker spaniels at a boot-licking contest as a videographer who’d not changed his T-shirt in days pressed a camera into the face of our 57-year-old bar manager, Tito, in hopes of capturing the man’s soul escaping through his mouth.
This was Day Three of shooting the Smugglers’ Inn episode of “Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares” and we’d gotten used to Mr. Ramsay and his producer snickering at our nautical décor and teeing off on our largely Spanish-speaking kitchen staff like Anglo-Saxon lords of the British Raj castigating their brown house servants.
We knew what we were in for when we signed up. It may be called reality TV, but every episode of “Kitchen Nightmares” adheres to the same script: G.R. comes in, finds a cockroach, throws a plate, empties the contents of your walk-in cooler into the dumpster along with your menu and your old clientele then, voila! Overnight, you have a new menu, new staff uniforms and a spiffy new décor, all paid for by the show and its sponsors. There is a tearful group hug where all hurt feelings are washed away and a triumphant grand re-opening where Gordon Ramsay flits between tables of delighted diners and a kitchen that hums like a sewing machine. If you’re the restaurant, it’s the kind of exposure you just can’t buy.
What we hadn’t counted on was Sahib Gordon insisting on sticking his Great Pyramid of a nose into every aspect of our business. The show is called “Kitchen” nightmares. Our bar and our advertising sideline are not nightmares; they make money (well, the bar does). After failing to entice one of his London buddies who owned a digital branding agency to fly to Blaine, Minnesota in February, Mr. Ramsay’s producer used that particular line item to import a bartender from Manhattan, a city where they can get away with charging more for a mojito than we do for a 14-oz. prime rib and African lobster tail with your choice of rice pilaf or baked potato. The bartender’s combinations were original—a terrible thing for drinks; Blaine-ites looking to get drunk don’t like to be challenged. Sitting in our sun-streaked Castaway Lounge at 4 o’clock surrounded by lights and cameras, I tried to imagine what would happen the first time a guy who had gotten dressed up in his only hockey jersey without bloodstains got his drink handed to him in a jar.
“Now, I’m sure you haven’t heard of molecular mixology, but this variation on the traditional Old Fashioned uses a nifty interaction between the acid in orange peel…”
The bartender’s condescending spiel was interrupted by an ear-piercing shriek. This was followed by a crash that every restaurant worker would recognize as an aluminum rack falling over. As a group, we ran to the source of the noise, the kitchen area or, specifically, the storeroom in the back of the kitchen area.
The sight of our Sumatran dishwasher, Pongo, riding Gordon Ramsay’s personal assistant like a pony and beating him with a joint of meat is one that I hope I will carry to the grave. Said meat, which I instantly recognized as a Parma ham, was mottled with a velvet of green fungus. It would be shameful indeed if such a large chunk of animal flesh had been allowed to molder in some neglected corner of our pantry. Of course, this is Blaine and the example currently being used as a club was likely the only Parma ham for thirty miles. Although, come to think of it, Parma ham is mentioned on our brunch menu.
“Get it off of me!” the assistant wailed.
“Pongo, are you OK? Did he hurt you?” Cat, our seating hostess, shouted as she ran to Pongo, who dismounted and threw his hairy arms around her like a child being reunited with his mother after getting separated during a Black Friday Sale at Best Buy.
“Pongo hide in storeroom like you say. Man come in, not see Pongo.”
“It talks!” screamed the personal assistant, who had scooted himself against the wall in a sitting position, one leg cocked to lash out with his foot should the attack resume.
It’s true that Pongo’s appearance takes some getting used to with his long arms, short legs and impossibly wide cheeks. Still, he ain’t John Merrick.
“He’s Sumatran, dipshit!”
The assistant yelped when Cat stomped over and buried the toe of her mule into his thigh, then oh-so-casually walked back to hold Pongo’s hand.
“Can someone tell me what is going on? Kevin, what are you doing on the floor? Bloody hell! What is THAT?” Gordon Ramsay pointed at the ham. (Where the heck had he come from?)
“Dis one bring dat ham inna garbage bag, boss,” said, TJ, a kitchen worker who, like Pongo, was hanging out in the back owing to a severe allergy to cameras. “I seen de whole ‘ting. He go like he goin’ hide it behind dem bags ‘o rice, but I don’ thin’ Pongo like dat too much.” The big Jamaican smiled and absently scratched at the waterfall of tattooed tears running down his cheek. “No, boss, I don’ tink Pongo like dat AY-T’ALL.”
It didn’t take a genius to figure out what had happened. Smugglers’ Inn’s immaculate kitchen and food storage areas had not been consistent with good TV. Where the horrible ham had come from was anybody’s guess, but I had no doubt Gordon Ramsay was counting on being able to discover it and hurl it down in front of me, the chef and the day manger as we broke down and wept, imploring Jesus and Gordon Ramsay to save us from the ruination that was our rightful due.
Of course, that still might happen.
“Kevin, you have let myself and the show down. Consider yourself fired as of this moment. Get out.” But it was Gordon Ramsay who left, very hastily and with his producer in tow.
The former personal assistant stared up at us with wide, Keane painting eyes, speechless at having been so savagely thrown under the bus.
We knew this man was just a fall guy. If we should be angry with anyone, it should be Gordon Ramsay and his odious producer. They were the ones who had put him up to the sabotage. Of course, we couldn’t touch them.
We chased the assistant out to the parking lot, TJ and Tito raining blows on him the entire way. When we passed the lounge where the film crew was shooting close-ups of the mixologist’s creations lined up along the bar, the assistant called out for help. He received none.
Outside on the front steps, Cat gave the toady one more taste of her shoe leather and he scurried off, slipping and falling on the icy pavement before realizing that we were letting him make a clean getaway.
Which he really should have done. Instead, he revved the engine of his rented Nissan Altima in an impotent show of force before driving back in our direction, honking his horn and giving us the finger through his open window.
A Parma ham struck the side pillar of the Nissan as if fired from a cannon. Lord, but Pongo has an arm! The assistant was going to have fun explaining to the rental company where that particular damage had come from.
As we watched the taillights of the assistant’s fishtailing car zig-zag onto Highway 10, it felt as if we had regained our unit cohesion. Team Smugs had been taken down a few pegs and we’d reacted by thumping some lackey named Kevin who was only following orders. His bosses, our real tormenters, were free to lord over us for a bit longer, but were now almost certain to bestow some largess upon us when they departed to degrade the crew of another failing restaurant. The whole thing was positively feudal.
“He who mess with de Smugglers’ Inn…” began TJ in mock-solemnity.
“Gets a big ‘ole ham up his butt,” finished Cat and we all laughed, happy now to go back and swallow our gummi worms.
Say what you will, the old ways are still the best.