Thursday, July 14, 2011

What I've Learned from Gordon Ramsay

WHAT?  Gordon Ramsay?  Is this a cooking blog?  Are you trying to learn to scream better?!  Stick with me now.  I've been watching Kitchen Nightmares UK version recently and I have to say, it's pretty addicting.  I think the US version was done a little differently and Hell's Kitchen seemed to be more about punishment than assisting others achieve success.  Kitchen Nightmares UK, while it does have the screaming and swearing, is more about building up than breaking down.

Okay, but how does that help you?

Fair question.  Besides the fact that it's made me more aware of what I buy at the grocery store and how I prepare my meals at home, it's actually helped me quite a bit with writing.  There are a few lessons that can be learned from Ramsay on this show that can be applied to most fields.

1. Simplifying the menu - this is advice he gives repeatedly.  A lot of restaurants in trouble are trying to provide 70 or more food items on their menu.  That's too much to cook well for almost any chef.  Simplifying means that the chef can prepare each dish well, and fast.

How I use this: don't try to please everyone in one story.  Don't try to write a romance sci-fi thriller chic lit YA novel.  Also, don't try to overwhelm your reader with too many facts - don't feel like you have to describe every piece of furniture in a room, give them a few things that invoke a feeling.  Basically, less is more.

2. Run your restaurant like a business - this sounds way too basic but many of the restaurant owners open restaurants because it looked like fun.  Ramsay makes them treat it like work because it is.

How I use this: I love writing and it is fun but it does require discipline.  Ultimately, my stories are products and I have to commit to producing them.  It should be fun, but there needs to be goals set and met as well.  Also, once the book, play, screenplay, short story is done, I need to remember that there is a business side to this endeavor.  I need to make my queries professional and present myself as a professional writer.  There are multiple ways of doing this and I won't bore you with them here, but basically, this is a career and not a hobby.  I can't half ass it.

3. Keep it clean and simple - I was actually surprised by this one.  I assumed Ramsay would encourage chefs to make their dishes complicated and unique.  His view is that once you begin to introduce too many elements to one plate, it becomes muddled and the flavors can't stand out.  Hmmm...

How I use this:  Sometimes, we can try to spice up a story with a fight, a love affair, by bringing in multiple villains.  Sometimes we can be showy with language or use experimentation as an path to producing something unique.  I want to use a few elements and use them well.  Allow the story to tell itself.  Trust the story you're telling.  Don't gimmick it up.  Don't try to show off all that you can do with one dish, uh, story.  David Powers King just talked about this on his blog as well, about reducing his word count by taking out the complicated language he was using and how that made the story better.

4. Keep your passion - this is never stated on the show but Ramsay encounters a lot of chefs that have lost their passion for cooking.  I have to wonder about this and I feel really bad for those chefs, there are easier ways to make money with better hours.  I've worked in restaurants, it's hard.  Everything is immediate, the pressure can be immense.  If you're not passionate about it then it must be terrible.  Ramsay, by having them do new recipes and taste fresh ingredients and, I suspect, because of his own enthusiasm, helps these wayward chefs regain their passion for cooking.

How I use this:  There are times when writing is so frustrating it almost hurts physically.  There are bad days when you can't get anything good on paper.  There are harsh critiques, rejections, the constant pull to do something fun or to do a needed chore.  There's the added guilt of "What if I did something with my time that could help my family or earn money for my family?"  Also, let's not forget how long it takes to write a novel.  Then how long is it to get that novel polished and out into the world?  In short, unless you're driven by passion, it's difficult to keep going, but passion does not spring eternal.  You need to feed the flames.  Experimentation is good.  For me, the flash fiction I write on a weekly basis helps keep it going as does the odd bit of good news like publication.  Everyone's different and we have to find our own ways to keep excited about what we're doing.

I know these things seem basic, no, not seems, they are basic.  I think that's a lesson in and of itself.  The keys to being successful, in most fields anyway, are usually pretty basic.  We get lost along the way.  Keep it simple, keep it clean, provide excellent food that people want to eat.  For writers: write something you love, something compelling, and put your heart and full effort into it.  When it's done, publicize it.  Let people know.  Be a professional. 

Do you find inspiration in odd places?  Have you watched Kitchen UK Nightmares?  I swear, I wish there were TV and movie clubs like there are book clubs.


  1. Wow, I love Gordan Ramsey and watch all his shows, but you just put a whole new perspective on it. Some really great ideas!

  2. Good lessons. Trying to please everyone is like watering down the soup to make it go farther. :)

  3. I like to make fried chicken and experiment with the flour mix. My favourite has the base my mom used (flour, salt, pepper, garlic powder) plus my paprika, and two things more. Cinnamon and sage.

    OMG. It's delicious.

    It's simple, it's delicious, and it didn't kill anything by being overly spicy.

    I guess the point is, with spices and with writing, it's fun to sample until you find your favourite way of doing things, but there's always a base you work from that you were familiar with before. A home flavour your used to.

    Keep it simple is great advice!

  4. When I think of Ramsay, I think of him calling people donkeys. :p

    Great lessons here, I would never have thought to apply what he said to writing. It works though.

    ~ Popin

  5. Great advice. I never would have applied this to writing, but I think it's very applicable. Good lessons to be learned here.

  6. Yay! I love the Gordon myself. Donkeys I've picked up, but I've also picked up the c and t words from the first few episodes before it got cleaned up. :) Thanks guys!

  7. Libby, this is SUCH an interesting way to look at the writing process! Nice job on the blog overall, it really resonated with me today.

    Personally, I would be interested in hearing more about the ways in which you present yourself as a "professional writer." I think I suffer from the hobbyist mentality...

  8. Ramsay's autobiography is a great read, too.

    I *love* watching anything Ransay because I spent 15 years in the restaurant industry and it's nice to watch someone who cares so much :)



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