Twelve food entrepreneurs stand around on a beach in Cornwall waiting for Gordo(n Ramsay). "Maybe he'll come out of the sea," says one of them, Estragon maybe, and everyone laughs, picturing Gordon Ramsay emerging from the depths, riding a huge clam shell pulled by sea horses, with barnacles in his quiff, wielding a trident.
Actually, Ramsay does better. He arrives perched on the edge of a helicopter from which he jumps feet first into the sea and swims to shore.
Let's be frank, this is a very unusual introduction to a food show (Gordon Ramsay's Future Food Stars, Thursday, BBC1) and it completely recalibrates my standards for a "good entrance" on television. Unless Ryan Tubridy smashes through a window firing rounds from a machine gun and Tommy Tiernan runs through his set on fire screaming his interview questions, they are dead to me.
It’s also an unsettling harbinger of hope. It suggests that in this age of energy crises and climate collapse anything is still possible. And what will Ramsay demand of the twelvesome on the beach? A second louder helicopter? A whimsical petrol fight? A fiver to tip the pilot?
It's well known that you can tell someone is a food entrepreneur based on whether they float or sink when thrown into water (wait...I might be thinking of witches)
Now he stands before them, his face as craggy as the Cornish cliffs, his supernaturally bequiffed hair untroubled by salt water or time, his body snugly encased in a wetsuit that seems to say: "Hey, my quiff is up here, Mr Television Columnist."
Ramsay explains the premise of the show, starting with the words, "I've invited you all here today" and for a glorious moment I hope he's going to accuse one of them of murder like Hercule Poirot. But no, Gordon Ramsay's Future Food Stars is basically "the Apprentice but food" just as Ramsey is basically "Alan Sugar but falling from a helicopter into the sea and, also, food".
Ramsay’s plan is to select the best food entrepreneur in order to invest £150,000 of his own money into their business. He emits a familiar stream of imprecise, reach-for-the-stars babble that includes the words: “I’ve designed an amazing series of challenges for you all so I can discover your true DNA.”
Gordon Ramsay is apparently unaware of the existence of DNA testing companies. But that’s fine; £150,000 is a small mortgage these days and the participants here seem unaware of the existence of banks. They chose instead to dance to the whims of a quirky television millionaire. What could go wrong?
Ramsay tells them to jump from a cliff into the sea to prove their loyalty. This is legal in Britain now. So they do so, encased in wetsuits, helmets and life jackets because if you’re going to get people to jump from a cliff into the sea it’s best to do it safely.
It’s well known that you can tell someone is a food entrepreneur based on whether they float or sink when thrown into water (wait...I might be thinking of witches) and Ramsay watches carefully. Most float. Ramsay radiates joy. And why not? Twelve people have just jumped from a cliff into a sea because he asked them to. His wetsuit seems even more snug.
I’m beginning to wonder if there’ll be any food in this food show when Ramsay announces the big test of the week: “Tomorrow you’re going to be selling street food from your very own shack on the beach.”
It’s amazing that the words “shack on the beach” signify artisanal hipster offerings now. Once it was considered unwise to ingest anything you were offered in a shack on the beach. Now shack gastronomy is all the rage.
The food entrepreneurs are divided into three teams of four and soon they’re squabbling over the nature of the food to be served. In the past, art was good at the big picture issues: war, peace, love, death. But never in the history of mankind has the human art of “squabbling” been so well documented as the recent decades of reality television. We can’t get enough of it. It’s like sugar to us.
The personalities aren't too differentiated as yet, but the gist is that in one team a vegan wishes her desire for costly fancy mushrooms be sated. In another a seasoned chef baulks at creating mere toasted sandwiches for beach folk, who he estimates to be as choosy as the richest kings of Europe. And in the third, they're all panicking, undercooking monkfish and spilling food everywhere.
Meanwhile, Ramsay swaggers over to explain who’s going to help him judge the competition. “I’ve arranged to meet up with a couple of young guys who’ve cooked up a storm in Cornwall’s street scene,” he says, like it’s just a normal sentence.
Waiting customers look disgruntled. The Taco boys munch disapprovingly. Ramsey observes all with his inscrutable button eyes
The young guys are part of a group called the Taco Boys who do Mexican food with “a twist”. The twist is, I think, that they’re not Mexican and they’re not boys. They’re grown adults. One of them is called Blaise and he has blue hair emerging from a woolly hat. “Quick question, does that hair come with the hat?” says Ramsey to Blaise, and he and his fellow Taco Boy laugh as though their lives depend on it. And they probably do.
Ramsay returns to torment the contestants some more. He finds fault. He spits out a piece of over-seasoned chicken. He is inspirational. "Shine as individuals, stand out as a team," he says, quoting Karl Marx.
The next day the contest begins and the contestants flail. Waiting customers look disgruntled. The Taco boys munch disapprovingly. Ramsey observes all with his inscrutable button eyes.
Ultimately, everyone is whisked to London for his judgement. Ramsey stands before them in front of a huge image of a fork set into a star (his flag) and beside a large shiny statue of a gorilla (his true self). He is a man of a certain age and he is wearing his robes of office: a white t-shirt with a suit jacket. His quiff is immaculate.
There’s lots of slow exciting music and long pauses as he tells the assembled contestants about the winners and losers of his task. Then he turns to the losing team members and says: “I want to grill you.”
Yes, finally it has come to this: Celebrities are cooking and eating normals on terrestrial television. But then he finishes the sentence. "I want to grill you one-on-one about your performance."
Aw! Ramsay says more stuff to people individually. They make cases for themselves. One man says: “The leader in me did not shine. The person you saw in the last days, it was a scared boy. The person you see sitting on this table now is a man, hungry.”
I said these exact words at my recent performance review at The Irish Times. They were very impressed and let me edit the paper for a week. Sadly, Ramsay takes this person literally and considers his grotesque transformation from child to man to be an affront to culinary consistency and child labour laws (the Taco Boys are an exception). The man is eliminated from the competition. There are hugs and tears and a preview of what to expect next week. This includes footage of Gordon Ramsay sharpening knives while wearing a big blindfold. They’re just letting him do whatever the hell he wants, aren’t they? Fair enough. Fire ahead, Gordon you big shiny gorilla.