The Age of Conspiracy Theories?

Had dinner with friends a few nights back, and during the extended wine soak that followed conversation got on to one of my TV unmissables, Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. For the uninitiated, each episode of RKN features foul-mouthed and tempered UK celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay troubleshooting a struggling restaurant and seeking to turn business around inside a week.

Recalling some of Ramsay’s spectacular irascible moments – eg: throwing Joan Collins and her food critic companion out of his restaurant; bellowing something along the lines of “fuck me, who the fuck do you think you are, you arrogant French PIG” into the livid face of a blinking continental chef resisting advice – we chuckled heartily (veritable beacons of humanity that we be). But then from across the table came a comment that sliced apart the bonhomie of the night like a Gustav Emil Ern carving knife:

”Of course, it’s faked. Those new recipe recommendations Ramsay comes up with to save the day…well, they wouldn’t really be his.”

“Wha…? Why not?”

(Said with sneer emerging) “He wouldn’t make those up. Gimme a break. It’d be some expert working behind the scenes.”

Well! The gauntlet was down. I launched into an impassioned and probably slightly crazed defence, insisting that Ramsay was more than capable of devising winning dishes, that it was preposterous to question the authenticity of that aspect of his show.

On I went, unstoppable, the wind of outrage in my sails. Ramsay’s restaurant was the only one in England to be awarded a 3 Michelin Star rating (actually, his is one of three, but why should I let facts stand in the way when no one else does?). “Do you even know what a Michelin star is?” I thundered. To which our hosts shook their heads meekly. Nothing like shooting a mouse with an elephant gun. I duly pulled my head in and let the Bacchanalian tide take us back on course.

I have since researched the issue a little and found that Gordon Ramsay successfully sued The Evening Standard over claims that his Kitchen Nightmares program was faked. See Wikipedia and this BBC News report.

So that’s that. You can always believe what you read in the papers, and the court system is the ultimate authority on truth. Yes?

Speaking by phone to the same mate yesterday, Jamie Oliver’s recent series, Jamie At Home, came up. I am unashamedly a big Jamie fan. I like his no-bullshit approach, his child-like and irrepressible enthusiasm, his emphasis on fresh herbs and quality ingredients in simple classic combos, and the dominant Italian influence in his cooking. I especially loved his rustic outdoor kitchen that featured in Jamie At Home, with the old wooden working surfaces, rough peasanty wood-fired oven and organic vege beds. In fact, his outside kitchen is an ideal for me. You can dream…

Anyway, back to the phone conversation. Bugger me if my mate wasn’t at it again. As I waxed lyrical about Jamie’s outside kitchen and organic garden, he lanced my bubble with the declaration that “they’re not real, of course.”

“Wha…? Why not?” (déjà vu, anyone?)

“Well, they’re just sets, made for the show. He wouldn’t really have a backyard like that.”

Well fuck me. What was this? It was time for a big serve: “You know what? You’re more cynical than me!

The line fell silent. Then again, the meek tone and a response that was sobering for both of us. “Shit. That’s got me worried. You live yer life with a noose around yer neck, and I’m more cynical than you?!”

By tacit agreement, we changed the subject.

For all his conspiracy stuff, my mate’s got nothing on Marion Cotillard. We’ve all heard the theories that 9/11 was masterminded by Bush and the US government, who were seeking to inspire national outrage against the Muslim world. La Cotillard also suspects 9/11 was the work of the US government, but according to press reports she attributes the act to an economic motivation: the towers were “money-suckers”, she posits, and flying a couple of passenger planes into them was the cheapest demolition option.

Mon Dieu! She goes on to align herself with the conspiracy theorists who claim the moon landings were faked. Nice eye candy, La Cotillard, and her Oscar for her portrayal of Edith Piaf is a tribute to her acting prowess (I suppose…I haven’t seen the movie), but her career-building strategies and PR skills could do with some tuning. As could her left brain.

Thing is, conspiracy theories abound today. The reasons are not hard to fathom: spin is everywhere. We expect it of advertisers, and rampant propagandising bigots wear their skewed perspectives on their sleeves, rendering themselves impotent. Since we see them coming a mile off, neither ads nor obvious bigots are responsible for the undermining of credibility of all information sources that is at the root of our general cynicism. That feat requires far more subtlety and sophistication.

Reality TV has something to answer for, but the two great culprits are the media, which is still our main source of “news” and has been exposed as biased and unreliable, and our supposed leaders, who are among the greatest exponents of whitewashing and wilful public misrepresentation of factual information. Shit, from the corporate boardroom to the highest political office, they employ expert spindoctors to assist in their sleight of hand.

This culture has nourished urban myth and conspiracy theories at every level, from dinner party conversations about celebrity chef TV shows, to Americaphobe conjectures over 9/11 and the moon landings. The all-pervasive culture of spin in which we are steeped today is inducing a permanent state of mass paranoia. The danger here is the possibility that we will become normalised to this condition, and the world a madhouse run by the most powerful inmates. Some might claim that potentiality has already been realised.


PS: On another tangent, any Aussie readers interested in purchasing cookery books by Jamie Oliver and/or Gordon Ramsay would be well advised to check the deals on Amazon and compare to local store prices. If you order only one book, the postage is a bit of a killer, but it still works out cheaper than buying from, say, Dymocks or Borders at current prices. If you order two or more books, you’re way in front. Here are some examples (and please note, if you click through and order, I get a small commission…I promise to spend it wisely):

PPS: This is not the “French pig” episode to which I was referring in my introduction (Ramsay has French-pigged at least one other chef, perhaps mindful of the relish with which a UK TV audience would greet such a charge)…but it’s the funniest RKN segment yet. Bowings and scrapings to YouTube!

3 thoughts on “The Age of Conspiracy Theories?”

  1. Iam sorry Rolan, but I am afraid I have to side with your wise, yet somewhat meek friend. RKN is a very different concept to “Jamie at Home”, Jamie Cooks for his Friends”, Jamie saves the School Canteens of the World”, “Jamie demonstrates how to Bast his wife 10 different ways”! At least Jamie is about the food, Ramsay is about pulling up failing restaurants by their bootlaces. I agree that he is not the creative mind behind turning the restaurant around…..however; let’s make this very clear, the common elements between both shows is not about food or cooking, it is about making money. It is about ratings and ratings =’s money…and as we know the more money we have the more we want and so on it goes. Accordingly; if Jamie and his myiad of producers and hanger-oners want to make more money they must come up with another concept………”hey Jamie I know how we can make more money, let’s pretend you’ve always had this rustic vegie patch with really trendy old rough benches, and old shabby (but somewhat appealing) outside ovens……” “Hey Ramsay our ratings tell us that when you put ‘fuck’ in every single sentence more people tune in…so we recommend for longevity of this series and to make more money please keeping swearing”.

    I agree with you Rolan that the media have blurred the lines between fact and fiction and this is the reason why shows such as Jamie and RKN can’t be based on true reality, mainly because they would be a boring as batshit. A lot of it has to be staged because through the media we have become accustomed to seeing, reading, hearing about extreme things. Take Big Brother, who would really want to watch a group of boring twats wander around in their jocks all day, not too dissimilar to watching RKN camly help out an ailing restaurateur, Like BB it has to be spiced up, therefore authenticity is lost. Is it a conspiracy theory….? Maybe; but then again it is is not reality.

  2. Hmm, I think, Brendo, you might be a very close relative of my “meek” friend – who is not actually meek at all, but buckled under the inappropriate force of my argumentative assault! It matters not.

    No argument from me that Jamie Oliver’s and Ramsay’s cooking shows are profit-making enterprises. That in itself is not a problem – for me, at least. And you are no doubt right in your assertions about our culinary celebs adding a little drama to proceedings (although it has to be conceded that they are only assertions – neither of us has access to the facts).

    Actually, that the shows are to an extent dramatised I wouldn’t question. Goodness, yours truly takes a pinch of poetic license in his blogging from time to time – that doesn’t necessarily make me a fraud or a fake.

    This is the way I see it. Storytelling is an intrinsic element in much art and entertainment generally – and making those stories interesting is a craft that is both expected and necessary. Otherwise, we enter the realm of drab documentary.

    And as an aside there, if you want an example of a REAL wanker and a complete fraud of the worst kind, far more deserving of cynical dismissal than Jamie and Ramsay, I’d point towards the detestable Michael Moore…that hypocritical slimebag has used leftist platforms to launch himself into stardom and wealth in the guise of a genuine doco-maker and a left-wing bleeding heart, when it is now very clear that he is a fake, a bully and a narcissist massively exploiting an earnest and gullible public and their values. Not one of my favourite homosapiens.

    Anyway, the main purpose of my post was not really to insist on my view of the level of authenticity of the celeb cooks featured, but to make the point that the culture that breeds the sort of cynicism that has ordinary people unable to accept virtually ANYTHING as authentic has an extremely sinister potential. Reality TV has something to answer for here…but I’ve covered that in the blog.

    Since you are focusing on the celeb shows, though, I should respond to your general contentions, although I can’t really add much to that I have already expressed in my post. So… for the record (again), I really do not believe Jamie’s outside kitchen was faked for the show. Ditto his organic vege garden. And I do believe he enjoys cooking in his enviably rustic little enclave, as depicted in the show. But I don’t know – and you don’t know.

    I am quite sure there is a certain degree of setting up that goes on in Ramsay’s “Kitchen Nightmare” series. An obvious case in point was the cutaway last episode to the French chef whistling his way to work as Ramsay was chucking up after discovering the appallingly filthy cooler with maggot infested food and mould growing everywhere. This was set up, either via editing or sheer staging, to build tension for the viewers; we knew the Gallic sloth was walking into an ambush, and it’s hard to imagine that it all just happened to be captured spontaneously as it occurred via a sequence of parallel cuts DW Griffith would have been proud of – the audience is asked to accept that they are merely being given a peep through the keyhole, so to speak, and of course we all go along with this because it’s part of the suspension of disbelief code that we understand and enjoy buying into. Creative editing is de rigeur for all “reaity” type shows (and even current affairs and news shows masquerading as presenters of factual information…and this is where the whole thing gets very murky indeed, since the potential to mischievously damage innocent people looms large in such scenarios).

    I also agree that Ramsay’s frequent swearing has a branding aspect to it. That said, I think it likely he is not bunging it on much. I don’t know how long you’ve been watching Ramsay, but I’ve been a big fan since his first series (about 5+ years ago, from memory), which was set in his own restaurant kitchen. He was the same character then you see in his current shows. I do think it’s basically a matter of WYSIWYG with him.

    But who knows?

    As for Big Brother, I have managed to watch about 2 episodes in total, and that was the beginning of the very first series. However they try to spice that shite up, it is unbearably dull and inane IMO. At least the cooking shows are entertaining and in the case of Jamie, often quite instructive if you’re into his style of cooking – which I am.

    A final comment. There is no doubt, for me, that both Jamie and Ramsay are terrific cooks (though very different). In that, I wouldn’t question their authenticity. I make this assessment as someone who has been a food FREAK since way before it became a yuppie hallmark, and for whom home cooking is a real passion (that word is over-used to the point of impotence, but sometimes there is none better). I’ve tried quite a few of Jamie’s recipes and have found them generally pretty good to excellent. I haven’t tried out any of Ramsay’s stuff, but it’s evident from other shows featuring him actually cooking that he’s a gun (not to mention his 12 Michelin stars!). My opinion on whether Jamie and Ramsay are genuine cooks, then, is a reasonably informed one, I believe. I’d be surprised if anyone who knew their way around the kitchen would challenge either of those guys’ credibility in that respect.

    That said, I don’t know why you’d think Ramsay didn’t come up with the recipes he features on his menu changes when working on strategies to turn around unprofitable restaurants. Whether aspects of his RKN series are staged or dramatised is open to question, but why wouldn’t a gifted and experienced chef be able to come up with winning recipe suggestions himself?

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