What Gordon Ramsay Knows about Churches

I’m fascinated by the show Kitchen Nightmares.

Gordon Ramsey is a famous chef, and the star. He had previously hosted the show Hell’s Kitchen. Over a season, 12 chefs would compete and the winner would have their own restaurant.

In “Kitchen Nightmares,” Ramsey would go to a restaurant that was in serious need of help. The food would be awful; the kitchen, unmanageable; the cooks, often clueless; sometimes the refrigerator would be unsanitary. The decor and design of the restaurant would occasionally be a mess. The maitre’d would be on his cell phone. The owners, frustrated and deeply in debt.

In comes Ramsey. He tastes the food. Its old, stale, gimmicky. He takes one or two bites and then puts it aside. Ramsey takes his time – he looks, smells and chews – and the food is sent back. Always. And the chefs are almost always surprised.

It is the show’s point.

He then goes into the kitchen to inform people what’s wrong, usually in salty – and direct – language. The next morning, before the restaurant owners get there, he checks out the stove and refrigerator. With the appropriate music, the closeups of the filth and vermin, unworkable stoves and unclean containers become drama.

Ramsey always has it out with one of the players. Sometimes the owner has no idea how to manage people: they get angry and hostile at the customers and yell at the staff. Others are milquetoast. The chefs are disempowered to do what they know; other times the chefs are incompetent. The excitement of the show comes as Ramsey identifies the weak links, bangs his head on the refrigerator, and pulls his hair out. Then he offers dramatic commentary.

Ramsey then demands at some point, that everyone gets involved. They clean – really clean – the kitchen. They exchange roles. Can Ramsey actually convince the owner, the chef, the manager, to do what needs to be done? Will people listen to his demands, or will they condemn him as an interloper? With a newly designed menu and refurnished restaurant, the restaurant finds itself halting the steady slide into failure.

At heart, “Kitchen Nightmares” is a show about repentance and redemption. Ramsey exposes the truth. He calls people to take ownership in their skill and be accountable. He works with the challenging party by reminding them that they have a desire and passion for good food. He changes the way people think about themselves and about each other. He brings families together by taking no prisoners, by telling them what nobody else would say.

He changes the menu: he identifies a niche, makes the menu fresh and simple according to the talents of the chef. The restaurant then opens up again, with hundreds of customers (brought usually by Chef Ramsey’s celebrity). Then there is another rough patch: but as the evening ends and the people realize they can do much more than they thought they could.

It helps that Ramsey finances the redecoration of the restaurant, buys new stoves when necessary, sometimes brings in consultants. He doesn’t, however, become a substitute cook. He becomes the coach, the truth teller, the cheerleader.

The secret to a good restaurant? Care about the food. Use fresh ingredients. Pay attention. Play to your strengths. Name the problem and then rearrange the relationships. Have high expectations. Communicate openly, honestly and clearly.

There will be swearing.

It wasn’t just the restaurant that was transformed, but all the relationships in the families, staff and customers.

You’ve probably gotten the analogy by now. I won’t take it any farther. Ramsey is not exactly to the restaurant industry as Jesus is to the church. He’s had a few failures, after all. But if one of the central roles of the community is hospitality: to give people a place where they know they will be taken care of – Chef Ramsey illuminates real challenges for churches and our personal relationships. We too should be able to serve good spiritual food that feeds the body and the soul.

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