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GUEST BLOG #88: Eric Gould on What An Architect -- And You -- Can Learn from Gordon Ramsay
April 23, 2010  | By Eric Gould  | 2 comments

[Bianculli here: Eric Gould is an architect in Boston -- and the designer of this website, which is about to undergo a revamp, also at his hands. As we worked on it last weekend, he made a remark about Gordon Ramsay, and how watching Kitchen Nightmares has changed the way he runs his business. "That's great! Write that as a guest blog," I said. He did. And here it is. My guess is, it'll generate LOTS of comments...]

Standards, Yes?
When "Kitchen Nightmares" Meets The Office

Followers of Kitchen Nightmares (Friday nights at 9 ET, Fox) know well that the host, Gordon Ramsay, is a wound-up, caffeinated mix of successful restaurateur, life coach and perverse provocateur. He can turn very bad restaurants into high-functioning and very well-received ones.

Most often, his most important fix is on the restaurant owners' psyches, and their generally mistaken belief that although there are no customers, most everything they're doing is just about fine. Ramsay's surprising talent is assessing and unmasking -- usually with very quick, uncanny accuracy -- the true troubles: bad staff, frozen food, unwieldy in-laws.

In the end, he persists, and accomplishes the what-seemed-impossible turnaround of even the most inept operation. Once difficult and egotistical Owners blossom into compliant and grateful ones, with smooth-running dinner-hour rushes of happy diners. But these are not just restaurant transformations. They are business turnarounds, too.


Ramsay pulls them through, not only with a peppering of his infamous kitchen tirades (there are F-bombs bleeped out every thirty seconds or so), but often with surprising perception and compassion. He takes the egotistical Owner and soberly lectures him or her that without his help, they will be under in six months. They are doomed to fail, and must change.

He often takes them to look at the local, fresh food being grown all around them, and to put it on a very streamlined, fresh-cooked menu, forever barring the suppliers of frozen foods. He sees fear in cocky bluster, and disarms even the most stubborn with calm, often painful but direct advice. He shows them how staff might be taking advantage of them. He teaches them how to learn all of the things they should have learned before ever opening a restaurant.

He breeds understanding and success, even though the audience may feel that some of these stooges, harvested by the producers for a reality show, aren't really deserving of Ramsay's help or his enormous expertise.


To be honest, I was not a big fan of his. Ramsay's other Fox show, Hell's Kitchen, is a reality-competition show starring a wide sampling of underperforming kitchen "talent" that Ramsay gets to hover over each week and verbally reduce to a burnt slick of Ragu. It's a guilty pleasure for those who enjoy a four-letter flambe of uncomprehending slackers, but not good for much else. Truthfully, I thought he was the biggest misanthrope ever to get a TV show since Morton Downey, Jr.

Thankfully, we see more of Ramsay's true side on Kitchen Nightmares. What is pure firestorm on Hell's Kitchen turns out to be a man who is passionate about delivering the best food possible, and coaxing people -- usually dysfunctional partners or families -- back from the brink. It's always an amazing, if not enriching, transformation to watch.

One night, the thought struck me that what I was really watching wasn't just failing restaurants, but failing businesses. Ones being unmasked for what they were: Owners who had lost their passion, staffs out of control, no responsibility, desperate measures, and more money going out than coming in. Most were either in panic, dumbly frozen without a clue, or in anarchy.

It seemed to me that it didn't make a difference if the business was a restaurant or a small operation like mine, an architect's office. The rules for failure and their fixes applied to both. And probably, for that matter, to all businesses: Do what you do well, cut out what you don't, get rid of dead weight, simplify, deliver what you say you will, find your passion, charge less, deliver faster, better. And smile... your joy for your work will excite others.

And, absolutely, 'Have standards, yes???!?"


Ramsay talks about standards a lot, in that English way one asks the question and answers it in the same sentence. Never let something you know has been improperly prepared go out of the kitchen, even if it means making the diner wait a little longer. "Standards, yes?"

Never buy frozen or cheap food -- the customer can always taste the difference. "Standards, yes?" Find and keep employees who care about what they do. "Standards, yes?"

I started thinking back. A couple of my most dedicated guys were always on me to let go a couple of malcontents on the crew, who, although talented, weren't really team guys. I thought I was being the wise leader by showing tolerance for different personality types, but when I finally listened closely, I could see the dedicated guys were really being kept from doing what they wanted to be doing not just well, but excellently, with standards, yes???!?

Once the problem guys were gone, the others thrived. Drawings started coming out in better detail, in less time. There was a lighter air in the office. We were suddenly a team... a line of chefs, each doing their part and serving up a hot set of drawings, ones that met jobs on time and resulted in projects being built for budget.

On Kitchen Nightmares, restaurant interiors are made over, menu graphics are changed. Sometimes the front signs and canopies are redone, all in the spirit of not only making over the food, but the environment, the new mindset, the new vibe.


At Helicon Design Group, we redesigned the office identity kit. putting logos and stationery in bright orange blocks and modern lettering. We re-branded the website -- our public menu -- and started posting monthly updates on LinkedIn, so our closest vendors and friends got a message in their email every 60 days or so. We were now fresh in their minds, with news about projects we just finished and ones we were just starting.

We looked at the way our construction sets were being done, and revamped them, trying to be simple, more direct. We tried to stay ahead of projects, not work to catch up to them.

We woke up. "Standards, yes?"

We started to get compliments, from pretty tough customers, on our drawings and construction plans. Things were going better in the field. The projects were being done more or less for bid, with a minimum of change orders.

More important, we liked what we were doing again. And people liked us back.

We're still a small firm, and who knows what or where the next issues will come from as we grow larger. I'm not sure, but I know they're out there. The main thing is, there's a place to go to study how to strip things bare, cut away the bad parts, reinvent, and find a way to create and work excellently.

It's the kitchen.


Eric Gould is an architect in Boston and Principal of Helicon Design Group. Having piled up shadow pursuits into public art, poetry, photography and graphic design, it seems he can now add television blogging to the list. Visit his Helicon Designs website by clicking HERE.






Eileen said:

What a great analogy! Your mention of Morton Downey, Jr. made me laugh out loud.

I, too, was not a fan of Hell's Kitchen; if I want mayhem & screaming I'll just go to a family get together, thank you.

I love Kitchen Nightmares for the very reasons you point out. One recent one, and being a New Yorker I really enjoyed, was an upscale Cuban restaurant in Brooklyn going down the tubes. Not that the food was that bad, and they had a great client base, but the husband & wife partners in the restaurant were in marital strife. It was affecting every aspect of the restaurant from the staff, to the diners, to the food prep.

Amazingly, Gordon met with the couple separately, and was downright paternal. And all, as they say, ended well.

Please do keep on being a guest here -- very entertaining & enjoyable.

Comment posted on April 23, 2010 3:23 PM

Rich said:

As a "Guest" contributor to this site I appreciate what you've done here.

I rather enjoyed this critique and analysis. I am familiar with Ramsey and strangely I do love to see people "review" stuff with the mentality of a 'Mental Mercenary' because I think people have forgotten about "Standards". If you're awesome at what you do, you should be allowed to 'Crow' to lesser folk.

Your review was honest and made me want to hunt down this show. I know a few people who like this show and now I understand why. Thanks. I hated Morton Downey but I do appreciate Simon Cowell & Sharon Osbourne- I think Brits are the best verbal slashers in the Biz.

Eric, one note about your own personal journey with your website. I toke a gander and enjoyed what I saw. I think Don Draper ("Mad Men") would be proud!

Comment posted on April 23, 2010 4:32 PM

Diane Werts said:

Wow, Eric -- I knew you were visually talented, but didn't realize how verbally sharp you could be! This column is so well stated as to actually make me want to watch Gordon Ramsay, something I had previously believed impossible.

I'll check him out again, now viewing through a new prism.

Can't wait to see what you write about next . . .

Comment posted on April 24, 2010 10:40 AM

SharonGS said:

Although I'm not happy with the 'Foxification' of Gordon Ramsay's 'Kitchen Nightmares', I watch it for the reasons you have stated so well. The UK version is even more insightful and truly shows Ramsay's ability to work with people. For real insight into Ramsay's abilities as a chef and a teacher, try 'Gordon Ramsay's F Word'. It is wonderful television.

Comment posted on April 24, 2010 2:48 PM

Maggie Miller said:

Gordon Ramsay's at his best on British television, where they don't edit him into a "super villain."

I, too, have started to apply his basic business concepts to my own business, but have yet to apply the "redesign" part. Now that I've read your post, I think I'll work on that part next!

Nice post!

Comment posted on April 24, 2010 7:24 PM

keubanks said:

I agree with you, Ramsay seems to be a great business consultant in Kitchen Nightmares. My critique of the show is its heavy editing.

I think it turns Ramsay from a brilliant consultant to a wizard-like restaurant god that can transform management and cooking buffoons into geniuses over the course of 5 days and 2 nights of dinner service.

Maybe Ramsay is brilliant, but the 60 minute package that Fox puts him in is far from 'reality'. Although his BBC 'The F Word' is often unintelligible to an American audience, it does show a more human Ramsay.

Comment posted on April 25, 2010 11:06 AM

Kirk Woodward said:

I've often thought that if I taught management courses, I'd use Gordon Ramsay's shows as training materials. I too find that I look at business differently, having absorbed the perspective of his shows.

Comment posted on April 26, 2010 11:24 AM

EricG said:

Thanks, all, so much for the feedback. Yes, I did forget to mention the "Foxification" of Kitchen Nightmares, which is quite a glaring and obvious change from the BBC show. Predictably, Fox has amped it up American style, and lost a lot Ramsay's subtlety and more refined moments. Also, yes, it's sort of hard to believe some of the reality fodder they find for the show to turn things around so easily and quickly, but I have to believe that what they're being taught is so pointed and dramatically different from what they've been doing, some of it has to sink in long term. I've enjoyed all the comments. --Eric

Comment posted on April 26, 2010 6:01 PM

mark said:

What a great review, and a dead-on parallel. It really does all start with pride in what you do, followed by good people, simple goals, and yes, "standards."

I'm glad you've found a new love for your business, and hopefully continued success and growth. We should all be so lucky to see this as clearly as ole' Ramsay and also have the stones to do something about it.

And to all the commenters - yes, the "Foxification" has dumbed down the new version so badly that it's sometimes hard to watch. The other version, which plays constantly on BBC America, is far superior. Ramsay himself narrates instead of some patronizing reality show voice, the music is less overly dramatic, and they dedicate much more time to the actual recipes he uses to revamp the kitchens. Fox's version has a real "Extreme Makeover: Kitchen Edition" vibe.

That said, for whatever reason, Gordon Ramsay is one of my favorite celebrities out there, and I've learned a lot from him myself. He certainly goes much deeper than his vicious bark, and I'm glad you saw so much in his show.

Great Review! Great personal story!

**Also, Sharon, nice mention of F WORD, another must-see show. Totally all over the place, and a bit self-indulgent, but addicting as everything else he's in. Gotta love Ramsay!

Comment posted on April 27, 2010 12:07 AM

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