It's going to be a hell of a summer.
Chef Gordon Ramsay has one, two, three prime-time shows on Fox this season. MasterChef and Hell's Kitchen will dominate the network's prime-time programming on Mondays and Tuesdays. Hotel Hell, which features the famously furious chef darkening the doorways of hotels, inns and bed-and-breakfasts in need of a makeover — will be unveiled later in the summer.
It all raises the question: Can you have too much Gordon Ramsay? Or, for that matter, too many cooking competitions and makeover shows?
"So far, it's working," Ramsay said recently. "Is it overexposure? Is it too much? You have to ask the audience that, darling."
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Viewers seem to agree with him: Hell's Kitchen and MasterChef returned strong for their recent season premieres. Hell's Kitchen brought in 5.4 million viewers, and MasterChef had just more than 5 million when they debuted in early June.
Ramsay said the two shows are "completely different programs" with unique twists — enough to keep audiences coming back. Those very same viewers might suffer whiplash shifting from Hell's Kitchen to MasterChef, and Ramsay's transformation between them.
Think Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Hell's Kitchen is a bare-knuckled, culinary boot camp in which experienced chefs from across the country walk into a pop-up kitchen and begin cooking for their lives. Men are pitted against women in a bid to land a spot in a top-tier kitchen and a $250,000 salary. In this season, the show's 10th, the winner joins the staff at Gordon Ramsay Steak, his new restaurant at the Paris Las Vegas casino.
Along the way, Ramsay won't hesitate to curse out competitors who botch the scallops, fail to properly cook a beef Wellington or, God forbid, serve raw chicken.
"I get upset because my job is to stop it," he said, noting that the possibility of a customer becoming ill because of something that came out of the kitchen hurts the entire restaurant industry. "We're talking about serious, serious ramifications. ... They don't understand the backlash, what it can do to a restaurant, to your reputation serving something raw."
Compare that to the version of Ramsay on the heart-tugging amateur-cooking competition MasterChef.
On that show, Ramsay shares center stage with fellow judges chef Graham Elliot and restaurateur Joe Bastianich and doesn't try to outshine them. In this arena, Ramsay said, he relishes the role of playing the inspiring, sympathetic mentor.
Now in its third season, MasterChef probably says as much about our nation's values and educational system as it does cooking: Many of the competitors are people who pursued careers that didn't really suit them. Now, they find themselves hankering for a career change that will allow them to do something they love instead of just paying the bills.
Among the competitors this season: an opera singer, a plastic surgeon, a stockbroker and a blind woman, Christine Ha, who lost her sight as an adult and now cooks largely from memory. Ramsay said she "cooked like an angel" but ended up inspiring the judges most of all with her sheer grit.
At one point, Ha was last to be chosen as the competitors divided into teams, Ramsay said. "I was pretty impressed, not just with her finesse but the way she handled the downsides. She managed to keep her neck above the water."
Some pop culture experts think Ramsay should enjoy this while it lasts.
"I think we have reached a plateau. Many of the competitive cooking shows appear to be unimaginative, uninteresting and frankly tiring," said Krishnendu Ray, a New York University professor who explores the intersection of food, ethnicity and pop culture. "I do not think we can develop any more enthusiasm for another cooking-as-sports show."
By contrast, Food Network's Alton Brown, who hosts many of the channel's cooking competitions including Food Network Star and Iron Chef America, said he thinks the entertainment industry has just begun to dig into the world of food-as-entertainment.
Brown predicts more shows on more channels, and says the nation's appetite is insatiable. Food competitions, in particular, will continue to be explored in new and unexpected ways, he said.
"We're still really in a nascent stage, we're really only limited by our imagination," he said. "Food is one of the last universal connective tissues we have as a society. It's more universal than sports."
After all, everyone has to eat.