What “Kitchen Nightmares” Teaches Us About Transformation

Reality TV shows have a… funny way of looking at life. Sure they distort things a little, but they appeal to us so much that we keep coming back for more. Clearly there’s an intentional formula at work to produce content that people not only watch, but anticipate, remember, and talk about. Here I’m going to attempt at breaking down the simple but effective formula in a show I get a kick out of, “Kitchen Nightmares”.

In each show, a formerly successful restaurant is teetering on the edge of failure. In its day, the restaurant was “the place to be”. The staff has great memories, but slowly the dream turned into a nightmare. Little or no customers. No passion for their work. Relationships stretched almost to the breaking point. They’re at the end of their rope.

Then Chef Ramsay comes in. He greets them like a friend, then asks them what’s wrong. They can’t really pinpoint it. He samples their food. It’s always bad, and they’re often surprised or in denial, saying things like “Huh? Our food is great! We’ve been doing this for years!”. Chef Ramsay confronts them directly with the brutal facts, and hands them a decision – “Will you change? Your food is terrible, menu outdated, and your team dysfunctional. If you recognize that, I can help you make this restaurant great again. If not, you should shut down”.

To prove the point, they go through a dinner service and things go sideways. Customers are not happy with the food. Management and staff cope with the problems by exploding, imploding, or worse. The failure is all the more painful now that they’ve woken up to the situation. They all take a much needed breather and regroup the next day. They’re ready for change.

Chef Ramsay gives them a plan – first he gets together with the leaders and gets them to reconcile their relationships, and recover their self-esteem by building each other up. Without that, nothing else will help. Then, in true reality TV fashion, their restaurant is transformed. There’s a new menu, renovated dining room, and hungry mob of customers for their restaurant’s grand re-opening.

Everyone is buzzing with excitement, and finally the pieces start to fall into place. The kitchen puts out great food, customers are happy, and the owners are thrilled. It’s an emotional moment. After so many years of a downward spiral, finally there’s hope that this thing can actually work. Chef Ramsay congratulates them along with a sobering warning that they have to continue on this path, or they’ll be back to square one. They take the lesson and depart on a high note.

Notice how story-driven the show is. Our brains are wired for stories – they’re easier to remember, more likely to be re-told, and stand the test of time more than any other method of communication. Seeing the transformation of others we empathize with gives us hope that we too can transform. Plus… it’s fun to watch.