Last December, a casting call for a new Fox reality TV show called Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares landed in my inbox. "Looking for restaurants that are having problems and need Gordon Ramsay to help turn their restaurants into an overnight success!" it blared (mainly in capital letters). "Did you ever dream that a global star in the cooking world would personally come into your establishment for one week and give you his trouble shooting (sic) treatment?"
I chuckled, and closed the e-mail. I was a waiter for many years, and anyone who's worked in the industry knows it's as easy to turn around a restaurant as the Titanic. But the allure of the instant fix is powerful - it's a pillar of the reality TV genre, after all - so the owners of Dillon's, a run-of-the-mill theatre district eatery across from Studio 54, volunteered to submit to Ramsay's rule.
They probably should have known they were asking for trouble: Ramsay's notorious belligerence, which has helped make him one of the U.K.'s most famous chefs, is on display every week on his current Fox reality show Hell's Kitchen. "Hell hath no fury like an angry chef, and no chef has a sharper temper than Gordon Ramsay when things go wrong in the kitchen," teases the Fox website.
But the casting notices for the new show promised a kinder, gentler Ramsay. So Martin Hyde, a 52-year-old Londoner who took up the general manager job at Dillon's three years ago, pleaded with the show's producers to save his place.
Which is why he feels especially foolish that the show led directly to the loss of his job.
Late last month Hyde sued Ramsay and the Kitchen Nightmares producers, alleging not only that he was fired because the narrative arc of the show demanded that sort of high drama but also that essential elements of the episode filmed at Dillon's had been fabricated.
Last Friday afternoon, Hyde sat fidgeting in the booth of a diner on Ninth Avenue near 43rd Street, speaking publicly for the first time since his lawsuit made headlines around the world. He'd refused dozens of interview requests that came his way after he filed the lawsuit, he told me, because, "the last time media approached me in good faith and good will," - he meant the reality TV show - "a ton of bricks fell on my head." Considering he was the one who had invited in Ramsay and his crew, the whole experience has left him, "shocked. It's like you're going up to receive an award and then you get beaten up."
Hyde is seeking an injunction to prevent the broadcast of Kitchen Nightmares within a 100-mile radius of New York, and about $3-million (U.S.) in damages per defendant. On Friday afternoon, Granada America, the show's U.S. producer, declined all comment on the lawsuit. As the New York Post's TV columnist Michael Starr noted, the usually voluble Ramsay is being, "uncharacteristically silent."
Hyde's suit, filed on June 19 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, alleges that he was publicly humiliated and constructively dismissed from his job. About a week before the Kitchen Nightmares crew arrived, the Dillon's owner fired his three chefs, which left Ramsay without a prime scapegoat to blame for the restaurant's troubles. Hyde alleges that he became that scapegoat and was unfairly targeted by Ramsay from the moment the chef laid eyes on him.
Only hours after arriving on the scene, on April 7, Ramsay marched Hyde through the streets from Dillon's to his new American flagship a few blocks away at the renovated London NYC hotel, with cameras rolling, to show him how a well-run place works. (Ramsay may not have been using a good example: His midtown restaurant, awarded only two out of four possible stars by the New York Times last year, frequently posts employment ads on Craigslist.) "He said: 'This is how you do it properly,' in front of all his staff, and all these cameras watching me," said Hyde. "It was the walk of shame, over to his place. It's disgusting."
The lawsuit alleges Ramsay and the producers manipulated key elements of the show: planting bad hamburger meat in the restaurant's fridge, staging a slapstick scene of Ramsay falling off a weak chair that had been brought in by the crew; and faking its new success. When he caught wind he was going to be fired on Ramsay's orders, Hyde quit rather than be humiliated again in front of the cameras. He fears the editing will make it look as if he was fired. The show, says the suit, "is a prime example of Fake TV."
Ramsay has fought off similar allegations before. Last year, he won £70,000 and an apology in a libel suit against the London Evening Standard newspaper after it printed allegations that scenes in an episode of the British version of Kitchen Nightmares had been faked. At the time, Ramsay declared: "I won't let people write anything they want to about me."
And come on, you say: Has Martin Hyde been hiding under a rock for the last 10 years? Didn't he know reality TV may not always be, you know, totally real? "Call me naive, call me dumb or something, I was totally, totally, totally shocked," he admits. "I believe everything."
On the night the transformed restaurant made its debut, only three days after Ramsay had first walked through the doors, about 100 people flooded into the place for dinner. But the suit alleges about 90 per cent of the diners that night were either friends of Ramsay or paid extras. (And there are reasons to be skeptical about the turnout: It was a Monday, always the slowest night of the week at Dillon's because their biggest draws, the Broadway theatres, are usually dark.)
Once the cameras had packed up and gone home, things were back to normal - or worse, Hyde says. The back room of Dillon's has a popular 100-seat cabaret space, which used to bring in much of the restaurant's revenue. It's been all but dark for the last three months. Not only did Ramsay's makeover de-emphasize it, Hyde was the one who booked all of the acts. "If it's closed, that's a real loss for off-Broadway," a theatre producer told me on Friday.
Drop by Dillon's now and you'll see a prim and pretty little room where customers seem to be an endangered species.
Whether or not Ramsay faked key moments in the show, the jury is already back on the most important issue: Post- overhaul, Dillon's seems to be a jaw-dropping failure. (Muhammad Islam, Dillon's owner, told Reuters that things have improved.)
And Hyde? He's been knocking on doors since he left Dillon's, looking for work wherever he might find it. Back in London, he used to work at Harrod's, and he's mulled a return to retail. But the interviews haven't been very promising. "I think it's because I'm older," he said glumly.
"I'll keep looking for jobs. I've still got some belief there's something out there for me." His voice cracked. "I don't know where I'm gonna' go now. I really don't."