In the first episode of Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted, the chef best known for screaming at oafs in reality TV kitchens is in Peru, there to learn about local ingredients and techniques. Shortly after acquiring and then cooking a Peruvian delicacy on the side of a mountain, he tastes it and then spits it out, spraying pieces all over before comparing it to a “crispy cockroach.” Later he declares a mango to be “an amazing discovery,” even though he did not discover it.
Then it’s on to New Zealand in episode two, where Ramsay tries an uncooked grub, and immediately spits it out and dramatically retches in a way that will be familiar to viewers of his Fox shows such as Kitchen Nightmares. “They are fucking disgusting,” he says.
“That is not for me, no,” Gordon adds. He doesn’t stop with humility, instead continuing on to his well-worn territory of insulting people, except now he’s insulting people who value something he does not: “The only thing that’s nutty will be the person eating them.”
Why, then, is he bothering? Why exactly does Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted (National Geographic Channel, Sundays at 10) exist? Why did National Geographic, a company so conscientious that last year it documented its own racism, conceive of this show?
Of all the television chefs in the world, why send Gordon Ramsay as the person to introduce audiences to places and people? Why is the guy best known for being a televised brute the ideal choice? Did anyone check first to see if Samin Nosrat—whose Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is a treasure—was busy?
And why on earth is National Geographic sending a British man to very clearly already-charted places and calling it “Uncharted”? All of this is baffling.
There is so much television that celebrates cuisine and the people who craft it. And chefs and their local cuisines don’t need to be filtered through Gordon Ramsay. It’d be quite cynical to imagine that the only way American audiences will learn about or appreciate different cooking techniques and ingredients is because Ramsay decided to grace a place with a visit.
He’s there to learn, sure, allegedly, but his visits are wrapped in the most offensive of layers. That starts with his competition against someone who actually knows what they’re doing.
Six minutes in to Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted, and Gordon Ramsay tells a Michelin star chef, Virgilio Martínez, “I’m going to kick your ass.” In a voice-over, he says, “I’ve got just five days to uncover the secrets of the sacred valley, to devise a feast that shows that handsome devil Virgilio who’s boss.”
That sentence says it all: In five days of reality TV production time, he thinks he’ll be able to master ingredients and techniques enough to defeat a chef who actually is an expert in their own cuisine and culture.
The implicit suggestion: whatever this guy is doing here in Peru has got to be easy and basic enough to master in a few days. It’s a lesson in the worst kind of tourism: parachute in, insult everything, and then borrow the best ideas to take home and claim as one’s own.
Why? Why must Ramsay prove that he’s better at something than the expert? Why is everything a challenge for Gordon to destroy and conquer? (“Surely, I’m not going to be out-muscled by a six-inch shellfish,” he says in the New Zealand episode.)
Adventure in a gravy of complaining
In his breakthrough reality series, Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, Gordon Ramsay made himself a star for a reason: he was tough but fair, and willing to connect with people and help them succeed.
Once his show came to Fox, though, as just Kitchen Nightmares, the focus became Ramsay and his personality, screaming and insulting his way through season after season, always having to ratchet up the drama and insist that this thing is much worse than the last thing, which was the worst thing ever. Fox’s version of Hell’s Kitchen gave him a parade of stooges to insult.
The Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted version struggles to escape the gravitational pull of his well-practiced shtick.
The series leans heavily into Running Wild with Bear Grylls territory, having Ramsay do some unfamiliar and uncomfortable things, like climbing a mountain, free diving, and rappelling down a waterfall.
Of course these activities are unfamiliar and uncomfortable for someone attempting them the first time. That’s understandable, and so is reacting to that discomfort. Ramsay, though, just returns to the arsenal of reactions that he has to awful restaurants and food on his Fox shows.
He complains about everything he’s asked to do: “Are you trying to kill me?” “All I can see in this tangled forest are potential personal injury claims.” “Seriously?” “Really? Are you kidding me?” “Stop it.” “This is crazy.” Most of his efforts are a string of bleeps from his swearing.
At times he shows signs of humble appreciation, describing free diving off the New Zealand coast as “a lot harder than it looks.”
But so much of his language is of condescension, not admiration. When farmers in Peru show him where they prepare food, he says, “This reminds me of a Fred Flintstone outside kitchen.” After being introduced to a thin phyllo-like dough in Morocco, he says, “it looks like my grandma’s curtains.” Perhaps these are jokes, but they are ones that put down what he’s joking about, and they pile up, and after just one episode I was exhausted of them. (I’ve watched three of the six episodes.)
Rarely, but sometimes, he’s just cruel. After a plane lands to pick him up, Gordon says in voiceover, “My pilot looks more like he’s just out of diapers than flight school.” We then see him greet the pilot by saying, “Is Dad here? Are you the captain? Seriously?” When the plane lands, Ramsay says, “Thank god [the pilot] didn’t fuck that one up.”
People laugh—at him? With him? It’s unclear if these the awkward chuckles of people doing their best to humor this famous chef while cameras roll, or a genuine shared moment of frivolity with the chef who’s internationally known for his antics. On television, it comes off as the former.
Watch David Chang’s Ugly Delicious, or Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat (both on Netflix) for some contrast: while they have similar cores to Ramsay’s show—learning about food and culture, cooking together—but could not be more divergent.
On her show, for example, Samin Nosrat meets people and tries things for the first time. She screws up, she laughs, she has metaphors and jokes. Everything, though, every frame of the series, exudes excitement, passion, interest, respect, and curiosity.
On his show, Gordon Ramsay mostly has ego and acid oozing out of his pores, and it overwhelms the senses.
Gordon Ramsay takes his ego around the world
Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted has scale and beautiful graphics that dip us into locations; it has drone shots that sweep across breathtaking landscapes and flakes of salt falling into a pan in slow-motion.
Its researchers and producers have found chefs and people willing to share their rich experience and cultural traditions, and there is a lot to learn here.
Unfortunately, it also has Gordon Ramsay and his ego.
Before he climbs a tree in one episode—attached with a harness and a rope—he says, “If I drop, the food world is fucked.” This could be a joke, but in the context of arrogant TV persona and his constant insulting of things he encounters, it didn’t come off as one to me.
Ramsay seems himself as the center of the food world. There is no celebration of other people, just a focus on himself.
Every chef he meets in the first three episodes is defined in their relation to him:
- Virgilio Martínez “is basically a younger, better-looking, Peruvian version of me,” Ramsay says, and the added “damn him” might be charming if this was an isolated comment. It’s not, because…
- …in New Zealand, he says of chef Monique Fiso—who appeared on Netflix’s Final Table—”Spending this week with Monique has been amazing, because in many ways she reminds me of myself at 31. The difference between her and I is, I was trained in a modern European style and she’s trained in a Māori style.”
- In Morocco, Ramsay can’t stop reminding viewers that the episode’s guest chef applied to his restaurant multiple times and didn’t get a job, for which he blames himself but also continually frames her actions as being a vendetta. A joke? Likely. But when he keeps doing this, episode after episode, scene after scene, it’s tiresome.
There’s nothing that’s not about him, and it’s maddening, ruining what surrounds it, like dumping vinegar all over dessert.
The show lays out cleanly, with a visit with a local chef bookending Gordon’s adventures and bleeped swearing. The middle parts are visits with people teach him about ingredients and techniques.
The central conceit—the cook-off, the competition at the end—almost melts away by the third episode, thankfully. The first has an explicit challenge, with the other chef implausibly initiating it (in other words, the production ends up assigning blame for the premise of the show on the guest chef); the second has the chef inviting Ramsay to cook with her, which is refreshing, especially when Gordon talks about wanting to express his gratitude for what he’s learned; the third has no mention of competition until it’s almost over, and then it suddenly becomes a showdown and an opportunity for Gordon to win.
Along the way, Ramsay does have positive things to say about cuisine and people. There is appreciation: “That is absolutely delicious”; “That was one of the best pizzas I’ve ever eaten.”
His words of praise, though, are generic and dull: “beautiful,” “delicious,” “amazing”—especially compared to his words of condescension, which are ripe and well-practiced.
Even in praise and humility, he gives himself credit: “A dream come true. Why? Because here in the Sacred Valley, I’ve uncovered a truly mind-blowing culinary culture.” (Oh you have?)
He says “the food here kicks the ass of any fancy restaurant” but sums up his efforts: take something, move on. “I don’t know all, but definitely got a taste. And now, importantly, I’m on to my next adventure.” (Oh, that’s the most important thing?)
Most of the time Ramsay just comes across as someone who’s very used to being plopped into a location and being forced to react with peak drama, because that is, of course, what he’s been doing for more than 15 years.
“Seriously? Oh stop it. Bloody hell,” he says upon seeing what he will use to cook, using the same tone that he uses to feign surprise that there is awfulness at the restaurants he examines and in the dishes he tries on Kitchen Nightmares.
“I’ve never cooked on a stove like that,” he says, and then ridicules it as a “pile of bricks with a furnace inside.”
Isn’t that, uh, just a fire? And that’s confusing to an experienced chef?
Also, he’s not even consistent in his reactions: In the next episode, while on a beach, he cooks in coals that rest in a fire pit that’s essentially identical to the other except for its height, and says, “Who needs an oven when you’ve got this out here?” One fire is praised, one is ridiculed, the difference is unclear.
At another point, he’s surprised that “something as basic as the huts could produce a dish like that.” Buying something at a market, a seller tells him a certain food is for good luck. “Good luck? I won’t be needing that,” he says in voice over.
There are moments when he’s perfectly affable, like when he warmly greets children or, in the Morocco episode, when he tells a camera: “I’m not very good at being crap at doing something, so I felt a little bit awkward. That was difficult.”
Perhaps he’s also crap at dealing with his awkwardness. And that’s okay. But why, then, travel the world and put yourself in awkward situations? Why ridicule the cuisines and cultures? Why was Gordon Ramsay National Geographic’s choice, when there are other telegenic, capable, fascinating chefs and culinary stars who could have been wonderful ambassadors?
I will not compare Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted to Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations or Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, as others have already done that. When the show was announced, The Washington Post summed up the criticism in its headline: “World to Gordon Ramsay: You are no Anthony Bourdain”.
Gordon responded to that criticism by telling EW this:
“God, the feeble warriors that sit in their dungeons and spout negativity without understanding what we’re doing. I’ve been doing assertive, combustial shows since 2006 since I started The F Word — whether it’s diving for giant crab or hanging off a 500-meter cliff chasing puffins. So I’ve been on that level of exploration and understand those cultures. I’m a chef that needs to get motivated by understanding different cultures. I helicoptered into Nagaland 50 kilometers from the Burmese border in Northern India and cooked at a wedding. And in order to get accepted into the wedding, I had to buy a f—ing buffalo. That was 12 years ago.
Tony Bourdain was a great mate of mine. We were on the red carpet together last year at the Emmys. I think he’d be happy and impressed at [Uncharted’s] level of jeopardy and jumping into these [places] — Brazil, Peru, Alaska — and sourcing incredible ingredients and then highlighting some of the best [culinary] talent that hasn’t been noticed yet. It’s a dream come true. Judge [Uncharted] when you see it. The research going into [the show] is extraordinary. We’re [airing in] half a billion homes, 177 countries, in 43 different languages. And I can’t wait to make all those bitter, twisted, little, boring truckers who aren’t busy enough in their lives eat their words.”
I’ve watched enough of Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted to know what he’s doing, and to know that what he’s done most of all is prove his critics right, that he was unfit for this kind of program. I’d hoped when I started watching that Ramsay would surprise me, leaving his Fox persona at the door, free of the demands of broadcast network television to be more human, more engaged, more empathetic, more curious, less cocky. That television territory remains, for Gordon Ramsay, uncharted.