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Gordon Ramsay’s new Nat Geo show is a colonialist mess

Gordon Ramsay speaks onstage during the National Geographic portion of the Summer 2018 TCA Press Tour. (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

If the restaurant industry is a boy’s club (and it is), Gordon Ramsay represents its worst tendencies. There are sporadic moments of tenderness on his shows, “Kitchen Nightmares,” “Hell’s Kitchen” and “MasterChef,” as well as its kids edition “MasterChef Junior,” but they shine only because they stand out against a background of near-nonstop profanity and insults. Think of that meme-ified moment when he puts bread on either side of a woman’s head and calls her “an idiot sandwich,” not to mention the numerous montages on YouTube featuring his outrage in which he spits out and insults food.

He has thus far been contained primarily to the United States and Britain, lands where his tongue-lashings carry little geopolitical weight. That tricky dance of power is reserved for food-travel shows, and last week brought the news that Ramsay would be the next man to wander the world for the entertainment of a presumably white, Western audience: the announcement of “Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted,” to premiere on the National Geographic channel this fall, which will follow him as he cooks his way around the world.

This news was met with exhaustion by many who’d like to see another type of person take on such a role. A woman, for example, has never hosted a major show of the “No Reservations” ilk, in which she’s allowed to freely traipse around the world satisfying all her curiosities and appetites. In the wake of Anthony Bourdain’s tragic death and the discussion surrounding the “best female chef” award at the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, it’s become a more prominent focus for food writers and passive viewers alike: When will we have the chance to see what a woman, perhaps queer or of color — or both — could do with the opportunities that have thus far been awarded only to straight, cisgender men such as Bourdain, Andrew Zimmern, Action Bronson, Marcus Samuelsson and David Chang? We’ll have to wait a bit longer to find out.

Ramsay, a white British man who is as famous for his numerous Michelin stars as he is for his rage, will not just be traveling to various countries on “Uncharted” to showcase their cultures and cuisines, but in a troubling twist, he will be competing with locals to determine whether his takes on their national dishes could “beat” the real thing. An initial press release said he would be “pitting his own interpretations of regional dishes against the tried-and-true classics.” This seems like a setup for quite a few disasters, considering he’s received attention for, among other things, suggesting that a traditional Indian breakfast was “prison” food.

“The premise smacks of colonial stink,” says food writer Mayukh Sen. “It positions a foreign country’s cuisine as something for Ramsay to decode and eventually ‘master,’ to harness into greatness. I don’t want to preemptively write this show off. Perhaps it won’t be as horrendous as the premise makes it sound.”

Global Opinions editor Karen Attiah says there's no excuse for "ooga-booga journalism." (Video: Gillian Brockell, Karen Attiah, Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post)

To Sen’s point, the Variety announcement even used the phrase “anthropology-through-cuisine expeditions,” as though this will be a safari. It also speaks of “discovering the undiscovered,” further implying that nothing exists until it’s been gazed upon by white Western eyes.

While Twitter was immediately ablaze with sharp commentary on the idea of Ramsay taking on a Bourdain-type role, the food writers I spoke to had more considered perspectives. “I know that the project of hosting a show requires a really rare mixture of knowledge, charisma and that general muck of attributes we call ‘star power,’ but I can’t believe that there are no women or nonbinary people of color who possess all three,” says Soleil Ho, food writer and co-host of the podcast “Racist Sandwich.”

By its very nature, such a point of view would challenge patriarchal notions of exploration and conquest. And if a woman or nonbinary host failed to subvert the format, it would at least encourage conversation about whether the food-travel show model is inherently exploitative. To avoid that, though, Ho would specifically like to see someone who “knows how to boil down the way empire perpetuates itself in the colonial gaze for non-academics” — something the genre’s newest star doesn’t seem prepared to do.

“The ridiculousness of Ramsay’s premise lies in a flawed belief that Old World culinary technique is the standard by which all food should be measured. And that’s absolutely not true,” she adds. “To understand food on a global scale, one has to let go of one’s local dogma, and to presume that a single person knows the ‘best’ way of doing someone else’s food goes against that completely.”

It’s difficult to imagine Ramsay, of all people, abandoning the conceit that he and only he knows precisely what is “best.” The character we’ve seen him play on his programs shows him to be most comfortable trafficking in grand generalizations around a dish, a restaurant or a chef’s worth. He invariably describes his preferred ingredients as “a chef’s dream” and routinely characterizes his own dishes as “the most delicious” — the sort of flattening bravado that suggests he has trouble imagining good food made with other ingredients or by other hands. His inflammatory language, meanwhile, has even been reviewed by Australia’s Parliament. On “Hell’s Kitchen,” he has kicked garbage cans, called people “useless” and told a woman she needed a “straitjacket.” Even if he’s playing a character, this behavior calls to mind the cultural literacy of President Trump.

“It’s so arrogant and so gross, and it’s not why we share food,” says Korsha Wilson, writer and host of the podcast “A Hungry Society,” of “Uncharted.” “It’s not to best one another. If people are gracious enough to show you their cuisine, why would you say, ‘I’m better than you?’ ”

Sen points out that the show’s premise is vaguely reminiscent of a clip from a 2009 episode of Ramsay’s show “The F Word” that went viral in April. In the video, which makes the Twitter rounds in GIF form regularly, Ramsay is taken to task by Chang, the Thai chef at London’s Blue Elephant, for making an especially bad rendition of pad thai.

“The video was wildly popular on social media because it essentially depicted Ramsay getting his comeuppance,” Sen says. “Perhaps this series will be filled with moments like those where Ramsay’s forced to endure petty humiliations.”

But why would Nat Geo be the ideal venue for a show in which someone humiliates himself to gain viral clicks? National Geographic, the magazine, was applauded in April when it appointed an independent historian of photography and Africa to examine the racism of its coverage since its 1888 founding. The “Race Issue” grappled with the racist, paternalizing and colonialist gaze with which the magazine viewed the world for much of its existence. With “Uncharted,” its affiliated television channel risks diving straight back into the ugly waters of its past.

An institution that does not hold itself to its own apparent standards must be held accountable, and public opinion swiftly did so, forcing National Geographic to issue a statement saying that the first press release about “Uncharted” was “taken out of context.”

But the context it’s providing, again using words such as “exploration” and “unexpected” without noting what kind of audience would find these places and cuisines “foreign,” reinstates the historical gaze it so rigorously critiqued. At a time when travel writing is being re-envisioned in an anticolonialist framework, most notably by writers such as Bani Amor and Tunde Wey, it’s especially myopic to put yet another white man in this role. Amor’s and Wey’s work considers the very real effects that tourist-centered depictions have on the perception of cultures and people, as well as the ways power — via immigration status, race, money, gender, sexual orientation and so on — functions at every level of interaction between cultures. Ramsay has never demonstrated an interest in nor talent for that.

Yet this is where we’ve found ourselves, wondering whether we’ll ever see a different kind of person guide us through the world and its cuisines while we watch from the couch. Sen, though, is optimistic that cultural patience for Ramsay’s aggressive shtick has worn thin, allowing a chance for growth.

“Years from now, when food writers size up Ramsay’s legacy, I wonder where they’ll come down,” he says. “Right now, I worry that the consensus will be that he’s done more harm than good. At the very least, this show is an opportunity to correct that.”