Unbelievable for a Reality TV hater, but I want to talk about Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares. Such a revelation. Both Fox and BBCAmerica have spent a ton of time making Gordon Ramsay look like a gaping asshole. I finally tuned in like you do passing a car wreck. No bodies. No blood. Very little ego for a celebrity chef turned emperor turned TV host. And he seems to legitimately care about the people he visits, a cardinal sin in reality TV (there's a fantastic recurring bit on That Mitchell and Webb Look where viewers are encouraged to tune into what's ostensibly a serious science program but is in reality an excuse to "have a good stare at" freaky disabilities).
I've been following a comics blogger who breaks books down (there's a nice link list in this MetaFilter post) into what he calls their "storytelling engines", the simple theme that runs through a book which all stories revolve around. Having found Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, my concern now is that we'll be burnt out on it within a couple of weeks, because there's not a lot there. I hate to admit to being of the hoi polloi, but theres not a ton of conflict. Sure a cook or two might leave, but the shows always end happily with the place back on track after basking in the genius of Gordon Ramsay. Then again, we've only seen a handful of shows scattered across Seasons 2, 3 and 4, so maybe they've had fist-fights and grease fires galore in the ones we've missed.
I worked in a restaurant for six or seven summers. We had three or four head chefs over that time (the turnover wasn't as bad as it sounds— it was a seasonal place). This gives me just-a-touch more than 0 experience to relate while watching the show, but I think the lessons are applicable outside a kitchen. This is what reality TV should do, present a mirror for us to examine ourselves, rather than a chance to watch those worse off (or so much better off) than us and gawk. In the episodes we've seen, there aren't horrendous health code violations; incompetence is present at some restaurants, but it's yet to be the underlying problem. The problem is stasis. Comfort. People get into the business, find a way to survive and then stay in their rut. Some even succeeded for a time: the chef at what was Rococo (you can see the first 10 minutes of the episode here) made it into the Michelin Guide and achieved a star back in the '90s. A decade later, he was serving the menu that had earned him a star. It's an understandable bit of self-doubt to think the menu is what made the restaurant great. He refused to believe the success was a result of his desire to learn, to invent, to grow. It must suck to wind up being a drudge slaving away at the same mechanical process every day when the person who designed the process was you.
Working for myself now, this scares the shit out of me. How do you prevent that? Being part of a group of even semi-competent co-workers helps to keep you fresh, exposes you to new ideas. Having to solve other peoples' problems whether I wanted to or not kept me learning. Now that I'm my own head chef*, it's up to me to keep learning, to keep tossing successful projects in the trash and moving onto new ways. It's terribly easy to find a computer language, master a framework in it, churn out the same menu for years and then find there are no customers for the one dish you know how to make. The trick is remembering that every day.
* Mature, I know, but I can't hear the phrase "Head Chef" without thinking of a fellow busboy shouting, "I'll give you head, chef" just as he exited the kitchen back into a dining room full of elderly patrons.
Oh, and I like posting from Textmate a damn sight better than the WordPress client, mainly because of my super-slow Textdrive hosting.