Kitchen (and Elsewhere) Nightmares: Amy's Baking Company 2: The Reckoning
Last week it was announced that the season premiere of Gordon Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares will return to Scottsdale, Arizona to follow-up on last season’s finale episode featuring Amy and Samy Bouzaglo, owners of Amy’s Baking Company. In May of 2013, Ramsey visited the bistro and, amidst problems with the owners, walked out before performing a kitchen makeover, for the first time in the show’s history.
The anticipation for February 28th’s return episode has caused my brain to declare martial law and I am sweating hot fire. Without exaggeration, this is the most important episode of television in this, or any, generation.
From 2007 to 2009, I worked in reality TV, ranging from writing to editing to on-set production. As someone who had never been exposed to the genre (save for The Real World and the entirety of The Osbournes), it was, to say the least, an eye-opening experience. On rare occasions, when the medication doesn’t work right, I feel pangs of regret for the contributions I made to that “culture,” especially when I encounter younger people who treats others terribly, and can’t help but think a “persona” I helped form might be responsible.
The odd side-effect of this time I lost in those coal mines of the American soul, is that I now have a profound appreciation of certain reality productions. For example, the Real Housewives series manages to create an entire season’s worth of well act-structured entertainment from a measly few days of production, using and often embarrassing people who have so much money that any who dared disrespect them publicly outside of the show’s narrative would probably be disappeared to an uninhabited island or the concrete foundation of a construction site.
Kitchen Nightmares, like most other cooking and/or makeover shows, never caught on with me because a) the production was so straightforward and b) its focus seemed squarely on things that have never mattered to me, namely cooking and/or makeovers. Then, last May, I saw this episode:
What I had gone in expecting to merely be an episode with heightened personalities and some obvious emotional control issues turned out to be a national spectacle. Those around me became confused as to my elaborate dedication to the fallout and to my binge re-watching of the episode. The reason? What begins as a simple tug at a loose bit of string winds up unraveling not just the lives and histories of all involved, but the medium itself.
For those completely unaware, Gordon Ramsey visits this small restaurant, operated by the husband and wife team of Samy and Amy Bouzaglo. In 2006, Samy had invested “one million dollars” in making his wife’s dream come true, and since then he had operated as house manager and she as head chef. Since then, the restaurant had been plagued by staffing issues (mostly stemming from treatment and the management’s stealing of tips) and poor online reviews. The discussion of the latter revealed to Ramsey that Amy (the real life version of Elizabeth Berkley’s character from Showgirls) believed all of their negative attention to be the result of a vast conspiracy. Also, she believed she could communicate with cats, but that had little to no effect on the poor quality of food served during Ramsey’s visit. Samy violently threatens one unsatisfied customer which leads to the production team having to intervene, and the inability to communicate results in Ramsey’s decision to leave the restaurant. The episode ends with the production team (on camera) dismantling their lights and removing mics from the owners, who are still explaining why they are right and every single person in the world is wrong.
My original fascination with the episode had stemmed from Fox’s ability to put, what was to my mind, obvious serial killers on national television. There is something about the conviction and pure delusion with which Amy speaks of her culinary expertise that physically pained me to watch. Not for the embarrassment or other such reality tics, but rather because she personified the emotional knee-jerk I feel whenever I speak proudly of my work. I rarely do so without a small dig at my own expense, and it’s worse when I try to take a compliment, yet knowing that I cannot help but feel that Amy’s unblinking terror is what I put out into the world. It’s much like the internalized social terror of hitting on a girl at a bar and then watching an episode of The Pick-Up Artist, only to cower at the thought that someone might perceive you similarly. Amy’s neurosis was at once alien, reflective, and almost enviable, in a world where such dedication can usually be linked to success.
After the episode aired, a string of social media posts from the restaurant attacked fans in a PR meltdown, spiraling so quickly that Amy and Samy came forward to claim that their accounts had been compromised by “haters” and that law enforcement was involved in the investigation. A number of public relations firms were hired and fired in a matter of weeks, allegations were raised that Amy had been to federal prison, Samy had mob ties, Samy was in danger of deportation, and when the restaurant claimed they had treated their employees fairly, one came forward with this contract, which contained a non-compete clause for an entry-level food service industry job. The social media posts continued, written in the same style as the “hacked” missives, cementing the lack of an original attack, and leading to a restaurant shut down.
The Grand Re-Opening of Amy’s Baking Company was set for the end of May 2013, and I was headed to Scottsdale to cover it for another publication. There were some vague threats made about journalists attending the event without prior approval, and much to my dismay this journey fell apart the day of. The important part of this re-opening was not the anticipation of meeting Samy and Amy in person or sampling the amended cuisine, rather the reports of what truths would be revealed. On social media and in promotional interviews, the couple promised to reveal the degree to which what America had seen was created by Gordon Ramsey and his production team. Fox network made a simple press release, reminding the Bouzaglos that any violation of their non-disclosure agreement would result in a crushing lawsuit.
This was it. This was when everything became genuinely “important” because this was “reality” fighting Reality fighting reality. This re-opening and the information relayed from the owners would set a new standard for how we interacted with such entertainment, and in turn, how it was produced. If they fell on their swords, albeit to save their business, producers would have to worry about similar credibility links in all shows, especially if Amy’s Baking Company were revealed to be the helpless victims of a ruthless industry, or worse, coached into destroying their own lives. While such a huge inversion seemed impossible, as a former employee of that industry I knew better than most the range of possibilities. As someone with a trained eye in this kind of thing, I had no ability to gauge the degree to which this was staged, and I had to know.
Later that night, the internet began leaking news from the event. The re-opening of Amy’s Baking Company was dull. The food and service were serviceable and the hosts said little to nothing. The aforementioned grand reveal was toned down into a restatement that they would one day clear their name, and that was all they’d say on the subject. In terms of resolving this media circus, it was a wet fart.
Since then, Amy’s Baking Company has avoided most publicity, aside from a line of t-shirts and hats inspired by their famous quotes from the episode, which seemed an odd move for a couple who unofficially had claimed the entire event was staged or some how manipulated. In interviews, they have discussed their continuing work with the Yelp review site, and the feedback they have given towards revising their user policy to avoid “online bullying” such as what destroyed their business. Then, for two people who wanted to life to return to normal, they announced the production of their own reality show, shortly followed by their “decision” to cancel filming in November. At that time, they reiterated their dedication to clearing their names, and it seems like February 28th is their chance to do so.
So why does this new episode mean so much? While Kitchen Nightmares is an entertainment production, whose methods of “upping” drama are easily discoverable online, the truth is that it is impossible to manipulate anyone to such a degree without their consent. Editing, coaching, and even planting actors could never result in the kind of episode the Bouzaglos created last time unless they were either completely complicit or completely insane. There is simply no middle ground. When the cameras shot this episode, either Samy and Amy put forward the real version of themselves, aware of the tricks, and will present a version that even with editing and heightened drama reveals a valley of incongruity between this and their last outing, or Amy will yell at Gordon Ramsey in catspeak and Samy will kill a PA with a bat.
It no longer matters whether the original episode was real or scripted, what matters is how both these crusaders for justice and the producers of a reality show will treat a situation that no one has encountered before, wherein both sides seem set on mutually assured destruction.
This episode marks an opportunity in for popular culture to either break the fourth wall or discover that we have agreed to become the fourth wall. It is a moment that I have anticipated ever since the terrible waste that was The Hills’ deus ex shrugina, and that such a revelation could come from a goddamned cooking show, of all places, seems fitting.
If you’re placing your bets, the bio on Amy’s Baking Company’s website now reads:
Yet, this is what Amy posted from her joint Facebook account with Samy just days ago:
Welcome to Thunderdome.