I am at a restaurant that is serving only one dish. Cheryl Hines has already stolen my seat once in the evening, and Gordon Ramsay just checked in to tell me to be sure to eat every bite on my plate. Oh, and, did I mention this is all on live TV?
No, I’m not describing a weird dream. All of this actually happened to me on the set of Gordon Ramsay’s The F Word. As a longtime fan of Gordon Ramsay in all his forms — mocking people, being sweet to people, complaining about pineapple — there was one side of the TV chef I hadn’t seen: Ramsay in person. So, when I found out that The F Word was looking for audience members, I knew I had to find a way to be a part of it.
After a flurry of emails with Gordon’s personal team and The F Word PR staff, I somehow manage to find myself on the Fox TV lot in Los Angeles ready to experience a live taping firsthand. After checking in, I am escorted back to The F Word restaurant. Logically, I know there is no way it is going to be a real restaurant, but I am still surprised when, from the outside, the soundstage looks no different from a high school theater stage set: wooden boards held up by two-by-fours. Inside, however, it both looks and feels like a real restaurant — complete with waiters, bartenders, chefs hard at work, and, of course, a whole camera crew.
If you've haven't seen The F Word, it's a little hard to explain. It’s kind of like a variety show hosted by a high-wire Chef Ramsay. He runs around attempting to break world records, interviews celebrities, and shows pre-taped segments that may take him from cooking with Katy Perry to racing at a NASCAR track. Like any good Gordon Ramsay show, there’s a live competition at the heart of it with two culinary teams cooking the same dish for a restaurant full of guests who then vote on a winner. Yet the true appeal, perhaps less surprising to those of us who already love him, is Ramsay himself, at the heart of it all.
I am seated at the bar since I am dining alone, and, as the celebrity guests trickle in, a producer tells Cheryl Hines she will sit in the empty seat next to me for her segment. I immediately become equal parts nervous and hopeful. Sitting next to her means I’ll actually make it on live TV, but, then again, that also means I’ll be on live TV. Gulp. Justin Hartley from This Is Us, the other guest of the night, comes in with his fiancé, inducing just the kind of of swooning and heart-clutching from audience members you would expect.
Before the show even goes live, I am already sipping on a cocktail and nibbling on a meat and cheese board. It almost feels like a normal meal, until the cameras roll in and someone who I come to think of as the hype man starts giving instructions. We are told to stand up and cheer when Gordon comes in, while being reminded we’re live to America in 15 seconds! We are also advised to keep our talking volume at about 50%... and that’s it. No ban on phones or strict rules about where to look and when. Maybe it’s the cocktail, maybe it’s the energy in the room, maybe it’s the knowledge that Gordon Ramsay is about to charge around the corner, but I am ready to be a part of the TV magic.
And suddenly, there he is, carrying a cask of wine on his shoulder that he immediately pours into a diner’s mouth. From there, things just keep moving. There is no live feed for audience members, so most of the segments, including an attempt to break an egg cracking record, a cannoli-filling station, and a wine-pouring challenge, are hard to see. The whole time, though, Gordon bounces around like a rubber ball, totally at ease and in control of the chaos.
When it is time for Cheryl Hines to sit at the bar for her segment , I am asked to move — and thus, to both my relief and disappointment, I miss my chance to be fully in front of the cameras and on national TV. I can hear bits of their exchange, which included the show’s bartender, Charity Kay Johnston, serving both Hines and Ramsay that night’s signature cocktail, inspired by the evening’s dish, veal marsala. The segment goes by quickly, and soon I am back in my own seat (now formerly Cheryl Hines’ seat), and sipping my cocktail. Charity explains to me that, while she is usually seen sparring with Gordon on camera during the show, she is very much acting as a real bartender — that includes prepping, mixing, and serving drinks the whole time the restaurant is “open.”
She reveals that it was important for Gordon, when he was devising the show, to have real restaurant people on set, including wait staff and a trained maître d'. When I tell Charity I am on stage to write about what it’s like to be on set at a Gordon Ramsay show filming, she says the same thing that nearly every person who works with the chef in some capacity said, “Oh, he’s wonderful.”
Certainly his rambunctious attitude is catching – what little I can see of the show in action includes Ramsay running up to audience members who are about to be dragged into a bit or be in a background shot to give them the rundown, then running back afterwards to compliment them. Getting to rewatch the show afterwards, I am actually surprised at how many segments weren’t live, including a pre-taped omelet lesson with Eric Stonestreet and footage from the competing teams from the night before. In the moment, there’s so much hustle and bustle that the free time doesn’t register, especially with Gordon bounding around like a marathon runner.
Meanwhile, I am still waiting on my food. When I finally get it, I assume it was prepared by one of the two teams — only watching the show later do I realise I’m eating Gordon Ramsay’s actual version of the dish. In one taped segment, Ramsay shows how he prepares his classic veal marsala with a side of fettucine and green beans. While it is never made clear to me why I’m now eating his version (perhaps for staging food glam shots?), at the time, I’m just glad to see some food. As I start to dig in, suddenly, Gordon Ramsay is right behind me with a twinkle in his eye. He is gearing up to film the last few minutes of the show and is standing off to the side as everything is set up. He leans in to see me and another solo diner starting to dig into our plates.
“Don’t leave until you’ve eaten every bite!” he instructs us, then disappears just as quickly into the final segment. Learning that I was eating his own recipe made the moment even more special. How many people can say they’ve had Gordon banter with them over his own food?!
Only one thing lets me know how tightly controlled the entire taping really is, even if on the surface it seems like a romp through a restaurant. Every time I am anywhere near being on camera, a group of talkative, attractive people descends to make conversation. As best I can tell, they are ringers meant to keep us looking engaged rather than rubbernecking as Cheryl Hines attempts to pour wine blindfolded. When I ask what they are doing there, I get a vague answer about working “with the production company.” And, when I was able to later catch myself in a recording of the show, I did see myself chatting away with a smile on my face with a tall man who could be seen in the in other parts of the show, professionally filling out the background in a way the rest of us might not be able to.
And then, without warning, the episode ends. Both teams gather to hear the results, and one team, a group of military wives, is surprised when one of their husbands comes out to read the results. After such a tear-jerker moment, everyone is relieved when the military wives win. Gordon snaps pictures and shakes hands with the winners and guests of the show, greeting them with the same enthusiasm he displays on camera. In person, as he has been the whole night, he is just as “on” as if the cameras are still rolling. I realise that all those Gordons — the screamer, the softie, the comedian — are each aspects of what he truly is at his core: a showman. He does not drop the act for a second, but it is clear that he is also, like any good entertainer, truly enjoying every moment.
I get to snap a picture and say hello, and, like that, it’s over. The spell breaks as I walk out of the studio into the bright light of day. I’m surprised to realise I am, once again, in a soundstage in Hollywood. And, in the thrill of it all, I had not followed Gordon’s instructions. I only took two bites of my Veal Marsala. As the chef himself might say, Fuck! But then again, an evening with Ramsay is more than just the food. After all, I can make my own version of his Veal Marsala, and even watch videos of him lovingly describe how to cook it, any day. But to see the real-deal Ramsay completely, seamlessly in his element, entertaining a restaurant of a hundred diners and slew of at-home live TV viewers? Now, that was definitely a once in a lifetime experience.