This is a very special episode of Kitchen Nightmares. Usually the phrase "very special episode" implies learning about abuse or drug use among young people. And that's exactly what happened in this episode. Because for a restaurant makeover show, why wouldn't you have an episode that dabbles in addiction?
We visit Mangia Mangia in Woodland Park, Colorado. This is the third episode of the season to take place in that state. I guess now that weed is legal there residents need better options for drug-induced snacking than greasy pizza and microwaved garbage.
The building was a former fast food restaurant that owner Julie Watson bought with no idea of what concept she wanted, she just wanted to own a restaurant. She settled on Italian because, according to her daughter Janelle, there are no Italian restaurants in town, only Mexican and Chinese.
Before the episode really even starts we get some testimonials from the employees. The kitchen looks like a boy band of burnouts. One cook is named Kevin, which is not a name I feel entirely comfortable with in a kitchen. Kevin is a name reserved for Foot Locker employees and washed up Water World actors. He says that everyone at Mangia Mangia hates the head chef Trevor, which, that sounds right, I don't know many Trevors who have been pleasant and/or not worn cargo shorts.
Chef Gordon Ramsay arrives at the restaurant and notices that it has a drive-through window. He pulls his silver SUV around and Janelle opens the window and hands him a laminated menu. Look, lots of businesses do and should have a drive through, like fast food places, coffee shops, and liquor stores. A casual fine dining restaurant is not one of them.
Ramsay orders the soup of the day, which is chicken and wild rice. Janelle prepares it, and by prepares the soup for service I mean she ladles a grayish, thick cream soup into a giant styrofoam cup and tapes a lid on it. She gives it to Ramsay and he pulls into a parking spot to taste the soup only to realize that she didn't give him a spoon, only a knife and fork. It's no problem though, because the soup is practically a solid so the fork works just fine.
After tasting the dish that more resembled the version of gruel you see in movies about orphans than a restaurant grade soup, Ramsay decides it's time to get out of the car and actually go inside. He sits down with Julie and looks around making the obvious comment that her restaurant still looks like a fast food joint. She disagrees. She thinks that the fake ivy around the ceiling and the bizarre mini curtains separating the booths completely change the look. Ramsay then asks her when she last visited Italy. Julie answers she's never been, she's Irish. I'm not entirely sure why being Irish precludes her from visiting the country of the cuisine she based her restaurant on, but I'm not here to try and understand her logic.
Julie takes Ramsay on a tour of the kitchen so he can meet the staff. He meets Trevor, the 22 year old head chef Trevor. Apparently, Trevor and Janelle used to date, and no longer do, which is an obvious source of tension among the staff. If I've learned anything in my 30 years it's don't fool around with your coworkers. You'll just end up coming in to work after things fall apart and then every time he says something you'll end up being all, "OH IS THAT WHY YOU SAID YOU DIDN'T WANT TO MARRY ME?" and everyone will be like, "This is a sales conference call, please stop screaming."
Ramsay then sits down for his requisite lunch where he orders everything on the menu to see what the food is like. He orders wild mushroom ravioli, veal piccata, the fresh salmon, lasagna, and spaghetti and meatballs. It sounds like a basic enough order that the average Italian restaurant should be able to deliver. But no. Oh no. It was a train wreck, and that's a word I usually reserve to use as a description of my personal life.
The ravioli comes on a plate covered in bright white alfredo sauce (who doesn't love to eat food that looks like paint?) and it's clear just from looking at it that the ravioli is frozen and terrible. The waitress has to play a very depressing game of telephone between Ramsay and Trevor back in the kitchen. Ramsay asks if he knows how to make ravioli. The waitress finds out no, that despite being the head chef at an Italian restaurant he has no idea how to make ravioli.
Ramsay then dictates to her a recipe for making pasta that Trevor should have the ingredients for in the kitchen. She writes it down and brings it back to the staff. Julie's initial reaction when hearing the recipe is, "But 550 grams, what does that mean?" No one in the kitchen knows the metric system, or even how to convert from the metric system, or based on what we see of the food, I bet they didn't know you could make pasta from scratch at all.
The next dish is the lasagna, and Ramsay sends it back within seconds because there's a big thumbprint on the plate from the chef. I have a hard time saying "chef" here because this is where we learn just how deep the microwaving problem goes. The kitchen cleans up the plate and sends it back out to Ramsay, but he discovers it is still frozen in the center. Julie's solution is that Trevor should have used a different microwave. Apparently, in this restaurant kitchen, there is a good microwave and a bad microwave.
The meatballs arrive also clearly frozen and they taste, according to Ramsay, like "warm foam," a phrase that made me more nauseous than I was this morning after drinking more than two bottles of red wine alone last night.
The veal is a wildly unappetizing color and apparently still raw in the middle. The salmon comes and is also an off-putting color, which the waitress explains because it has a "balsamic paint" on it. I'm not 100% sure they didn't use actual paint in the sauce.
Even though the menu lists the salmon as fresh, it, like literally everything else in the restaurant, is clearly frozen.
Ramsay gathers the staff after one of the most disgusting lunches I've ever seen. He asks, "Does anyone have any training?" and his question is met with a resounding, "No." Ramsay starts going through the problems with his dishes and throughout the discussion Julie is pretty defensive and disagrees with him. One exchange stood out though as truly indicative of how terrible things are:
Ramsay: And the veal...
Julie: The veal is old, I'll tell you that.
Ramsay: What do you mean old?
Julie: I don't order veal that often.
Ramsay: Well, I was going to say the veal was raw.
After listing problem on top of problem with the frozen microwaved food and the terrible tasting sauces, Julie continues to respond with the same sentence: "The food is good." She doesn't elaborate or explain, she just keeps saying it again and again like a broken record or a mental patient. When he realizes he's just not getting through to them and has done all he can for one day, Ramsay leaves and Julie finally shows some emotion and cries.
It's time for dinner service and Ramsay returns to observe how the kitchen works. Well, "works" feels like too strong a word, but you get it. Most of the dishes get sent back for various issues, and Ramsay asks Trevor if he tastes any of them. His answer? "Fuck it." What a pro.
Next up is inspecting the walk-in, which is my least favorite part of the show because it's never good. There's always mold and dirt and old food and on a few occasions, dead animals. This inspection was shocking in a different way. Though the walk-in wasn't the obscene gross-out montage we normally get, Ramsay does find tray after tray of pre-cooked pasta. It's pasta-mania. He finds close to 400 servings of cooked pasta for a restaurant that had only 47 customers that night.
Julie's response to why there is so much pre-cooked pasta is that she doesn't want "these people to have to wait." These people refers to the customers, and the wait refers to the 90 seconds it takes to cook a serving of capellini. It's clear that she's refusing to take any responsibility for how poorly her kitchen is run. She's convinced that Trevor is trying to make her look back by revealing all of this information to Ramsay, which I think is giving Trevor WAY too much credit, intelligence-wise.
Almost every single dish on the menu is just frozen food from a vendor that is then microwaved for service. Microwaves outnumber ovens in the kitchen almost two to one. I mean, I'm a terrible cook with virtually no time to make food and even I only use my microwave when I have absolutely no other options (aka when I'm too drunk to trust myself with a knife or open flame).
Aside from the food issues, of which there are clearly too many to keep track of, the mood in the kitchen is one of frantic scrambling and aggressive yelling. Julie yells at every staff member, even if they are just doing what they are supposed to do, like the waiter Chris who is trying to put an order in the computer.
Ramsay learns that the cooks only change the breadcrumbs every other day, on Julie's order because she doesn't want to spend more money. They put both chicken and eggplant, which Kevin realizes in the moment is cross-contamination. This horrifies me but then makes me happy as I get flashes of Jon Taffer screaming that phrase on Bar Rescue, one of my favorite things on the planet. Ramsay says everything they serve is frozen, which Julie counters by saying, "They aren't frozen, they start out frozen." I'd be impressed by her arguing if I wasn't so grossed out by the food.
Ramsay walks into the dining room and addresses the patrons and asks, "What percentage of the menu do you expect to be fresh?" They answer with a unanimous "90-100%" and are in for a rude awakening when Ramsay tells them that actually less than 5% of the food they were served that night was fresh, it was almost all frozen. Julie is embarrassed and walks out saying she can't take it anymore. They stop service and the rest of the staff gathers out the back door to smoke and complain for a while.
This is where some of the dark secrets of Mangia Mangia begin to emerge. Janelle expands on an earlier claim that head-chef/ex-boyfriend Trevor tried to punch her at work. Most of the staff doesn't even show up for their assigned shifts. When Janelle claims that Kevin didn't come in because he was high, he corrects her that it was "only two times," which is barely any times, so good effort Kevin. She says that Trevor comes in high all the time. During this dramatic confrontation Janelle leaves in tears, Julie finally breaks down to Ramsay, and everyone is told to close up the restaurant and go home.
Everyone has been through a lot, but the next day isn't much better. Ramsay gathers the staff to talk out some issues. There's a lot of confusion about who was talking shit about who and it starts to feel like a Real Housewives reunion show. Then things take a hard left when we learn that Trevor has a meth problem. It's not really a shock considering his behavior and teeth, but it's a game changer nonetheless. Julie fires Trevor and is ready to turn the restaurant around.
Now that there is no chef (though really, was there ever really a chef at this place?), Ramsay teaches the staff how to make some classic Italian dishes without the use of a microwave. He recruits Chef Don, a sous chef from a prestigious Denver restaurant, to run the kitchen after the relaunch. And to drum up excitement for that relaunch, Ramsay organizes a community day with everything that you expect for a restaurant relaunch, like a giant inflatable slide.
Julie and her staff love Ramsay's makeover, mostly because now the restaurant no longer looks like a Taco Bell. The new fresh menu matches the interior and the staff is using the other appliances in the kitchen besides the many microwaves. Things get a little hairy on the line while Julie is firing orders like they are still just reheating frozen food. A quick talking to from Ramsay sets her straight and everyone is back on track. The customers are happy. Julie is happy. The staff is happy. There are no more meth users in the kitchen. It's a real success.
Ramsay did his job, but there was one more thing he needed to do: pull his car around to the drive-thru and get the microwave. It's nice that they ended on a silly gag so we could forget about how that one kid's life is kind of ruined. Thanks Kitchen Nightmares!