Back in 2010 when all of the hullabaloo over Denise Whiting’s (owner of Cafe Hon) trademarking of the word “Hon” came about, I was, like most Baltimoreans, a bit aghast at her nerve. I thought it was definitely a lame move and it doesn’t take a marketing degree to know a pretty big PR faux pas when you see one. But mostly I just thought it was silly. How much money could she possibly be making from “Hon” stickers, anyway?

What really shocked me, however, was the insanely vitriolic response that the City of Baltimore unloaded onto her and her restaurant once the press grabbed a hold of the “Hon-Troversy.” The stuff I read in the press, Facebook, and local blogs just blew my mind. People were foaming at the mouth over this. I just didn’t get it. You’re actually going to use your free time to organize a picket line in front of a local restaurant because its owner made a stupid PR move? Really? It seems to me that in the grand scheme of global human atrocities and issues facing our fair city, this woman’s poor business decisions should be way, way down on the list. I couldn’t help but feel that all the people who were so infuriated about it really needed to chill out and find a better use for their time. Go volunteer at a soup kitchen. Do some yoga. In with the good air, out with the overblown righteous indignation.

[quote_right]Okay, another bit of full disclosure: I have a little bit of personal experience with reality television. Having been intrenched in the production of a certain reality show for five years, I learned a thing or two about how real life gets translated into a 30 or 60 minute program. I have also have seen enough episodes of “Kitchen Nightmares” to know how that show (like most) follows a very strict formula[/quote_right]Mercifully, eventually, the whole story died down and the papers started talking about something else. Until last year when word came out that Gordon Ramsey’s show Kitchen Nightmares was coming to town to help save Whiting’s faltering business and public relations issues. And then it was all over the news again. Sigh.

Cut to: Friday night. The episode aired. I’ll admit, I was excited to watch it. Not because of some schadenfreude against Denise, but because I love Baltimore and always get a giddy sense of pride seeing it on the big or small screen. I reminded my husband twice to make sure it taped so I wouldn’t miss it (having a 14 month old sometimes means going to bed so early that one might miss an 8 pm television program. There, I said it).

Okay, another bit of full disclosure: I have a little bit of personal experience with reality television. Having been intrenched in the production of a certain reality show for five years, I learned a thing or two about how real life gets translated into a 30 or 60 minute program. I have also have seen enough episodes of “Kitchen Nightmares” to know how that show (like most) follows a very strict formula. For those unfamiliar, here’s the formula:

  • Gordon introduces restaurant, explains how bad it’s doing and introduces us to the owner, who is usually to blame for everything and is always very stubborn and myopic.
  • Gordon eats privately at restaurant. Takes one bite of about 5 dishes and hates everything. Waitstaff is nervous, kind and apologetic.
  • Gordon watches busy dinner service at restaurant, everything goes to pot, the line is in the weeds and customers are irate. Lots of screaming in the kitchen and Gordon watching with his hands over his mouth.
  • After service, Gordon tells the owner what the real issues are, what they are not able to admit. Owner pushes back, sometimes violently. Usually involves lots of F-bombs and tears.
  • The next morning, Gordon does some out-of-the-box demonstration for the owner to show them the error of their ways, which somehow miraculously causes the owner to have an epiphany. Right before commercial break, the owner suddenly trusts Gordon completely, and is fully on board with everything he says.
  • The staff comes back the next day to a completely redesigned dining room, and reworked menu.
  • Cut to: long crane shot of Gordon walking out of the now-packed restaurant. Everyone lives happily ever after.

Watching the Cafe Hon episode of Kitchen Nightmares was entertaining on many levels, not the least of which was how closely they followed their formula. Denise didn’t entirely open up about her PR problems to Gordon. He hated the fish and chips. He watched a disastrous dinner service. He held a focus group of locals to talk about the “Hon” backlash and let Denise listen in. She came around (or caved, depending on your point of view) and admitted she was wrong. She holds an awkward press conference, rescinds the copyright, the restaurant gets a fresh coat of paint and simplified menu, everyone is smiling and hopeful as the credits roll.

All in all the episode was well done and I enjoyed watching it. My favorite moment by far was when Gordon was first dining in the cafe and the waitress, Amanda, was schooling him on some basic Baltimore-ese. He struggled with the word “Bawlmur” and his thick brogue kept making “Hon” sound like “Hoon”. The whole conversation was adorable and charming. Also, Gordon’s reaction to the meatloaf he was served (“Looks like a flamingo turd just landed on my plate.”) was pretty priceless. I was also delighted to learn that Gordon hates the giant pink flamingo stuck to the facade of the restaurant as much as I do.

One of the biggest things I learned during my years in TV production is the magic that producers and editors can work to make what may seem mildly funny look hilarious or commonplace look dramatic. Case in point: when someone says something mean and the screen cuts to another person looking askance at them, that look may have been thrown at a completely different person. Or on a different day. It’s all in the editing. I’m not saying that these shows are completely fabricated, but the producers want you to feel a certain way, and they need the show to have a pace and a plot, and they do nearly all of that with editing and music. This was very obvious to me watching the way they presented Denise, her staff, and the story.

Denise was painted as a Jekyll and Hyde. Teary, meek, and nervous in front of Gordon, and then shrill and condescending to her staff in the kitchen. She looked like a shaken chihuahua half the time and a barking substitute teacher the other half. Again, I don’t know Denise, so I can’t weigh in on how accurate this portrayal was. But she certainly came off as anxious and desperate, and she obviously truly wants her business to succeed. I could actually feel how physically tense she was in some scenes – she looked like she was trying to tuck her shoulders into her ears. Her staff, on the other hand, came off as the real heroes: many of them having worked at Cafe Hon for over a decade, their loyalty and steadfast work ethic seemed to truly impress Chef Ramsay.

The focus group Gordon assembled to discuss the “Hon” issue seemed like rational, normal people (not the rabid Denise-hating mob I was worried I was going to see). They just calmly explained their take on it and made Gordon understand how her copyright move ticked everyone off. Simple as that. The show really handled the whole “controversy” deftly without over dramatizing it for the sake of good TV.

What I found most hilarious about last night’s Kitchen Nightmares was the music. It was really laughable how dramatic the background music gets during the moments that are supposed to be tense. Put a whole string section playing an urgent minor key behind them and suddenly this otherwise dull conversation is a POWDER KEG! She’s gonna snap ANY MINUTE!

Similarly, at the end of the episode when the dining room has been redecorated (which, frankly, I thought was much less impressive than other rehabs I’ve seen on the show) the music immediately moves to the end-of-the-movie happy tune. Warm fuzzies for everyone! Hooray for Denise who has admitted her wrong! Everything’s going to be okay now! You can tell by the swelling piano crescendo!

After all is said and done, I honestly hope Cafe Hon survives and I wish Denise well. I certainly don’t think Cafe Hon is the best restaurant in town, and doubt I’ll venture back there (there are way better places to eat on 36th), but I am a Baltimore cheerleader first and foremost, and any locally owned small business is always going to get my support over a chain. I’d rather have Denise Whiting on 36th and Roland than a Chick Fil-A. And if this episode gets some visiting out-of-towners to venture from the inner harbor up to Hampden and take in an afternoon on the Avenue, amen! We need more positive media about Charm City. As formulaic as Kitchen Nightmares is, more than anything, last night’s episode showed a bunch of good people working hard and trying to get by doing what they love.

And isn’t that what makes us all so Hon-tastic, anyway?