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Commentaryby Fern Shen11:16 pmNov 7, 20110

Gordon Ramsay gives Denise Whiting a nightmare

Reality show chef comes to Baltimore’s Cafe Hon

Above: What are the chances chef Gordon Ramsay will be as nice to Denise Whiting on the show as he was at Monday’s news conference?

Who would have guessed today – listening to the forgiveness and praise that Gordon Ramsay lavished on Café Hon owner Denise Whiting – that he was the famously foul-mouthed, fit-throwing celebrity chef from across the pond who sprinkles f-bombs like pepper flakes in pretty much every episode of his popular reality TV show Kitchen Nightmares?

“A miscalculation, that’s what it was,” Ramsay said soothingly, standing by Whiting’s side at the restaurant as she announced that she is relinquishing her trademark of the word “Hon,” the beloved Baltimore term of endearment whose legal expropriation by Whiting came to light a year ago and caused an uproar.

“It’s not as if Denise was cashing in and making millions, far from it,” Ramsay said. “She realized she’d made a mistake. We’ve all done that.”

painting cafe hon

The Kitchen Nightmares crew painting Cafe Hon on Sunday night. (Photo by Louie Krauss)

But any fan of the show knows that Ramsay will surely exact something from Whiting in return for this free publicity, celebrity expiation and restaurant renovation. On Saturday, motorists driving through Hampden past the restaurant caught a sneak peek of it.

“Ramsay was in the bar area and you could see him waving his arms at her and going crazy, like he was really yelling at her,” said Gregory Krauss. “There was this camera crew filming them through the window, from outside on the sidewalk. I think that’s why the window wasn’t blocked off for few minutes.”

“Denise was just looking back at him like a guppy in front of a shark,” he said. “She didn’t seem to be saying anything.”

Bad Boss Slap-Down

Many in Baltimore were puzzled by the news that Ramsay’s producers had chosen Hon. A typical episode of Fox’s Kitchen Nightmares focuses on an ailing, roach-infested dump, where the food makes Ramsay literally gag (or sometimes vomit), the bank is about to foreclose, the staff is bickering and the customers have fled.

Whiting’s 19-year-old schtick-eteria doesn’t seem to be that place. It’s generally busy. Their casual comfort food can be occasionally shockingly bad (the chili cheese fries) or at times rather good (the cream of crab soup) but generally is just sort of okay. Some people even really like it.

“That limey bastard better not mess with the meatloaf!” said one fan we encountered recently, upon hearing that Ramsay was descending on them.

Cafe Hon owner and Honfest impressario Denise Whiting presenting the finalists for 2011

Cafe Hon owner presiding over 2011 Honfest. (Photo by Fern Shen)

The other standard trope in Kitchen Nightmares episodes, though, is the slapping down of bad bosses – chefs or owners who mismanage, micromanage and otherwise show themselves to be poor leaders. Ramsay especially likes Kurtz-like egomaniacal owners.

The salty Scotsman gets right in their faces and tell them what the knock-kneed staff can’t – that they are f___ing disasters and bloody idiots. By the end of the episode, these crusty restaurateurs have been simultaneously defanged (they’re nicer to the staff and their spouses) and empowered (they’ve whipped the front and back of the house into a well-oiled machine). Ramsay drives off into the sunset.

There were some hints, today in Hampden, as to how that narrative may play out in Whiting’s case.

Godzilla vs Mothra

Mary Bubala asked Ramsay if Whiting realized, before he came to advise her, that she’d made a mistake with her insistence on trademarking the word “hon.”

“Did you twist her arm?” asked WJZ’s Bubala.

“Not at all. What I was worried about was the level of upset and the level of negativity in the neighborhood. They felt so strongly against that trademark. So I pointed it out,” Ramsay said. (Ramsay’s idea of ‘pointing something out’ is what other people would describe as ‘reaming someone out.’) “But almost as soon as I arrived, she was ready to give that back.”

At another moment during the news conference, Ramsay turned to Whiting and said, “I think you shut down. When I first met you, I think it was a lady almost, somewhat in denial.” (Mmm mmm, that kind of owner is like a tender, juicy piece of Kobe beef to Ramsay!)

Only time will tell whether Whiting’s tearful mea culpa will help remake her current image as the Evita of Hampden. “I am sorry for the animosity and the hatred and everything that trademarking a word has done,” she said today. “Trademarking the word has not only almost killed me but has just about killed the business.”

Ramsay's crew has been working feverishly, in the shadow of the big pink flamingo. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Ramsay's crew has been working feverishly, in the shadow of the big pink flamingo. (Photo by Fern Shen)

It will be interesting to see, when the episode airs, how much abuse Whiting will have to endure. Will he slam the food or start deconstructing the kitsch? (Brew food writer Francine Halvorsen and I got to go to one night of the filming but the non-disclosure agreement they make you sign is even scarier than Ramsay, so our experience will have to wait until the episode comes out.)

Possibly he will just read from a stack of her bad press and opposition literature over the past two years – the flamingo sign controversy (in which she complained and got a break on the tax for the thing), the trademarking controversy (in which she threatened others who used the term on products or events with legal action), the subsequent boycott, the cat’s eye glasses controversy, the controversy over her public support for a proposed nearby Walmart, the protests on The Avenue outside her restaurant, the fake Twitter account.

Locals might also want to watch and see how much of Ramsay’s celebrity redemption advice Whiting takes after he leaves. At today’s news conference, he had a harsh assessment of (and high-minded prescription for) Hometown Girl, Whiting’s Baltimore-themed memorabilia shop across the street from the restaurant.

“If that was my shop right now, that would be dedicated to the community and whatever I earn from there would go to a local charity, funding schools, funding education, funding private healthcare – something – because it’s not making money!” Ramsay said.

“Everyone needs to cash in on the success of the word ‘hon,’” he continued. “It’s not something to be exploited in a way that becomes greed.”

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