The morning after
A ‘Catch 22’ in Kingston Cafe’s ‘Kitchen Nightmares’
By Dan O'Heron 06/02/2011
As featured in a recent TV episode of Gordon Ramsay’s “Kitchen Nightmares,” Kingston Café rips some pages from Joseph Heller’s classic novel “Catch 22.”
In the bitterly funny masterpiece, Army Air Force mess officer and dedicated entrepreneur Lt. Milo Minderbinder pays the Germans to bomb his own unit and gets bonuses from the enemy for extra services, because it’s “good for business.”
Through the arrangement, Minderbinder is able to requisition more medical supplies from headquarters, sell unneeded parachute silk to ladies of the evenings and, with Deutsche marks, import chocolate from Switzerland. The upshot: chocolate and cotton become bestsellers among American troops and their dates.
Earlier this year, Keone Chong, managing partner and son of Kingston Cafe owner Dr. Una Morris, called in “Kitchen Nightmares” for an intense Ramsay bombardment, which resulted in culinary movements that are still rippling today — six weeks after the show aired.
“Business here was slow and I thought it would be good for our business to listen to Ramsay, whose fine restaurants around the globe have been awarded 12 Michelin stars,” Chong told the Weekly.
The upshot of this “bombs without bangs” intrusion: “I didn’t like it at all,” said Morris, whose traditional Jamaican and Caribbean recipes had always ruled the kitchen. “But I figured that any advertising is good advertising, and I went along with it. I’m still proud of my son and hope he’ll be proud of me — when he comes back.”
Comes back? Morris has cleaned house. Apparently, members of her staff did not need much coaxing from Ramsay to lash out at their boss on TV. Disappointed by the dished dirt in her surroundings, Morris made a clean sweep. She fired her chef — “Ramsay recommend it, but I was planning to do it anyway,” she said— and several waitresses and a greeter/manager.
Morris’ son, Keone, who has moved on to operate his own company and resume studies at a university, told the Weekly “I really believe that Ramsay wants the best for restaurants he goes after.”
After talking with Chong and others, I got the feeling that it was only an accident that Ramsay endangered some of the people his program was designed to help. Some changes were initiated before Ramsay’s forces besieged the restaurant. Some were not.
Morris’ medical offices, located in an adjoining structure, had a big “radiology” sign posted over its doorway. “I got my mother to remove the sign,” said Chong.
“We wouldn’t want people to think that I glowed in the dark,” said Morris.
While a smaller sign with hardly a trace of medical references took its place, the new one still seemed to inspire many of Ramsay’s barbed comments on TV, to wit:
“Is there a doctor in the house?”
“Disgusting, bland, dry food that comes in a bag like in a hospital.”
“The kitchen needs surgery. Call the doctor.”
Morris, who is highly esteemed in her own country as an Olympic track and field sprinter in the 1964, 1968 and 1972 Olympic Games, acknowledged, “I’m a very prideful person. I was devastated. I’d never had anyone talk to me like that. I tried to explain to Ramsay that authentic Jamaican cooking often requires long marination, ergo, food in bags.”
After spending several days in the company of Ramsay while he was preparing the show, Morris said she got used to the idea that he doesn’t nibble at the edges when he talks about food. After awhile, she grudgingly implemented many of his suggestions. These included cutting down on the number of menu items, which Ramsay said “needed an office filing cabinet to maintain,” and placing two mesquite barbecue units visible to patio dining room patrons.
“I still do traditional Jamaican grill and bake, like with jerk wings,” she said. “Customers demand it.” But the barbecue meats are going over big, as is corn on the cob and a new Ramsay skirt steak recipe.
Morris said Ramsay convinced her to pull down the “Caribbean Smiley” artwork from the walls and to toss out the table cloths that had been concealing beautiful colonial woods.
Beyond Ramsay’s swagger and histrionics, Morris concedes that he’s a pretty good guy. “Near the end of the show, when Ramsay said to me, ‘Dr. Morris, this may be the first time in your life that you’ve needed help, and I’m here for you,’ our hug came naturally.”
So, six weeks later, how are things going?
Morris wasn’t available for comment. But I happened to run into her son the other day while he was visiting the restaurant. “The numbers are up,” he said, without a trace of vindication in his voice.
A somewhat darkly comic note that defines the meaning of “Catch-22” is that “insane people are really the sanest.” Sales of Kingston Café T-shirts are not just up, but booming. Inscribed with a worthless blessing, “Best Jerk in Pasadena,” they denote an eager acceptance of life’s vicissitudes, much like those T-shirts that read “Shit Happens.”
333 S. Fair Oaks Ave.| Pasadena
(626) 405-8080 | kingstoncafe.com
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