Why online "Kitchen Nightmares"-style restaurant drama is so engrossing

A feud over the condition of a restaurant kitchen spills past its local borders. Why do outsiders care?

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Published August 10, 2019 11:00AM (EDT)


Following her first — and final — dinner service at Nue, a global street food restaurant in Seattle, Quinndolyn Harley posted two photos on Twitter. One she said showed meat defrosting in a mop sink, the other dirty knives hung in the kitchen prep area to be used again. 

In a now-private tweet posted on Aug. 7, Harley described other conditions she says she witnessed in her brief time at Nue: raw chicken being cut and prepped in the dish area, sauté pans put back on the line without being cleaned between uses. 

Initially, the tweet just circulated among locals, as users began tagging other kitchen staff in the city, as well as local media like Eater Seattle and The Seattle Times. But then, restaurant workers and civilians alike from across the country began to weigh in on Harley's photos. "Never been there, but as a retired cook, this leaves me fuming," one Twitter user said. People tried to get the hashtag #MopMeat to trend. "It puts the lotion on its skin or it goes in the #mopmeat sink again."  When the tweet was last public, it had nearly 250 retweets — not exactly Earth-shaking virality, but notable for a work-related post by a user with fewer than 1,000 followers. 

Salon reached out to both Harley and Nue co-owner Chris Cvetkovich about the photos. Their respective versions of the night’s events differ, with some overlap. 

Cvetkovich says that Harley showed up 30 minutes late for her first day of work as a sous chef, and that from the start it wasn’t a good fit. 

“And her attitude was just kind of poor,” Cvetkovich said in a call with Salon. “And our executive chef, he called me first and said, ‘Hey, she's just not working out — do you mind if I fire her? She's making some really, some really bad comments about the way we the way we cook our food here.” 

He continued: “And so he took it outside and explained, and she just got just irate. And then she came back inside and she starts taking pictures of everything in the restaurant. Next thing I know, she's posting things which are untrue.” 

According to Harley, she did show up late (“I had some issues with my dryer, and told them an hour and a half earlier that I’d be running late”) but immediately jumped into prep work. 

“They put me on the hotline, and I kind of immediately noticed the issue with dirty knives being hung up on the mag strip,” Harley said in a phone call. She says she took a photo so she could have a conversation post-service with the executive chef and owners. “Because it seemed weird to me that in an open kitchen where, you know, customers can just look in and see that.” 

According to Harley, she kept working after taking the photo and eventually took over the line.  

“And on a hotline, generally, you'll have like a bus tub, somewhere to put your used pans so you can take them back to the dishwasher,” Harley said. 

She says she was told the Nue kitchen didn’t do that, but instead they take the scalding pans and dip them in water as a way to steam off the bacteria. “So that was really concerning to me, but at that point, I was still kind of biting my tongue,” Harley said. “I decided that mid-service maybe isn't the time [to bring that up].” 

Then, she says, she saw the dishwasher prepping raw kitchen on a cutting board in the clean-dish area. “And that was just like massive red flags to me that because every single dish there is now contaminated, potentially, with salmonella,” Harley said.

According to Harley, the moment she had enough was seeing bagged lamb meat thawing in a bucket in the mop sink. She texted the owners that she had some serious concerns about food safety. At that point, her account of the evening and Cvetkovich’s converge: The executive chef took Harley outside and fired her. 

Shaken by the evening and, she says, disgusted by the conditions she’d seen, Harley composed her tweet. She only has 773 followers, and has since made her account private, but she made sure to tag some specific people — a few celebrity chefs and the Seattle & King County Health Department — when she initially posted her thoughts on Nue.

Cvetkovich used the Nue twitter account to respond: “Tonight was Quinndolyn's first shift and she showed up 30min late.  She was very critical of us and our staff, despite that we have Excellent Health rating and great reviews. We decided she was not a good fit for Nue. She then threatened us  and made a scene with our customers.”

That also fanned the flames of Harley's rapidly-spreading tweet. 

“I hate it when someone shows up late, causing my raw chicken to hurl itself onto the dishwasher,” one twitter user responded. Another said: “Thanks for both confirming that these pictures were taken in your kitchen and that you fired her in retaliation for raising concerns about your restaurant’s health&safety conduct”

James Beard Award-winning food writer and chef J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, who's also chief culinary consultant at Serious Eats, pushed back at Nue's response. 

"I don’t know who runs your social media, but I hope you understand this tweet confirms that A) this nasty stuff is definitely going on in your kitchen and more importantly B) you are literally saying you fired an employee for being critical of your health/safety practices," he tweeted. "Think."

Cvetkovich doesn’t deny that Harley's photos were taken in his kitchen, but he says he feels like they may have been staged. 

“The knives — I wasn't here when the picture was taken,” he said. “But at the end of the day, we don't keep our knives like that. So I don't know. I hate to say, but she might have put a knife back up, she might have.” 

As for the lamb meat in the mop sink, Cvetkovich points out that it was in a vacuum-sealed bag in a separate container, “so if it was placed in that sink, it would have been for about three minutes, as it was getting transferred to another container in the walk-in.” 

Nue has an open kitchen, Cvetkovich said again; guests can see with their own eyes what’s going on with their food. And in the five years Nue has been open, it’s had a spotless rating from the health department. According to the King County Health Department’s website, Nue is currently rated as “excellent,” based on the “average of high risk violations from the last 4 routine inspections.” 

I asked Harley how she explains the disparity between what she says she saw during her shift and what health inspectors have reported. 

“Several restaurants I’ve worked at for the past four years have said, ‘OK, health inspector is coming this month, make sure it's clean for this like two to three week period,” Harley said. “‘Make sure we don't get shut down,’ and then they just returned to their lax practices.” 

* * *

In September 2007, “Kitchen Nightmares” premiered. The now oft-parodied show followed shouty British chef and restaurateur Gordon Ramsey as he went into failing restaurants and attempted to help owners get things running smoothly again. 

One one of the earliest episodes, Ramsey finds unmitigated filth in a kitchen: a fly trap nearly black with bugs wriggling to escape the sticky paper, rat droppings in and under basement cold storage, refrigeration infested with cockroaches. 

“It’s green!” Ramsey says of a moldy pre-prepared hamburger patty. “And look at the color of these chicken wings.” 

In a dramatic turn, Ramsey announces dinner service is cancelled before the kitchen kills someone; that night, he returns wearing an exterminator suit, flanked by an army of professional cleaners. 

Clips showing the filth in the kitchen still shock viewers today. A bootlegged YouTube video of the episode has nearly 83,000 views; the comments section is saturated with disgust and satisfaction. “Imagine being one of the customers hearing all about the rotten food in the back!” and “My fav part of kitchen nightmares are the pathetic looks of utter shame when their dirty nasty secrets are exposed by Gordon lol.” 

Several shows since have debuted with different spins on the restaurant-rehab format, like Food Network’s “Restaurant Impossible” and Paramount’s “Bar Rescue." In 2012, Food Network aired a short-lived show called “Health Inspectors.” All of these shows allow the audience to follow along as the hosts reveal, to varying degrees, unsatisfactory or even unsanitary kitchen conditions and practices. 

The enduring nature of this restaurant reality TV trope reminds me of "Queer Eye" food expert Antoni Porowski’s penchant for smelling the worst and weirdest things in participants’ fridges; he knows it’s gross, but can’t seem to help himself. A pure morbid fascination, of sorts. Is that me in a way as well, replaying that gross kitchen clip one more time?  

But there might also be something more innate at play here, something that explains the “Kitchen Nightmares” appeal; that explains why, when health department restaurant reports are posted, people love to click; that explains why people across the country were sharing a tweet about a restaurant where many have never and will never dine, let alone care who's working in the kitchen. 

Our lives are built on a series of basic social contracts. Some of these are as explicit as laws and some are more implicit actions, masked as politeness — if a parking space opens up in a crowded lot, for example, it’s typically given to the car that arrived in the row first. While it’s sometimes advisable and necessary to push back against them, most of these contracts provide a valuable framework for day-to-day harmony. 

One basic social contract is that when you are served a meal in a restaurant, there’s a certain assurance that it’s coming from a kitchen that you can trust to the degree indicated by the health rating framed and posted near the entrance (a relatively new requirement, that started being rolled out from city to city in the mid-2000s). When that contract is understood to be broken — potential health consequences aside — a sense of betrayal, or at the very least breach of trust, can follow. 

Restaurants can be written up for things many home cooks do, of course: improperly reheating leftovers, a pair of flies in the vicinity, employees drinking from cups that need a lid and straw or cap, a spatula in disrepair. As such, persnickety health inspectors have been portrayed as the antagonists in films and TV ranging from “Ratatouille” to “Bob’s Burgers,” while viewers cheer for a kitchen full of rat-chefs or Tina, the “rashy fry-cook.” That's cartoon-world, though. In real life, restaurant patrons recoil when a kitchen they presume to be clean — which is to say, nearly all of them — is revealed, whether on TV or social media, to be a mess. 

        * * *

I reached out to just over a dozen chefs to ask what they thought of the Nue drama. Most didn’t want their names used, but the overwhelming majority saw the situation as more complicated than a single post suggests. This isn’t the first time a terminated employee has taken to social media to complain about the conditions of a former workplace, after all. 

Andy Myers, executive chef at gralehaus and Holy Grale in Louisville, Kentucky, said in an email that public shaming like that is a double-edged sword. 

“On one hand, if someone is being really irresponsible with how food is handled, I think they should be called out for it,” Myers wrote. “But there are points where a disgruntled employee can also use the voice they have on the internet to spin misinformation to lead to conclusions that aren’t true.” 

In an age of Yelp reviews and social media pile-on, where tweets like Harley’s can spread like wildfire, one bad night or one photo of a seemingly dirty kitchen can cause a restaurant’s reputation to collapse. 

I asked Harley how she weighed the consideration that her tweet could cripple Nue with her belief that the public deserved to know about the alleged conditions. 

“It's my opinion that if a chef has lost the love of their craft to the point that they'll let their kitchen get that disgusting,” she said. “To let their kitchen get to a point where if an inspector came in, they would shut it down, they don't really deserve to be in business.” 

"Kitchen Nightmares" feature storylines set in actual establishments, but crafted into a dramatic and entertaining show. The goal is to end on catharsis with an uplifting redemption. But there's reality TV and there's reality, which proprietors know all too well.

“We’ve been doing this for five, almost six, years and you can be ruined in 15 minutes,” Cvetkovich said. 

Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's deputy food editor.

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