Gordon Ramsay filmed an episode of his popular restaurant makeover show Kitchen Nightmares in my neighborhood, at local Cuban restaurant Mojito, and I got on-set access.
Mojito Cuban Cuisine, Brooklyn
Back in May of 2009, Gordon Ramsay’s brought his popular restaurant makeover show to my Brooklyn neighborhood of Clinton Hill. He spend about a week filming an episode of Kitchen Nightmares at local restaurant Mojito Cuban Cuisine (referred to as “Mojito’s” by just about everybody in the episode).
It’s never a good sign for a restaurant to make it onto the show, and I felt glad that I had never eaten there before. I’ve seen plenty of Kitchen Nightmares episodes with rotting food and bug-covered kitchens, and I’d told myself more than once that if I ever found out I’d eaten at one of the Kitchen Nightmares restaurants, I would promptly make myself throw up just for good measure, no matter how long ago the meal had been.
But my love for getting onto live sets was apparently greater than my fear of food poisoning, because I managed to snag a reservation at struggling restaurant Mojito on one of the nights that Kitchen Nightmares was shooting, and convinced my husband to go with me. I signed lots of papers promising that I wouldn’t write about our experience until after the episode aired, which it did tonight! It’s one of my favorite shows, and this episode did not disappoint.
What filming a Kitchen Nightmares episode is like
If you ever get a chance to eat during the filming of a Kitchen Nightmares episode, you want to do it on the last night—after Chef Gordon Ramsay has worked his magic and brought the restaurant around.
We were definitely not there after the makeover. We were there on the first night, when Chef Ramsay just wanted to see how things worked with customers present (of course, nobody was paying for their food during filming, so technically we weren’t customers).
The food was really bad. But of course, we weren’t there for the food. We were there to see how the show got produced, maybe hear a few expletives straight from Ramsay’s mouth, and perhaps even get on TV.
We were seated at a table against the back wall of the restaurant, which gave me a good view of everything that was going on. It also gave my husband a great view of the back wall, and the giant boom mic that would occasionally hover over my head. I would know the mic was there because my husband and I would be talking about something personal (our kids, neighborhood gossip, work, etc.), and all of a sudden my husband would ask me how my food was, out of nowhere. That was the only way I knew we were on camera, since the cameras were zooming in on us from across the room.
The cameras actually got pretty close to us when I sent something back. Sending food back is something that I hardly ever do. I mean, the food has to be just downright inedible, or simply the wrong order, for me to send it back. I’m more likely to leave mad and never ever return.
But we had been told on the way in that if we didn’t like something, we should let a producer know. I let the producer know that my rice and beans were pretty gross (come on, how do you mess up rice and beans??), and the producer asked hopefully if I was going to send them back. In a real-life situation I probably would have just paid and left, but since this wasn’t real life, I sent the dish back.
The rest of the meal wasn’t great, but wasn’t worth sending back, either.
The whole time we were there, we didn’t hear any yelling, didn’t see any drama, didn’t get to watch Chef Ramsay foam at the mouth, and no staff members fled in tears. All in all, kind of a let down for a big fan of the show.
Chef Ramsay did wander through the dining area a couple of times, but never came to our table. This was his night to observe, to see how the staff and owners do on their own before getting his help. We would not get to witness even a single shouting match.
Incidentally, we did not end up in the episode, not even a glimpse. The people from that night who did end up on camera made a much bigger deal of how bad their food was.
According to the show, Mojito’s is the only Cuban bistro in Brooklyn (how is that possible?), and the episode opened with some nice shots of my neighborhood. (There are also lots of shots of the the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, even though Mojito’s is nowhere near either of those, but I guess that’s close enough for a non-New York City audience.)
The episode revolves around the relationship between Mojito’s owners: Marcelo, who is in charge of the kitchen, and his wife Katalina, who takes care of the front of the house. When they moved to Brooklyn seven years ago and started their restaurant, they were newlyweds and in love, living above the restaurant and pouring everything they had into Mojito.
But their dream of owning a restaurant really became the thing that drove them apart, and they started fighting all the time, in front of the staff, and even in front of customers.
They’ve put everything they have, $300,000, into the restaurant, and are in debt. And even though they still have to work together, Marcelo moved out a couple of years ago and got an apartment in Queens.
Chef Ramsay’s first impressions of Mojito
Before he even ate a bite of food, Chef Ramsay hated the restaurant’s decor, saying it looked like a garage sale gone wrong. The windows are almost completely blocked by rows and rows of glass bottles filled with blue water (according to Marcelo, it’s blue toilet cleaner!!), blocking out most of the natural light.
And things did not improve once he got his food: cold chicken soup, super-salty beans, and raw fish. Even though there were other customers in the restaurant besides Gordon Ramsay, Marcelo and Katalina screamed at each other in the kitchen. All in all, a disaster of a meal.
First dinner service
Chef Ramsay tries to stand back and observe a dinner service (the one my husband and I attended), and watches as dish after dish goes back. Marcelo is supposed to be expediting, but doesn’t seem to be doing much. To make things worse, the cook, Eduardo, doesn’t seem to know how to produce good food. The customers are not happy, and Katalina keeps going back into the kitchen to yell.
Chef Ramsay then goes to the basement to see what the restaurant’s food storage is like, and finds an outrageous amount of fresh produce, cooked chickens, rice, and other food that is playing a huge part in driving up the restaurant’s costs. Katalina puts the blame on Marcelo, who puts the blame on Eduardo.
Chef Ramsay broaches the subject of either Marcelo or Katalina leaving the business, since they just can’t seem to get along at all. But neither one wants to give up.
Chef Ramsay challenges Marcelo and Katalina to go into the kitchen and make a dish together with fresh ingredients, but they can’t agree on a dish, so they each make their own. Chef Ramsay likes Katalina’s dish better than Marcelo’s, and her great shrimp dish is put onto the menu as a special.
While Chef Ramsay works on another special dish with Eduardo, Katalina approaches Marcelo with an important question. Fresh off of her “win,” Katalina asks Marcelo if they can switch places for dinner service, and Marcelo reluctantly agrees, sure that she’s going to fail.
Initially, Katalina seems to take control of the kitchen, and things get off to a good start. The food going out to the dining room is good, and the front-of-house staff is happier without her there. Things seem promising.
The original menu, though, isn’t doing as well as Katalina’s shrimp dish and Gordon’s chicken dish. And eventually, things start to fall apart in the kitchen, and the kitchen staff gets further and further behind. Katalina starts to get confused, and things get even worse. But Katalina regroups and manages a strong finish, proving that she’s definitely better at running the kitchen than Marcelo.
The pep talk
Chef Ramsay tries to convince Marcelo and Katalina that if they can figure out a way to actually work together, they’ve got a shot at saving their restaurant. The couple hugs it out, and vows to try.
Meanwhile, the Kitchen Nightmares crew spends the night giving Mojito’s a bright makeover, with Cuban art, and lots of light. Ramsay also give the restaurant’s menu a complete makeover, replacing the cafeteria-type food with contemporary Cuban dishes that make better use of fresh ingredients. With a new look and a smaller menu, Mojito is ready for its first post-makeover dinner service.
For the relaunch, Chef Ramsay has Katalina and Marcelo working the front of the house together, so that Eduardo can run the kitchen in peace. But he doesn’t seem to know how. The orders are slow, and often completely wrong. Eduardo is not communicating with his staff, and is just shutting down.
Things are already pretty chaotic when Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz shows up, increasing the pressure. After Chef Ramsay pulls Eduardo downstairs for a talk, Marcelo takes some control of the kitchen back and, working well with both the staff and Katalina, gets things running smoothly again. For the first time in the episode, they both look hopeful and happy.
Between Chef Ramsay’s work and the owners’ promise to work together, the episode ends with things looking brighter for Mojito.
After Gordon’s visit, Katalina and Marcelo brought in new customers by using the popular Brooklyn Flea market to get the word out about the new and improved Mojito.
The new menu also helped get the restaurant’s finances under control. Marcelo was able to save $10,000 a month by ordering less produce.
Time will tell if Chef Ramsay’s help was long-lasting, or just temporary. It also remains to be seen if Katalina and Marcelo’s romantic relationship is rekindled, or they just stay business partners.
How to watch
If you want to watch this episode, its official title is “Mojito” and it’s episode four of the third season of Kitchen Nightmares. (Update: it’s available on Hulu, but is listed as episode four of the second season—Hulu appears to have combined the first two seasons as listed on Wikipedia into Kitchen Nightmares Season 1.)
Gordon Ramsay returned to Mojito’s a year later to see how Marcelo and Katalina were doing. You can see that update, plus more, here.