Camera crew behind him, Gordon braced himself for what was to come. The day was grey: with thick, low hanging, dull clouds trapping him in the globe. The paths beneath him once looked to be black but now were worn out, dulled. Even the restaurant looked as lifeless as a cadaver that had been frozen for days and days and days and days…
The building was red, or it had been at some point. Its brick exterior was clearly bright red once but the wind and the rain hitting it for the many years it had been there had subdued the colour. Wide windows coated the walls and in the middle of the building front were wooden double doors, not particularly grand or interesting. There were no posters on the walls or the windows, no signage, nothing especially engaging. Gordon turned to his crew.
“Well,” he said to the camera, shaking and gesturing with his hands with every syllable. “Let’s see if the food is as boring as the building.”
Season six of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares was well underway and, as usual, he had met his share of crazy restaurant owners, volatile cooks and entitled wait staff. It was making for a brilliant, entertaining season and Gordon was hoping for a climactic finale here, where in which he investigates and eventually fixes Heaven’s Little Slice, a little diner in New York City. Akin to the rest of the bad restaurants he had been to, he had heard terrible reports of bland, cold food and a mean owner behind it all. Pretty standard, at this point. He let his camera man and another crew member walk in in front of him as to get a shot of him entering and seeing the place for the first time.
Inside, it looked like a standard diner: a long bar cutting through half of the room longways, separating the kitchen and the seating area; stools in front of the bar and big booths with leather seats next to the windows. The main difference between Heavens Little Slice and a regular diner was that this one was completely grey. Whereas the usual diner was decorated in bright blues or reds and those creamy colours that shone when the sun streamed through the windows, this place was completely monochrome. The bar was a dazzling white; it looked like it had never been used, eaten on, cooked on, anything. Seats and stools were silver, tables were black, shining, reflective black. It caught Gordon off guard. He wasn’t expecting this colour scheme. It was actually…rather stylish.
Smiling and peppy, a waitress immediately accosted Gordon the second he was firmly inside the diner with his crew. He had barely enough time to examine the customers in the restaurant. He saw that nearly every booth was full, four customers apiece, and the seats at the diner bar were all taken as well. A couple of customers eating together turned to look at Gordon when he entered. They looked vaguely familiar to him, but he couldn’t place it.
Gordon, a little caught off guard by the waitress’ attentiveness and the customer’s familiarity, half-heartedly greeted the woman. She raised her eyebrows and examined him more deeply. He fixed his composure, shook off the funk, and grinned at the young, black haired girl. “Hello, love,” he said. She still looked a little confused but returned the smile.
“Gordon Ramsay?” She said in an accent which surprised him: British. English. From London perhaps? In a classic New York diner he wasn’t expecting to encounter any other Brits. “We’ve been waiting for you,” she added, ushering him inside and to a booth.
“Oh,” he started to trail behind her, casting a glance behind him to his camera man. “Lovely, thank you.”
At his booth, she laid a menu before him, still grinning. “Welcome to Heaven’s Little Slice, Mr Ramsay,” she smiled.
“Thank you very much…is the owner about?” Gordon asked.
She nodded curtly. “He is! But he would like to talk to you after you’ve had your meal. Is that alright?”
He considered it for a moment, not taking his eyes off the waitress’ beaming face. Now that he really looked at her, she too seemed recognisable. He could have sworn that he knew her from somewhere. He had seen the long, long hair, tied back and big before, and he had definitely seen the thick eyeliner; the bold cat eye. He just couldn’t place his finger on it. Frustrated from not seeing connection, he thought back to her question. Could he meet the owner after his meal? A little off routine for him but not much about this episode seemed completely regular so far. He glanced to his crew. They nodded. “Of course my love, that’s fine,” he told her.
“Great!” She said. “I’ll give you a few minutes to look over your menu. If you have any questions give me a shout, my name’s Amy. Can I get you a drink for now?”
He swallowed hard. “Just water please darling, thank you,” and she was off. He turned his attention to his approaching camera man. “It’s not so often we come to a restaurant for Kitchen Nightmares that is so…busy, so thriving. Heaven’s Little Slice is nearly full and everyone seems to be very contented. I’ve not met the owner but I’m wondering what tricks they’ve got up their sleeves… thank you my love,” he said when Amy returned with his water. She smiled and ducked back away. He sipped the crisp, fresh icy spring water. It was lovely, and Amy had brought it back to him very quickly. To boot, she was lovely. Smiley and polite.
With the place so full and the waitress so lovely, Gordon was really beginning to rattle his brain, wondering why he was here. He continued to look around, but between people being hidden away in their booths and others facing away from him at the bar, he saw no more faces he could make out, or even comment on. He couldn’t tell what anyone was talking about, whether they hated or loved the food or thought it was just alright. Gordon glanced over the menu, describing what he saw to his crew, describing his thoughts. “Not the most elaborate… original menu for a diner but it’s got some exciting things and, if done right, it could be a pretty good menu. Guess we’ll have to wait and see.”
It seemed as though the second he had mentally decided what he was ordering, Amy was back at his side, notepad in hand, untucking her pen from behind her ear. “What do you fancy?”
“I think to start I’ll have your Fiery Mac Balls, and I’ll try your Tripled up Quesadilla. Then I’ll go for Halfsies and Halfsies Cheeseburger, with a side of your Ultra Loaded Fries. To finish I’ll go for the Red as the Devil Velvet Cake.”
With an enthusiastic grin, Amy flipped her notepad closed and re-deposited her pen back behind her ear. “Those are some great choices, Mr Ramsay. I’ll get that order to the kitchen for you right away.”
He muttered a thanks but it didn’t matter: she was gone once again, in an instant.
Gordon fiddled his thumbs and had idle chatter with his crew. Not much was going on so one camera was shut off. The other camera man listlessly wandered the restaurant, filming fixtures and the customers that let him. Gordon and his crew were in agreement: they couldn’t figure out why they were there. It was a mystery, along with the owner. His absence left a question mark. Was he the real reason why they were there? Had his staff summoned Gordon because the owner was a braggart and an asshole? Or had the owner himself summoned the crew and hid, just so he could emerge after Gordon had eaten to truly bask in the glory of owning a seemingly amazing restaurant? Ideas and notions swam through the mind of Gordon, and the minds of his crew.
But before their ideas could reach conspiracy theory levels of outlandishness, Amy was back with Gordon’s starters. He thanked her again and when she asked if he needed anything else, he simply requested more water. She brought it right away.
The food before him was presented immaculately, he remarked to his camera. Plated in front of him were the Fiery Mac Balls and the Tripled up Quesadilla. He split the first fried macaroni ball in half with a knife and under its dark, crumbly exterior lived bright, and creamy macaroni and cheese, dotted with little red flecks of chilli and cayenne. “Well, it certainly looks exciting. Looks lovely, in fact.” Gordon told the camera, cutting a chunk from the halved ball. He slipped it into his mouth and immediately melted, just like the cheese in his mouth. “Wow,” he gasped. “Wow,” he said again. “That is really good. Really good, yeah,” he chewed and savoured all the flavours in his mouth. He felt heat but it didn’t overpower him. It didn’t diminish the creaminess of the cheese sauce. The pasta was cooked perfectly, beyond perfectly. “Wow.”
He could have finished the plate but he knew he still had a main, a side, a desert and another starter to save room for. He took another small bite of the mac and cheese ball before he moved the plate away, bringing forth his quesadilla.
Two halved pieces of a quesadilla, one lying delicately on top of the other, under a light blanket of parsley and coriander. Cheese eked softly out of the tortilla, which was golden brown and crisp to the touch. He smelled bacon, smoky bacon, and felt his stomach rumble for it. He picked the quesadilla up, gently, and bit into it. The three cheeses present made their presences aware instantly. There was Monterey Jack, sharp cheddar and… Anejo? Interesting. Delicious. Along with the smoky bacon present, and the light, crisp tortilla around it, it made for a charming cocktail of twists, if not a little basic. He found himself absent-mindedly picking at his starters while he waited for his main.
Minutes, just a couple, after Amy had collected Gordon’s starters, she was back again with his burger and loaded fries. As she spun round and walked off, Gordon met the gaze of a man with tired pale blue eyes and long dirty blonde hair. One of the men he had seen when he walked in. Gordon gave a curt nod and wry smile and turned to his plate, unable to place a name to the face.
Gordon’s burger was… magnificent. On par with what he might serve himself at his own restaurant, he thought. He gave himself to the bite as the bread and the meat and lettuce fell to succulent little bits in his mouth. “Wow,” he was saying again. He couldn’t stop. “Wow.” He had taken three large bites of his burger, eyes closed, serenely giving himself completely to this experience, when a crew member cleared his throat. When Gordon returned to reality, his companion was gesturing at his loaded fries. “Oh yeah, of course,” he nodded, setting the burger down delicately and picking up his fork.
The fries were drenched in cheese sauce, bacon, chives and other bits and pieces, but still the fries themselves were crispy and light under all the toppings. “Aw, they’re amazing,” Gordon said. He took another fuller forkful into his mouth. “Oh yes.” It was even harder not to finish his main than it was the starters, but reluctantly he set the plates aside, ready for desert.
“Fresh made this morning, Mr Ramsay,” Amy sang, bringing over a heaping slice of red velvet cake, placed pristinely, exquisitely on the plate along with some whipped cream, topped with dried raspberries.
“Lovely, sweetheart,” he said but that was not even then beginning. He wasn’t melting before when he tried that macaroni ball; he was melting now. He felt himself truly turning to a puddle in his booth. He felt himself spill to the floor and into the main area of the diner, expanding out and out and becoming ethereal. “Woooooow,” he cooed.
With the cake marking the end of his meal, he cleared the plate completely, wowing along the whole time. He first scraped up crumbs with his fork and when they wouldn’t completely yield to the utensil, he collected spare crumbs with his finger, licking it clean. The plate was spotless by the time he was done.
He shifted his plate out the way and heard the clicks of a lighter, then smelled smoke. He looked up to where the man with the pale blue eyes was sitting at the bar. From this angle he could see the cigarette sticking out of his mouth and the smoke lingering above him. Gordon, offended, looked to his crew. “He shouldn’t be smoking, surely.” They all nodded enthusiastically in agreement. Before Gordon could call to the man, Amy was back.
“Amy,” he gasped as he spotted her making her way back to him. “Amy, I don’t understand why I’m here. I see a full restaurant, full of happy customers, the place is rather stylish and I’ve just had nothing short of an absolutely amazing meal. Why am I here?”
She smiled knowingly, confidently. She picked up his plate and said, “Why don’t you come and meet the boss, Mr Ramsay?”
He glanced at his crew and got up. He followed Amy and his crew followed him.
They strolled through the pristine kitchen. It was a thing of beauty. Organised. Sparkling. Efficient. He would have loved to stay and examine the room further but he was too curious about the owner now. He soldiered on, following Amy still to the back office.
Behind a grand mahogany desk sat a bearded man. The room was completely white with some fine paintings dotted around the room. No newspaper clippings documenting achievements, no photographs of himself and with any famous patrons, of the restaurant on opening days. This was getting weirder and weirder with every passing moment.
“Mr Ramsay,” the owner greeted him, standing up and reaching over the desk to shake Gordon’s hand.
“Hello, thank you for having me,” Gordon said. “Sir, I just have to tell you. I don’t know why I’m here. I just had an amazing meal in a stylish restaurant full of people enjoying their food; I just walked through a beautiful and extremely well run kitchen. I honestly don’t have a clue what I’m doing here… I’m so sorry; I haven’t even asked your name.”
The owner, now back in his chair, leaned back, and let out a chuckle. “Gordon… I’m God.”
It took a few seconds for Gordon to process what was just said, but when he had processed it, he let out a breathy chortle. “What?” Is this why he was here? The owner was a complete nutcase?
“I’m God, Gordon. And I’m afraid you’re in Purgatory’s Kitchen.”
Gordon looked round at his crew who stood, mouths agape, glancing back at Gordon and at each other. Amy stood in the doorway, arms crossed, looking into the room, her shoulders shuddering slightly as though she were laughing at a joke only she understood. Gordon turned his attention back to the owner.
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand…” was all Gordon could say.
From a desk drawer, the owner took a tablet, pressed a couple of buttons on the screen and turned the device back to Gordon and his crew. “Look,” he said.
On the screen was live news footage. There’s been a crash. A terrible crash. On some motorway back in the UK, one driver suddenly broke. The van behind that car crashed horribly into the first, and the car behind the van was basically inside the van. Rolling details below the video revealed that two people had died and the five people were in critical conditions, fighting for their lives. Gordon’s crew hovered above and behind him, leaning in to see what was being shown. Gordon himself leaned in, screwed up his eyes and focussed on the van. He recognized it.
It was his van.
He remembered getting into it that morning but not boarding a plane to New York, he just remembered arriving outside Heaven’s Little Slice.
The screen changed drastically. Gordon was then looking at his own face. Underneath: “CONFIRMED: CHEF GORDON RAMSAY IN CRITICAL CONDITION”
“What is this?” Gordon tried to demand, tried to yell, but the gusto wouldn’t come. He felt weak. He was shaking.
“I’m afraid you got into quite the accident this morning,” the owner, God, said, addressing Gordon and his crew. “You’re fighting through it though. You’ll survive. You all will.”
“But why are we here?” Gordon pled. “Why purgatory?”
God smiled. “I was hoping you’d ask,” he said, turning his tablet off and placing it back in its drawer. “Gordon, you’re doing some great work on earth. You’re training people to be great chefs like yourself; you’re turning failing restaurants around, fixing people’s lives. You’re giving people back the purposes they thought they had lost, or were about to really lose.” He chortled, jolly. “Good food is a great thing. It makes people happy: it brings them together, unites them, and comforts them. You share great food and it does wonders to many around the globe.”
Gordon felt flattered, but sensed a caveat. “…But…?”
“But you’re a right arse about it,” God said shortly.
“You swear. You name call. You yell. You make people feel bad and put some of their worst moments on television for the whole world to see. It’s not nice at all. You can be a dick,” God continued.
Gordon was lost for words. He reached his hands to his head and ran them through his hair before gripping onto his blonde locks from the roots. He felt as though he was going to lose his mind. “I don’t understand,” he said.
“Gordon, what I’m telling you is that you’re doing some great things on the mortal plane but you’re going about them the wrong way, which is why you’re not in heaven or hell, but rather between the realms here. If you keep helping people then I’ll happily grant you access to heaven when your time really comes, but if you keep this mean shit up I will send you straight to hell, so help me.”
Well, this was going to be a problem. Gordon’s image was swearing and yelling, playing the bad cop to get the good results. Fixing restaurants but being a bit nasty about it came hand in hand to him. It was how he operated. It was how he functioned.
“What happens if I don’t pick either way?” Gordon asked meekly.
God answered immediately. “You can come back here, to purgatory. But there won’t be a nice restaurant. It’ll just be grey emptiness. You can wander around for eternities on eternities, entertaining yourself. Alone.”
“Well I don’t like the sound of that.”
“Not a lot of people do.”
Gordon held his head in his hands, eyes screwed tight shut, shifting his weight from one foot to another. “I suppose… I’ll try to play nicer then,” he heard himself saying.
He heard God rise to his feet; his wheeled chair pushed back against the marble floor. “Great to hear that!” he said. Gordon, still hiding behind his hands, felt God pat his back. When Gordon uncovered himself, he found God towering above him. He certainly was tall. “Now, I’ve got some people very anxious to meet you. Like your waitress.”
Gordon glanced to Amy, still by the door, now grinning. “I’m sorry?” he said, turning his attention back to God.
“Haven’t you wondered why some people have seemed so familiar?” God asked. “We’ve still got television up in heaven, and I’ve got some of your biggest fans here to say hello.”
Gordon fixed his eyes on Amy. The black hair, pale skin, he thought on the London accent, the sing song voice. “You’re not…” Gordon began.
“Amy Winehouse,” God introduced her as she stepped forward.
“I love Hell’s Kitchen,” she said.
Gordon felt as though he might have fainted. “Thank you,” he gasped.
“And we’ve got a Kurt Cobain out here very anxious to meet you as well,” God said, leading Gordon out of his office. The kitchen seemed much less impressive now, knowing that it was God’s own creation.
Gordon spent some time out in the diner, talking with passed celebrities and regular folk alike. He couldn’t believe it. Dead people, telling him how much they enjoyed his shows, his work. Some of the more recent dead complimented his food from when they had the pleasure to eat at his restaurants. Gordon even met some people he himself held in high estimation: singers he admired, actors he’d appreciated; even some other chefs that had influenced him.
If he hadn’t so definitely tasted the food he had eaten in his mouth, if he didn’t still feel God’s hand on his shoulder, if he didn’t feel realer than he ever had, he would have convinced himself that this was all a dream. But he tasted the food. He felt God’s hand and he felt so real. This was no dream. He knew it was all true: that he was lying on some hospital bed somewhere probably surrounded by worried family waiting for him to wake up. After a while of socialising with his fan base of the dead, he couldn’t stop thinking of his family, praying for his health. He whispered to his crew and they all nodded with him. They approached God alone.
“I think it’s time for us to go home,” Gordon said.
God nodded solemnly. “It is. Have you thought about what I told you?”
Gordon nodded, giving God as genuine a smile as he could muster. “I’ll do my best, I promise.”
God placed his hands on the shoulders of Gordon’s and another crew member, and a bowed his head.
The crew and Gordon found themselves closing their own eyes, looking down and connecting, holding each other’s shoulders. They concentrated. They weren’t even sure on what they were concentrating, but they were.
When Gordon woke up, it was as he expected: his wife, his children, a few friends were surrounding him. When his eyes fluttered open, his wife immediately went to him, crying with glee.