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21CF Chats: ‘Gordon Ramsay’s 24 Hours to Hell and Back’ exec producer Spike Van Briesen

EP for Gordon Ramsay’s new FOX show talks restaurant selection, quick turnaround times, common fixes

“I am incredibly embarrassed, mortified. Mostly I can’t even say because I’m totally humiliated,” blurted Dawn, the cook of The Old Coffeepot Restaurant in New Orleans, through a stream of tears moments after her staff and owner Dustin were shown hidden footage of their rodent-infested and disheveled restaurant (highlights of the reveal included a dead mouse inside the toaster!). The Cajun breakfast joint used to be known for one of the best southern breakfasts in the French Quarter, but recently business has gotten so that Dustin is losing $10K every month and they’re forced to freeze unused seafood and meats for extended periods of time.

Gordon Ramsay’s 24 Hours to Hell and Back” (Wednesdays at 9/8c on FOX) is Emmy-nominated celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay’s latest restaurant rehab sensation, nabbing a Season 2 renewal on FOX just after airing two episodes last month. At its core, the makeover series taps into the power of shame and our need for redemption – Gordon’s team rolls into each declining restaurant, including The Old Coffeepot, to help rescue each one from the brink of collapse, but not before the staff and owner are forced to face the hardcore truths their failures. I recently sat down with executive producer Spike Van Briesen to go the scenes of FOX’s most-watched summer debut in more than three years.

In ‘24 Hours,’ Gordon goes undercover along with the survey team in each failing restaurant to come up with the diagnosis. How the undercover idea come about?
It was a collaboration with Gordon, [President, Alternative Entertainment and Specials for FOX Broadcasting Company] Rob Wade and myself. We wanted to do something different than Gordon’s other shows, where he could get firsthand experience without making the restauranteurs, staff and customers aware of his presence. As the show states in its introduction, people have a tendency to “clean up their act” and behave differently when they know Gordon is there, something you can see evidence of in his other shows. With Gordon going undercover, we were able to show very raw footage and evidence of the flaws in the restaurants and how they were managed…and let’s face it, it’s a lot of fun to watch the surprise on everyone’s face when they realize it’s Gordon.

How are the restaurants selected? Do viewers send in suggestions?
Early in the conceit of the show, we realized that restaurants can live and die by Yelp reviews, whether the restaurant is new or old. Every customer now has the ability to essentially be a food critic and blogger and disseminate their opinion to the masses. Knowing that, our team would research restaurants that had seen a in their Yelp reviews over the past year. We would then look into the circumstances that may have led to this and determine which restaurants would the most from Gordon’s help. This was an especially interesting part of the prep process, because in order to maintain our show’s process, the producers had to develop these relationships and garner this information without ever revealing the true nature of our show, which ultimately was to introduce Gordon and allow him to bring the restaurant back to success.

Executive producer Spike Van Briesen

According to a CNBC article, approximately 60 percent of new restaurants go out of business within the first year and almost 80 percent fail within five years. what you’ve seen on the show, what are the top three reasons for this high rate of failure?
The restaurants that we help on the show all happen to be family-owned and long standing, except for Fetch Bistro, which was the newbie in this season. They all experienced success for some time before starting to decline in recent years. I can’t speak to what causes failure in a brand new restaurant in general, but the dynamics that I’ve observed on our show seemed inextricably linked to the fact that they were successful for a long time before starting to fail.

Something we saw a lot of in these failing restaurants was that many of the owners were unwilling or unable to see that what had brought them success initially may have become outdated; it’s time for a face-lift. Usually this meant reinventing the menu – we saw the chefs or owners holding on to certain aspects of the menu with a tight grip, fearful that updating it would endanger their success, rather than actually excite the clientele.

Another common occurrence was when personal tragedy amongst the staff and owners started to affect workplace dynamic in a way that trickled down to the customer. This was especially true in our case because the restaurants were all family-owned and, of course, family dynamics have their own drama. One of the major things we saw with the undercover surveillance footage was the totally oblivious behavior from the staff and owners that was often offensive and obnoxious to the customers.

One of the most important things for any restaurant is to be up to code (health, safety, cleanliness) and this requires a lot of work and attention to detail. The staff, chefs and owners of these restaurants had become complacent and lazy. Gordon demands and inspires perfection in his restaurants and inspires his employees to operate with the same goal of passion and personal excellence. We would see this contrast when he came in to the kitchen to assess the problems, and he would call them out on having lost the passion that they used to have. What is terrific with someone as passionate as Gordon is that he would motivate them to his own standards of excellence.

“24 Hours” is very much “Kitchen Nightmares” on a compressed timeline, from spending a week with the failing restaurant’s team on the former show down to a scant 24 hours (literally). How does your team work around the tight time frame?
It was even more complicated than simply compressing “Kitchen Nightmares.” Our restaurants were in dire straits and we felt needed this dramatic shock to the system in order to recover from their state of decline. We were covering the same, if not more in a 24-hour time period, and as unbelievable as it seems when watching the show, we truly turned it around in that short time.

The team I had was one of the best teams I have worked with in my professional career. The design teams were challenged to confront unique situations in each restaurant décor-wise, and the culinary team was tasked with not only creating new menus in such a short time but keeping true to the personality of each restaurant and teaching the restaurant staff how to execute the new menu. Gordon has a great ability to inspire people to rise to the occasion, including myself. The entire team wanted to genuinely help these restaurants. With that spirit, I can say that my team worked tirelessly, positively and ultimately, achieved incredible success under this seemingly impossible timeline.

Since the restaurants featured are nationwide, how far ahead do you have to plan each episode and make sure you can hit the ground running once Gordon and the survey team identifies the issues?
We started prep for the show months in advance and literally scouted most of the country to create our final list of the most appropriate restaurants that needed our help. Once our surveillance team had completed their job and we were able to identify the issues with each restaurant, the crunch time was less than a week to get Gordon and the entire production on point in order to successfully complete our job in this time frame.

How much planning can you do if you don’t know the specific problems until the survey team goes in?
Truthfully, very little. We had to be able to pivot and think on our feet quite a bit. We had a general sense of the personal stories and dynamics through the conversations the producers had in advance, but the majority of what Gordon, the design team and the culinary team are reacting to and helping with is being discovered in real time on the show.

What are some of the most common fixes recommended by your team?
To be honest, everything. For most of the restaurants we did a full renovation of the interior décor; updated and did a thorough cleaning of the kitchens; brought in new equipment (cookware, dishware, appliances); updated their POS systems; and, where Gordon really shines, trained their staff to be professional and inspired them to stay passionate in their craft.

With the original UK version of Gordon’s “Kitchen Nightmares,” he went back to those restaurants a year later to see how they were doing, which gave us the pseudo-sequel, “Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares Revisited.” Are there plans to do the same with “24 Hours”?
I have a sneaking suspicion that some of the restaurants we visited would not only appreciate another visit from Gordon – but may really need it.

Gordon Ramsay’s 24 Hours to Hell and Back” airs Wednesdays at 9/8c on FOX

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