Ventriloquism: The Highest Form of Compliment?

LAST WEEK, I happened to catch an episode of Hell’s Kitchen, one of chef Gordon Ramsay’s many TV franchises. I hadn’t really been watching it too much this season figuring that one season, and that the very limit, two, was probably enough. You get the arc of this narrative pretty quickly.

It’s not a show where one thinks consciously about race — it’s simply its own little survival-of-the-fittest island — but last week more than a couple of the wanna-be exec. chef’s were liberally peppering their patter with their read on hip hop (read: black) argot.

The most uncomfortable voicing throughout has been Sabrina, a trash-talking, 20-something blond who frequently boasts about her “ghetto” this or that , or is wondering if “Diddy” is going to step out of the limo arriving for early seating at the Hell’s Kitchen restaurant.

It’s simply painful to both listen to and watch her. Horror show.

Check her out right about 2:25ish in this clip (and make sure to make it to 2:47):

Later, she sends out this riposte to Vinny, the last chef eliminated: “I took your black jacket, bee-yatch”

 

Then there’s Russell, who addresses everyone as “bro,” and recently referred to himself as a “grown-ass man” then turned and did a gangsta limp out of the room. Last week, he turned it up mid-episode to challenge the kitchen’s most nebbishy cook, Trev, to “come correct.”
 
Well, all right.
I began to fantasize that Jason Ellis or Nilka or better, Tennille (who had the temerity to get in Chef’s face — more than once and without hesitation) — were there to put her in her place. I wonder if she would have felt as free to speak this way if she had someone around to check her.

This all hit home yesterday as I was flipping through a couple of books that I’m putting together a preview piece for the paper. Obstensibly, they are about black oral tradition — the rhythms of passed on wisdom-culture. One of the books, The Anthology of Rap, edited by Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois (with forward and afterward written by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Common, respectively) speaks to this. Writes Gates in his intro: “Rap’s influence on the English language is palpable in the currents of contemporary, everyday speech. It’s a vivid vocabulary and often explicit.”
 
We’ve grown so used to it, I seldom blink.
I don’t think I would have reacted as much if Sabrina’s voicings hadn’t been so, well, cartoonish. She looks and sounds ridiculous. It’s barely ventriloquism — it’s a sideshow. If it had just been Russell, I wouldn’t have blinked. He seems like a tough-guy who grew up as a kitchen urchin — and Trev better indeed “come correct.” No doubt.

I’ve  known enough full-time cooks and stressed-out executive chefs and all about their all-hours, back-breaking work that stretches from dawn to dawn. I’ve come to know precisely how much a proving ground  kitchens can be and who they attract and why. You’ve got to be tough. There is a commraderie and a system of proving yourselves — a brotherhood if you will. But there was something so off and discordant about her posturing — the eye and neck-rolling — and all else that goes with it.

Come on Sabrina, come correct.

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