Gordon Ramsay shows us a recipe for success

I don’t watch a lot of television, but I do have a weakness for Gordon Ramsay shows. Hell’s Kitchen, Kitchen Nightmares (UK version is better than the US), The F Word and even Hotel Hell. If Gordon is on, I’m watching. I can’t help it – I love the guy. His passion and high standards mixed with a certain “colorful” presentation just hit the mark for me.

Another reason I like watching Gordon is that I love to watch anyone who is the best at what they do. I don’t even have to like what it is they’re doing. The excellence trips my trigger. That’s why I love watching the olympics. Archery? BORING… unless it’s the olympics. Show me the best archer in the world and I can’t tear myself away. If it’s an American, even better.

So I look to the best to learn whatever I can apply to my craft of choral music. What does Gordon Ramsay have to say to musicians? If you can buy into an extended culinary metaphor, quite a lot.


1) Have high standards – It’s important that everything is important. I once heard that Jim Miller (director of the international champion barbershop choruses The Louisville Thoroughbreds and Southern Gateway Chorus) said that if you wanted to be the best, you had to do everything the best. You had to have the shiniest shoes. If you made coffee for a chorus function, it had to be the best coffee. In the same vein, Gordon hammers home the value of standards to all who cross his path. The kitchen must be spotlessly clean. The food must be fresh and cooked to order. Anything over- or under-done must be cooked again. The seasoning must be spot-on. If Gordon were in charge of a choir, he’d say everything matters: posture, face, breath control, vowel shapes, resonance, attacks, releases, dynamics, word stress, visual package and even clothing must be planned and executed right down to a gnat’s eyelash.


2) Manage your station – In the kitchen, there are multiple stations: garnish, fish, meat, dessert, etc. Some restaurants even go so far as to have a saucier. Each chef is in charge of running their own station, but not in a vacuum. They must all receive the orders from the head chef, then communicate constantly with each other to ensure that the table’s food is all finished at the same time. Whether in a choir, acappella group, barbershop quartet or show choir – every singer has a role to play. They must not only know their role, but execute it at a high level that coordinates with the rest of the ensemble to maximize the performance. This includes aspects of tuning, chord balance, synchronization, and texture. And of course, every station has to coordinate with the head chef. Every part of the ensemble must be coordinated with the director.


3) Stop it at the pass – “The pass” is where the head chef not only calls out orders, but coordinates with the brigade to ensure that food comes out in a timely fashion: (a) all the dishes for one table at the same time and (b) appetizer, entree, and dessert all go out in proper intervals. (No one wants the entree to show up at the same time as the appetizer!) The head chef is also responsible for quality control. If a piece of fish is still raw, it gets sent back to be re-fired. If it’s burnt, the dish has to be re-done completely. Why wait until the customer discovers the mistake and then complains? The head chef proactively prevents customer dissatisfaction. So, too, the director must stop bad singing “at the pass.” In rehearsal, any substandard singing must be sent back and re-fired until it is correct. Singers, like line chefs, must learn to sing to the standards laid out by the director. Singers are prone to singing “their way” which can mean that important details get overlooked. Singing must be crafted: vowels shaped, air moved at specific speeds, consonants produced in a way that enhances rather than detracts from the tone. Just as a chef should not bother sending raw fish to the pass (it will be sent straight back), singers should learn what product will pass muster for the director (and thus the audience). They must plan their “product” in advance and sing within that plan, executing at a high level over and over. Building consistency this way singer to singer is the way any ensemble improves.


4) Let the ingredients speak – sometimes chefs on the various Ramsay shows fall prey to one of two traps: (1) cutting corners by using cheaper ingredients (2) using quality ingredients but throwing the kitchen sink at the recipe until the diner can’t tell what is the “star” of the dish. In the case of singers, the star of the dish is always their tone. Yes, there are considerations of style in each piece. Yes, there are sometimes soloistic stylings that occur in pop music. Yes, there are dynamics, articulations, cutoffs, tunings, etc. that enhance the music. However, we should rarely sacrifice our tone to make them happen. What good does it do to sing immaculately in-tune with a forced, tense tone? No good at all. When the singer modifies their tone to be more pleasing, the tuning will change. Now they have to start over to keep the good tone and get it back in tune. Always sing with a freely-produced, resonant tone and only add musical/stylistic enhancements that can be done while maintaining great sound. Otherwise, the “star of the dish” is lost (we as the audience want to hear your beautiful voices) because the cart came before the horse.

In the case of the overall ensemble, the star of the dish is the song. The ensemble exists to provide the audience with music. With songs. We’ve all heard the singer who mutilates the national anthem by adding runs upon runs upon runs until the melody is obliterated. We’ve all heard arrangements that are so concerned with being difficult or clever that they mar the impact of the actual song. What good are vocal pyrotechnics and difficult arrangements if the song doesn’t speak to the audience? Again – no good at all. Always make musical/arrangement choices that enhance the song and its message rather than being too clever by half.

There’s something exquisite about a well-seasoned, perfectly done steak – far better than a cheap steak slathered in A1 steak sauce or a beef entree with 17 ingredients. So it is with all our ensemble singing. Create wonderful tone, add in as many musical elements as you can without diminishing that tone, and don’t try to over-complicate the music. Let the voices speak and carry forth the true intent of the song.



I don’t know if this kind of thing is helpful to you. My mind just works this way – I love to find new ways to reinforce tried-and-true musical priniciples. Whether this was helpful or not – leave a comment. Let me know what things on the site you like the most as well as any topics you’d like to see me write about in the future. I’m posting this stuff to entertain and/or help all of you (or at least provoke some thought), so what you want matters to me. Don’t sit on the sidelines – chime in!




One comment to Gordon Ramsay shows us a recipe for success

  • Katy  says:

    Hello! This is Katy Harrington from Vega. I find your posts very helpful! I really liked when you said its important that everything is important. I was surprised by how inspirational that short sentence was. I also liked the quality control explanation of the chef/directer. I understood what you meant right off the bat. Mr. Whatley definitely does that to us:)

    Now for suggestions… I think it would be pretty cool if you related Llamas to singing:) And who doesn’t love Llamas?

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