Crosses the Line Twice: Even in a series made of incompetent/ill-tempered restaurateurs, there are some examples that truly stand out:
During the "Burger Kitchen" episode, the owners are an elderly couple and their adult son Daniel. Over the course of the episode, it is revealed that the restaurant was opened after Daniel's grandfather (the husband's father) had passed away, leaving a sizable inheritance to his son and grandson. The grandfather had left his grandson's portion of the inheritance in a trust which the son used as start-up capital for the restaurant, without his own son's knowledge or permission. Basically, Daniel was presented with a fait accompli and felt he had no choice but to go along with it, despite not having any interest in being a restaurateur, taking on a job as a kitchen manager. On top of that, the restaurant itself was in dire financial straits, with his parents constantly coming to him for further funds to meet payroll, not keeping accurate books as far as his initial and continuing contributions to the restaurant fund, belittling his fiancée when she volunteers her time to help him out, and constantly stonewalling him when he comes to them wanting official documentation about his 50% share in the business. The best they do is a handmade document printed from a home computer that looks like the legal equivalent of an I.O.U. written on a cocktail napkin. The overall situation, and resulting discord, was so great that the result became one of the few two-part episodes in the entire series.
Ensemble Darkhorse: The Only Sane Man in each restaurant will inevitably become this, knowing the problems but too powerless to change anything without Gordon's help. For example:
Katie and Miranda from Amy's Baking Company are very popular. Both are woobies for being young girls who have to put up with their unstable owners and not getting tips, but Katie got it worse when she was told to leave for asking if Amy was sure of something... after Amy had to correct herself, meaning it was probably a smart move... then he was berated by Amy for walking away... which Amy just told her to do... then she got fired. Poor girl. Meanwhile, Miranda is popular for being a Sad Clown and constantly joking around about the state of ABC despite obviously hating working there.
Wendy, Daniel's girlfriend in the Burger Kitchen episode, fit this for being the only one supporting him and calling his parents out on their abusive behavior.
Also from the Burger Kitchen episode is David Blaine, the head chef for the first part. He is abrasive, rude and on the verge of losing his sanity... but he's also completely and 100% right throughout the whole episode. In the context of the utter insanity of the restaurant, his outbursts are downright cathartic, and the fans love him for it. Also, like Mama Mary below, being able to make a dish Ramsay enjoyed definitely contributes.
Mama Mary from the Blackberry's episode has quite a lot of fans and sympathizers due to funding the restaurant out of her retirement fund, calling her daughter out for rejecting Ramsay's help and walking out during their dinner service, and being grateful to Ramsay (in contrast to her daughter). Being able to make food that Ramsay likes doesn't hurt much either.
Steven, the affable waiter from the Black Pearl. He got along exceedingly well with Gordon, and even returned to talk about the Black Pearl shutting down in one of the Revisited episodes...causing an hilarious awkward-silence moment with Gordon.
Rami from Oceana was quite well-liked and sympathized (especially by siblings who have overbearing older ones) due to being the more reasonable sibling, and trying to rein his more arrogant older brother to listen to Gordon Ramsay. He also got along well with Ramsay, and listened to his advice and words. It's also telling when Ramsay left for the first day to sort things out, he hugged Rami, while he just left Moe. His snark and how he tricks Moe to just accept Ramsay's words was also pretty hilarious.
Sara from La Galleria 33, for just being so blatant in how much joy she took in pointing out how bad the restaurant was, to the point of constantly smiling and laughing. She went out of her way to trick Gordon into ordering a dish so bad that even the owners knew about the complaints.
Lou from Sebastian's, because in contrast to her boss, she had a true, strong passion for cooking, was actually good at it, and was 100% on board with all the changes Ramsay made in the restaurant.
In Tavolini, Van, and to a lesser extent, Joli. Unlike their completely incompetent parents, they held a good head on their shoulders in trying to run the restaurant on their own, being completely honest to Ramsay about their problems, as well as very susceptible to his help. Just go to any comment section about the episode, and most viewers will shower Van with their admiration, saying he should've been the owner of the restaurant in the first place. Also, head chef Michael, for humbly accepting Ramsay's criticism instead of being in denial about its quality, as well as successfully taking over the service by himself the first night when the owners had a mental breakdown amidst of it. Really, everyone in the staff except for the owners are ensemble darkhorses.
In Downcity, we have Rico, the co-owner. Compared to his partner Abby, he was very willing to accept help from Ramsay, knowing how much of a handful she was. The main reason Gordon stayed was because of his plea, as Gordon had already lost all respect for Abby by then. The waiters as well, for joking at the expense of the food and service, and also being level-headed.
Leone's Restaurant has several. First we have Rose, who owned the restaurant for a long time and was very devoted to making it successful. Then she ended up in a coma for two years, and during that time, her son Michael had deteriorated its service, making many viewers feel sorry for her. But she still tried to stay cool-headed, and even joked around a bit with Ramsay despite having troubles talking due to her aforementioned state. Then we have waiter Jon, mostly for his snark at the expense of Michael, as well as Trudy, for stepping up the plate and managing the restaurant in Rose's absence when Michael wouldn't.
Growing the Beard: While few people have argued that the US version is outright bad, most agree that Season 3 was a marked step up from the previous two, due to the postscript sequences that show whether Ramsay's efforts actually counted for anything in the end (perhaps surprisingly, just to be fair, they have shown several instances where they didn't), along with a more diverse selection of restaurants rather than the bistros and Italian restaurants that Seasons 1-2 tended to focus on.
Harsher in Hindsight: During Gordon's visit to Campania, he warned that the business was about to "float down the Hudson River". Cut to a few years later, when owner and head chef Joseph Cerniglia's body was recovered from the Hudson River after a suicidal jump off the George Washington Bridge. Unsurprisingly, this episode is not aired any more.
The owner of Cafe Hon trademarked the word "hon" and tried to sue or C&D anyone in Baltimore who used it commercially (including the city itself), which led to a negative reputation of her and her restaurant. It's practically identical to what the Fine Brothers on Youtube would do years later with the word "react".
Ho Yay: Palpable in the Chiarella's episode between Gordon and the troubled but fundamentally sweet owner, Tommy. When Gordon saves the day, there is much hugging, mutual admiration and Tommy even kisses him on the cheek when they part company. It's ramped right up though in the revisited episode, where Tommy shows off his bench-pressing skills in his basement gym before telling Gordon he loves him when he finally leaves, after finding out that Gordon has part-funded his badly needed liquor license. Aww!
David Blaine, the (initial) head chef of the Burger Kitchen. While he engaged in some major Jerkass behavior, such as repeatedly accusing one of the owners of being bipolar and then semi-seriously threatening to hit one of the others (resulting in him being fired midway through the two-parter), it was clear that he was a pretty talented chef who had been hamstrung by the owners' obsession with using frozen Wagyu burgers, and had been working for several months without pay. He was also the tenth chef that had left Burger Kitchen. Despite his nastiness, many of the points he made about the family's inability to run a restaurant were correct.
From the same episode there's Daniel: his own bad attitude makes it hard to feel sorry for him when David threatens him; but when one remembers he was forced into a job he didn't want after his father stole $250,000 from him, it's hard to blame him for being so bitter.
The owner's husband in the Fiesta Sunrise episode comes off as aggressive and confrontational with the manager (to the point of almost starting a fistfight on camera), but it is revealed that not only is he paying his own bills, but he is putting money into the restaurant to keep it from failing and even paying the manager's bills because of the manager's incompetence.
The family in the Kebab Room - the children don't have any money, and are working at the restaurant for free, seven days a week, and the stress and suppressed resentment really shows in how they treat each other.
The UK series has Alan Love and Nick Anderson, owners of Ruby Tate's and Rococo respectively. Both were reliving past glories that left them stuck in the past and unable to move on. Both proved to be rather egotistical (Alan in particular was flat-out manic), uncooperative, and resistant to any changes to their restaurant. They also were both looking at foreclosure and homelessness. Both men broke down in tears on camera talking about the failures of their restaurant.
Trevor, the former head chef from the Mangia Mangia episode. He starts out being shown as a cocky, indifferent, incompetent (and often violent) prat with a bad attitude, but he evidently caves in and tearfully admits his chronic depression and addiction to crystal meth after a particularly bad service (during which Janelle screamed at him that his life didn't matter and that he would be better off dead), culminating him in him being sent to Drug Rehab, paid for by Ramsay on the condition that the owner at least considers rehiring him after he cleans up.
Memetic Mutation: "This is all ROTTEN!" Typically with as thick a Scottish accent as possible.
Nightmare Fuel: Some of the kitchens are filled with rotten food (Dillon's and Fiesta Sunrise in particular, both of which also had insects crawling around everywhere), which is not only disgusting but very dangerous given that poorly prepared food can kill you, or at least make you very sick. (This happened in one episode when a customer had a rotten lobster, and in the UK pilot where Gordon threw up after eating a rotten scallop and flat out told the owners it could've killed him.)
Suspiciously Similar Song: In the Dillon's episode, Gordon suits up as a steam cleaner in a uniform with equipment that almost looks like something out of Ghostbusters. The upbeat synthesizer music accompanying the scene is obviously a nod to Ray Park Jr.'s Ghostbusters theme song.
The American version includes the usual reality TV tropes (excessive use of flashbacks, cheesy and continuous background music, and replacing Gordon with the narrator from The Dog Whisperer). Most importantly, Gordon no longer has exclusivity on deploying Cluster F Bombs.
Several restaurant owners say this about Gordon's changes. As it turns out, they make the place better more often than not.
Unintentionally Unsympathetic: Janelle from the Mangia Mangia episode, with regards to the incidents involving her and Trevor— the depressed head chef who is later revealed to have a hidden crystal meth addiction. Yes, Trevor was acting like a Jerkass for most of the episode— most of the time she's seen literally screaming at him over the slightest provocations and using a variety of incredibly personal insults. Though she breaks down over the fact Trevor tried to punch her and has gotten physical against her while he was high, the fact that Trevor says this was after she said that nobody loves him or cares about his existence, and that he'd be better off dead doesn't help. It's harder to root for her in hindsight once it's revealed just how bad his depression and drug problem really is, especially after reacting with evident glee when he was fired for it.
Many of the owners in the American version are clueless, but Moe from Oceana is truly something special.
One example among many: after Moe revealed that he refused to write down his recipes because he was afraid of other restaurants stealing them, Gordon calls him a "busy idiot" — somebody who spends all his time worrying about the wrong things. Moe was so upset by this that he refused to do anything. To get things back on track, his brother claimed that in England, "busy idiot" is actually a compliment. Moe believed him.
Moe also refers to Gordon's home country as "British" (rather than "Britain") as heard in Moe commenting that Gordon should "go back to British."
On the UK version, both Piccolo Teatro and Bonaparte's closed within a short time after Ramsay's visit. The owner of the latter threatened to sue Ramsay, claiming she had been "set up".
When Ramsay revisited the Walnut Tree Inn he found the business still failing due to the sky-high prices the owner was charging, and stormed out after the owner bluntly told him that he'd rather see the inn go out of business than look like a cheap restaurant. Guess what happened? Then, for an encore, some more sensible businessmen bought the inn shortly afterwards, set up a menu that was more along Ramsay's guidelines, and made the restaurant into a success once more.
The owners of Zeke's in the US version, on the confession cam, complain about Ramsay and state that he doesn't know what he's talking about and until Ramsay's name is on the lease, Ramsay doesn't know what it's like. Let's see... failing restaurant versus five 3-Michelin (out of 3) star restaurants. Sure, Ramsay knows nothing about how to make a restaurant successful... Then to make matters worse, after Gordon renovates the building and improves business, the owners close down shortly after and sell the restaurant, because they figure that Gordon's donated renovation can make them a lot of money if they sell the place in its repaired condition.
Tim Gray, head chef of Bonaparte's. It's hard to tell if he's arrogant or brain dead. After being drilled for a week into becoming a half-competent chef, he manages to forget it all within the span of a few months by the time Ramsay comes back. This results in him being fired. The best part of it all? Ramsay, after the episode, offered Tim the chance to learn on the job at one of his restaurants. Tim refused. Then, despite being exposed as possibly the worst "chef" in Britain, he tried to get his own TV show. Unsurprisingly, it was denied. He's still getting into kitchens, and still getting fired.
The parental owners of the Burger Kitchen. Lots of examples pop up, one of the most blatant ones being their investing in a restaurant despite knowing nothing of the business, as their son pointed out. Then they stole their son's inheritance money to buy the restaurant and were confused as to why he was upset about that.
Additionally, when Gordon demands that the executive chef — continually backed into a corner and forced to cook food he doesn't believe in with recipes that aren't his — cook him a burger to show him his skill without being hampered by the owners, the owners try to show their own chef up by cooking one of their own recipe burgers and then deliberately hamming up bad reactions to the chef's burger after Gordon dismisses theirs.
Hell, any chef that insists "my food's good" or some variation when Gordon first arrives - if their food is so good, then why is most of the city avoiding the place and why is Gordon disgusted by eating it?
La Riviera from UK season 2 had a clean restaurant, a generally competent owner and manager, a trained staff, excellent and fresh ingredients, a proper decor and good food. What was the problem? The owner hadn't done his research into the area- the small Scottish town simply wasn't interested in high-priced fine French cuisine and as a result, saw very few customers. This lack of basic research cost the business a fortune.
Retroactively Denise of "Cafe Hon." Wanting to Trademark "Cafe Hon" would be one thing, but the word "Hon" itself, which is a cultural icon in Baltimore? How else would the people of Baltimore react? And that's not even mentioning her going after anyone who would use the word "Hon."
Any restaurant that doesn't clean out its kitchen thoroughly, even if only doing so prior to Gordon's arrival; especially once Kitchen Nightmares had a known formula typically involving crappy kitchens. Lampshaded in UK episode The Priory, who has chef blast his fellow head chef because the kitchen wasn't cleaned prior to Gordon coming.
From "Park's Edge", co-owner Richard is vilified by a reporter for not running his restaurant well. Richard brilliantly responds by accusing the town of being racist. Naturally, this destroyed any business he had left.
The Woobie: Peter from "The Seascape". It's pretty clear his mother is more than a little overbearing and his meek mannerisms saw him getting abused by his Jerk Ass chef, to the point where he was cleaning the kitchen for them, even after a (rather pathetic) attempt to order them to do something. Then he reveals he was a "Well Done, Son!" Guy and even after getting pointers and tips from Ramsay is still clearly a nervous wreck.
The staff from the Mill Street Bistro. Their boss, Joe, is a dictator who constantly talks down to them, mistreats them, and drives away the customers that provide their livelihood. The chef is a talented guy getting hamstrung with mediocre recipes, and one of the waiters even stated that his dad wanted to strangle Joe after witnessing his son's mistreatment. It's not shocking that by the end of the two-parter, some of them eventually left the job.
John of Mama Maria's. He establishes fairly early on that he was pressed into the family business at an early age but doesn't really show any resentment toward his parents over this: he's merely struggling to keep the restaurant and his family legacy alive out of love for his parents, and stuck in his ways. Gordon points this out and shows that even his staff know more than him, and helps show him that he can still preserve what he loved about his parents but move on from their methods and style.
Perla, at Mama Rita's, had no experience in cooking food from scratch, only prepping and reheating, and had a limited knowledge of the English language. Unfortunately, she was also the head chef of the restaurant, meaning when dinner service came around she had authority over the cooks and responsibility over the food being served. Perla was so used to the prep-and-reheat method that she drastically undercooked all the meat by applying microwave times to traditional methods. When her co-workers, Gordon, the owner, and the customers started screaming at her to be more competent, she broke down in tears. It didn't help that she was put into a taste competition with the owner and Gordon, where she spent five minutes just staring at her raw chicken, not knowing what to do with it, and her dish was the only one the staff disliked, or that Gordon continued to rant at her as she was crying. It was made clear through the episode that Perla never learned even the most basic of cooking skills, though Gordon never saw that (despite him noticing a severe lack of cooking experience in other prep-and-reheat locations he's visited). Rather than firing Perla, as Gordon suggested though, the owner put Perla back in charge of the catering department, which Perla had made into a success in the past.
Anthony and Frank of Davide. Tony's a recovering addict (painkillers), and has done time in the slammer. But he owns his mistakes and made a serious and honest effort to turn his life around and gave the restaurant 110%. But his brother Frank, who's also the head chef, wouldn't give him any credit or acknowledgement for his effort and just kept beating Tony down. And Frank himself is so burned out and defeated that he's just a shell of the man he once was. And throughout the whole episode, it's clear that Tony only has love and respect for his brother and believes that Frank can be a great chef if he just found his passion again.
Rose of Leone's, who was in a coma for two years and came out of the coma to find that her pride and joy had been more or less run into the ground. She had to hold her throat so she could talk and was still on oxygen. OUCH.
Mama Mary of Blackberry's, a sweet old woman and excellent baker who put everything she had into her daughter's restaurant, only for her daughter to refuse change, disrespecting both her and Gordon when he tries and fails to help.
Daniel of Burger Kitchen, a young adult who had come into a large inheritance from his recently deceased grandfather only to see his parents withdraw his entire trust fund so they could establish their restaurant. Not even having a stake in the family business, Daniel still does his damnedest to support his parents despite the trust that they no longer have, and is constantly stressed by the toxic atmosphere in the kitchen as well as their open disdain for his girlfriend. It's such a bad situation that Gordon is determined to set it right for Daniel's sake.
Melissa from Campania's, she's funding her husband's entire business even putting her house on the line and how does her husband thank her? By not taking the business seriously and cheating on her with one of his waitresses
Celine in La Frite. Poor girl is trying her best in expediting the kitchen and managing the restaurant, but head chef Martin refuses to acknowledge her existence (even though he has no trouble answering to a man), her brother Alex ignores her to an almost resentful level, and her dad keeps nagging that she needs to work together with him... which isn't easy when he's brushing off every attempt she does at making peace with him. It goes to the point she walks behind the restaurant to cry in secret because of the pressure, and it's heartbreaking. Luckily, due to Gordon's intervention, Alex began coming around and got over his issues with his sister; working together with her in harmony. Martin... not so much.