She went to ‘Hell & Back’ with Gordon Ramsay – but she’s now rejecting his menu changes

Over the weekend, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay led a team of people in a mad-dash, 24-hour makeover of the menu and look at Sacramento soul food restaurant Sandra Dee’s Bar-B-Que & Seafood.

It was part of his new unscripted Fox show, “Gordon Ramsay’s 24 Hours to Hell & Back,” which minces no words about the tribulations of a former must-visit destination for soul food aficionados.

“The restaurant has been struggling,” said Sandra Dee Johnson, who opened the establishment in Alkali Flat 19 years ago.

Yet Johnson said Tuesday she’s rejecting the new menu offered by Ramsay as part of his rushed reality show makeover.

She said she didn’t seek the show out. She said she agreed to do the show after being contacted several times over the years by different networks.

Johnson said she wanted help brightening the place up and making the bar sexy, and she had no idea it would be the British-born Ramsay doing the makeover.

Ramsay is a television veteran and a Michelin-star chef known for his fiery temper. He’s appeared on Fox’s “MasterChef” and “Hell’s Kitchen,” among other shows.

On Friday, Ramsay arrived in disguise, dressed as a construction worker complete with a fake beard and round belly. The series features Ramsay “going through hell in order to bring failing restaurants back from the brink of disaster,” according to a press release.

“It was an emotional experience,” Johnson said of the shoot and rapid makeover.

“My customers don’t want me to change the menu,” Johnson said Tuesday. “As to changing to his menu, I will not be doing it. I’m Creole and I don’t know how to cook without spice.”

Asked whether Ramsay likes spice, Johnson said he likes salt. He suggested a stripped-down menu and less seafood, she said.

A photo of the Ramsay-suggested menu obtained by The Sacramento Bee notably lacked ribs, tri-tip and hot links that were mainstays in her restaurant. From appetizers to dessert, it offered only eight items.

She returned to her old menu on Tuesday, though she said she will incorporate some of his changes.

Johnson said she had mixed feelings about the new decor, too.

“I just wanted it to be more vibrant,” Johnson said.

The exterior with several murals depicting famous African Americans remains. Inside, the pictures of famous guests who visited over the last 19 years are gone. In their place is a colorful wall of wood doors and a wall of natural wood planks. Several new pig art elements also grace the interior.

Tuesday saw the restaurant doing brisk lunch business as the staff struggled to find things that were moved during the makeover.

“I think it’s awesome,” said Douglas Chiappetta, a Capitol lobbyist and regular customer, of the makeover. “It was starving for it.”

As to whether the menu needed to change, there was more debate.

While some have called it the “best soul food in Sacramento,” much has changed since 2001 when former Sacramento Kings star Chris Webber famously told ESPN he couldn’t find any soul food in the capital city as he toyed with leaving the city for another team.

Darrel Ng, creator of the Cowtown Eats food blog, said Sandra Dee’s remains an institution, but needed a makeover to compete in 2017.

“As Sacramento’s food scene matured, they started to face more competition – Tank House, Fahrenheit 250 and Sauced on the higher end, and Momo’s Meat Market, T & R Taste of Texas BBQ on the casual end,” Ng said. “In recent years, while their food remained excellent, their service had suffered. They need Gordon Ramsay as a catalyst to change things up and help them modernize their cuisine without losing what so many of their regulars love about the restaurant.”

While several people interviewed Tuesday said it was time for a new look, others weren’t sure about everything the Ramsay team did.

“Sandra Dee’s is a Sacramento institution, but sometimes old favorites need a makeover,” said Alex Lane, the Sacramento community manager for the Yelp restaurant review site. “The inside used to be dark and dingy. The food kept them coming back, but even that dropped a lot in quality over the years, and the Yelp reviews started to reflect that.”

Sacramento residents Eve and Paul Imagine said they were happy one of their favorite restaurants was getting the extra business Tuesday, likely after word spread about Ramsay’s whirlwind visit.

But they said Ramsay erred in the makeover.

“They made it a little too hipster,” Paul Imagine said. “They tried to make it something that it’s not. Not a huge fan of the makeover.”

Ed Fletcher: 916-321-1269, @NewsFletch

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