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'Kitchen Nightmares' Chef Joseph Cerniglia Found Dead

by Joel Keller, posted Sep 27th 2010 4:30PM
Gordon Ramsay and Joseph Cerniglia in the Campania episode of 'Kitchen Nightmares' on FOXLast year, I did an article for New Jersey Monthly magazine about Garden State restaurants that had participated in Gordon Ramsay's 'Kitchen Nightmares.' The participants met with varied amounts of success, but Joseph Cerniglia (right, pictured with Ramsay), owner of Campania restaurant in Fair Lawn, seemed to be one of the happiest to have undergone the change.

So I was surprised to hear that Cerniglia's body was found floating in the Hudson River near the George Washington Bridge on Friday. No word of how he got there, but according to the Bergen Record, there were no signs of foul play and motorists reported someone jumping off the bridge just hours before Cerniglia's body was found.

When Cerniglia threw his name in the hat to have his restaurant be considered for 'Nightmares,' Campania was hemorrhaging money, to the tune of more than $80,000 of debt to his suppliers. He was married with three kids, and his wife was distraught that the debt was going to tear Joe and the family apart. But through Ramsay's comforting and the effective changes he made to Campania's menu, the restaurant had a successful relaunch and was still doing well when Ramsay came back for another visit a season later.

Considering that not everyone Ramsay and crew makes over is happy with Ramsay's changes -- indeed, almost half of the restaurants that have been made over on 'Nightmares' end up closing -- Cerniglia seemed to be the spokesman for Ramsay's version of tough love.

"I almost feel guilty about how well it worked out for us," he told me last year. "I'm just extremely grateful we had the opportunity, and it was exactly what we needed to really get us from losing money to breaking even to making money now."

Cerniglia was also very accommodating, giving me open access to his staff and giving me names of producers and other restaurant owners that could provide good leads. At the time I spoke to him, he seemed pretty happy that his struggling restaurant was finally turning the corner, thanks to Ramsay's help. He also told me about reaching out to other owners who were going on to 'Nightmares' and giving them guidance about what to expect. From everything I've read and heard about Cerniglia, he seemed to be generous and well-loved.

But the restaurant business can be a bear, chewing up even the most savvy chefs and businessmen. Since we have no idea yet how Cerniglia ended up in the river, anything that we could say about Campania's business lately will be speculation, even though the Village Voice decided to make that connection by mentioning mediocre reviews on Yelp and publishing a review from the notoriously picky posters to Chowhound.

But what I also found is that restaurants betting on the bump from being on Ramsay's show are making a losing bet. That bump lasts for a few months after the broadcast at best, even though the show lives on on BBC America and Hulu. And a lot of the restaurant owners reverse many of Ramsay's changes and just ride on the reputation of being on the show. But the bad business habits never go away, and many owners fall back into those habits, to their detriment.

Was that what happened with Cerniglia? Who knows. He may have died for any number of reasons. But if suicide is the reason, I wonder if it's going to make Ramsay and the 'Nightmares' producers rethink how they do their show.

Here's the episode of 'Nightmares' Cerniglia was on. And yes, at one point Ramsay says that Cerniglia isn't careful, his business will be "swimming down the Hudson River." Irony's a cruel mistress, isn't she?

(Follow @joelkeller on Twitter.)

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My thoughts and prayers go to the entire Cernigilia familiy, especially his wife and children.

September 29 2010 at 1:32 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I agree with wulfn1, it's pathetic the way FOX and other media outlets are connecting/using for shock value, this man's death with Gordon Ramsay. Ramsay has nothing to do with what caused this man's death, it's just a painful coincidence that the restaurant was featured on his show (and that a while ago, too).

September 28 2010 at 3:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

What I find pitiful, is FOX network producers are the ones who paint Ramsay in such a poor light for their ratings, yet it was FOX news's article that practically BLAMED Ramsay for the man's death.

Yes he swears, yes he cuts right to the issues, no he doesn't act the ass on BBC shows , only FOX shows. They made the problem and they blame him.
I agree with you It's doubtful Ramsay was the actual reason the man was floating in the river and more likely it was the issues he dealt with before and after Ramsay's visit that caused his downfall.

September 28 2010 at 8:56 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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