By Adam Markovitz
Updated January 30, 2009 at 05:02 PM EST

If you believe the show’s ominous, booming, voice-of-God narrator (and why wouldn’t you?), last night’s episode was the beginning of “the most amazing season ever on Hell’s Kitchen.” And it didn’t take long for the show to make abundantly clear that when he said “amazing,” he actually meant something more along the lines of “bat-s*** crazy.” According to the opening montage, this season’s characters will scream, cry, vomit, light fires, throw raw meat, and buckle under the weight of a cow carcass, all while enduring celeb-chef Gordon Ramsay’s trademark verbal waterboarding. (Most of his bons mots get the blur-and-beep treatment, presumably to protect us from hearing curse words or seeing the fork in his tongue).

But after all that ruckus, the show got off to a surprisingly tame start. The chefs each prepared signature dishes, and apparently they weren’t too bad. A sea bass dish was “cooked perfectly,” and Ramsay went so far as to call a veal roulade “delicious,” although the word came out of him about as easily as a kidney stone. Perhaps El Chefe has turned over a new leaf?

Not so fast. As the tasting continued, Ramsay uncovered another sea bass dish that looked a little like a poached mole rat. And the insults began.

To the bass’ chubby cook: “The dish is clumsy, like you.”

To the maker of a grilled banana plate: “It looks like you’ve gone slightly bananas.”

To a cooking instructor who served enchiladas: “I feel like I need some plastic wrap on my arse.”

And so on. Still, when the tasting was done, Ramsay made a startling declaration. “Based on your signature dishes,” he says, “You are the best group we’ve ever had.”

The episode’s second-half was less a story arc than a timeline of disasters. The contestants split into two teams (guys v. girls), serving dishes for customers at Ramsay’s restaurant. Prep work had barely started when 24-year-old Lacey called it quits to clear her mind (i.e., smoke and eat a Hot Pocket). On the guys’ team, Seth’s lack of experience caused instant friction. Giovanni didn’t know what polenta is. Colleen couldn’t tell the difference between salt and sugar (Top Chef this ain’t, folks). And just as Ramsay started revving up for a killer tirade, the lights went out. Did FOX forget to pay the electric bill? Or did Ramsay actually blow a literal fuse? We never found out.

Diners left unfed, the night was a wash, and Ramsay grudgingly declared a winner (the women) in order to have a loser. The guys nominated their two weakest players, and after a scuffle over who nominated whom, the token gay guy got booted off. (Gasp! On a FOX show?)

And so ended the season premiere, an amuse bouche to prep our palettes for the craziness to come. Check in next week as the contestants come back for second helpings of Chef Ramsay’s tough love in the hopes of claiming the grand prizes: $250,000, a spot at a fancy restaurant, and their dignity. Well, maybe just two out of three…