Gordon Ramsay’s 24 Hours to Hell and Back: Save Our Town was one of the most moving reality TV specials in recent memory. But how did the FOX special come together? What does it take to rally an entire town?
I recently spoke with executive producer Matt Cahoon to get the facts on how the special highlighting Ellicott City, Maryland came together, insight on the celebrity cameos from stars like Cal Ripken Jr. and Nate Berkus, and the lessons that the production team took away from the show’s most massive project ever. Plus, would they do it again?
Find out everything you need to know about Save Our Town before episodes of Gordon Ramsay’s 24 Hours to Hell and Back air Tuesdays at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT on FOX. And if you missed the special last Tuesday, catch it now through FOX on Demand or Hulu.
Brittany Frederick: You’ve produced other series with Gordon Ramsay before. How different was Save Our Town from your prior collaborations?
Matt Cahoon: This one is wholly different from all of those. From the very beginning, from early conversations that Gordon and I had, this was about helping a town in need. You hear him say it in the show and it was our mantra from the beginning. These are people that had already been to hell through no fault of their own. And for us, it was important to try to bring them back.
BF: It broke the time constraints we normally see on 24 Hours to Hell and Back. How else was it different from a typical episode, from a production standpoint?
MC: We always treated this very much as a separate thing. From the get-go, we knew this was going to be bigger, this was going to require many more resources than a 24 Hours to Hell and Back episode ever did. We would go in to do [an episode], and you knew you were in and out in a day. We had to do things fast, we had to do things efficiently, and things had to be really buttoned down in order to get it done in that quick of a period.
This, I always knew was so much bigger. We were not here for one restaurant, we were not here for one or two owners; we were here for an entire town. And we always knew we were only going to tackle three different businesses, but that was never the focus. We chose three businesses that would help rejuvenate this entire town, because really that’s what this was about. If we helped these three businesses, our hope was that we would bring back tourism, we would bring back visitors that would help the entire Main Street and all of the businesses there.
BF: Did it feel different narratively because it was a larger episode in scope and different in tone?
MC: At its core, he’s still doing the same thing. Gordon is about helping people – whether that’s through tough love, whether that’s through pointing out bad practices, or whether that’s about taking every resource that he can get through all of his connections, through all of his expertise, and putting it to a common goal. This one was always, we knew it wasn’t going to be a standard format. There’s no way it could be.
But by following the same kind of structure of coming in to clean up this town, to clean up these restaurants, to rejuvenate everything we could to help shine a light back on Ellicott City, that was really the most important part. And after you determine that’s what your goal is and that’s what you’re trying to do, the rest really falls in place fairly easily.
Obviously, we were spoiled for choice on the stories in Ellicott City. There were hundreds more to tell. If we had ten hours, we could have told them all, but in two hours, you have to limit what you can tell. But there was plenty there to do.
BF: I was about to ask how much footage didn’t make it into the episode, because with three concurrent projects going, there must have been quite a lot filmed.
MC: With three different projects going at once, not to mention we were cleaning up Main Street as best we could and doing some other little minor projects around town, we had crews day and night working. So there was always footage. But you’re using what tells the story of each of these owners – Mark at the Phoenix Emporium, the Ellicott Mills Brewing Company, Jeni at the Little Market and Jeff at Jaxon Edwin. We used what was best to tell their story and their transformation, and the journey they went on with Gordon within that.
I’ll be honest, since there was not a whole lot of sitting around on this one, it was a freight train from the start, and we knew that’s what it was going to be. We were always moving to try to get this done in only a few days, to try to get things up and running so that as the opening weekend to spring was there, we wanted to get visitors and tourists back to this town to kick off 2020 right for them.
Unfortunately, obviously, it didn’t work out like we had hoped, but that presents a new set of circumstances across the U.S., that everybody’s dealing with a similar situation [like] Ellicott City was.
BF: How did Ellicott City originally come to your attention?
MC: We have a great casting team that found places that had gone through a natural disaster and that were still rebuilding, and we started to reach out to these places. We started to gather stories. Our team is a really crack team at finding these people, finding the right stories to tell, and finding those people in need. It came down to two or three different cities that really needed our help, and we wish we could have helped them all. Ellicott City held a special place for us.
BF: Speaking of special, you did a fantastic job of utilizing celebrities like Nate Berkus and Cal Ripken Jr. but not letting the star power overtake the show. How did you strike that balance?
MC: We brought nobody out just based on their celebrity. Not one person. Everyone in that project was there because number one, they were either Maryland [locals] in the community, or in the case of Nate Berkus, Nate went through very similar things in 2004 [with the Indian Ocean tsunami]. He knows what these people have gone through. He was absolutely excited to be on board. He wanted to give back. He wanted to tell these people that I’ve been through the same, let me help you.
The Maryland National Guard, they were on faster than your head would spin to try to help us, to try to give back to this community, because it’s their community. Governor [Larry] Hogan, we were going to the top man in the land, as it were, to give us a lay of the land, to try to help Gordon see what he was dealing with and know where to attack.
When the team reached out to Cal Ripken Jr., there’s no one outside of Maryland that doesn’t know Cal Ripken Jr. He’s one of the all-time greats. When we called him, his only stipulation was, I don’t want to come in just based on my celebrity. I’ll come if I can help out. If there’s actually projects I can do to help out, I’d love to be a part of it. And that, to me, said everything not only about Cal, but about everybody that lent a hand to us here.
BF: You also worked with local Maryland construction crews, which is something that you do on every 24 Hours to Hell and Back episode. So you’re also supporting the community in that way.
MC: When you’re doing renovations of this size, you can’t travel in skilled laborers all across the country all the time, especially when we’re talking about renovations at this size. Three major indoor and outdoor renovations at once required all hands on deck. And so, absolutely, we’ve got people from all around the area to come help us out and they were happy to do it.
BF: You mentioned it earlier, but the ending of this special took a turn because of COVID-19; these businesses were closed when the episode aired. So what do you want to leave viewers with, since we can’t patronize them just yet? Are there any other ways we can help, or things you want an audience to take away?
MC: In terms of Ellicott City, that is a town and a community that is one in a million. They are fantastic. They’re close-knit and if Gordon and I were to leave one thing coming out of that, it would be, if you are ever in the area, visit. It’s a great place. It’s a fantastic community and they deserve your support. These are people that have been through a lot through no fault of their own. They deserve it.
In terms of the country and the world at large, we are going into a world that is unfamiliar to all of us. And unless we band together, we won’t overcome. I think, just like in Ellicott City, if we come together as a community, a community of the world, we will get through this and we will thrive again. And that’s what I would want everyone to know. That’s what we strive for here, and I think that’s what we should always strive for.
BF: Given how many towns have and are struggling now, would you consider doing another 24 Hours to Hell and Back: Save Our Town special? This episode felt like a natural extension of the show and a new direction it could stretch into.
MC: Without a doubt. Listen, we are in an unrecognizable world right now. And when we all come out of this pandemic, this is going to open up to hundreds and thousands of businesses, not just restaurants, but across the board, people in need, people who are struggling to get this right again, who need help from someone like Gordon.
I always say there is nobody else in the world that can bring what he can. I’ve met a lot of people with a lot of expertise, but someone who touches all corners is very rare in this world, and he does just that.
The one thing I will say is, across the board from Gordon and myself on down to our PA [production assistants], everybody left that production on a high. They had helped an entire town revitalize, and that left everyone feeling good. It left not only the townsfolk feeling good, it left the crew feeling great. And so, yeah, I can’t think of one person that wouldn’t want to do this again.
Gordon Ramsay’s 24 Hours to Hell and Back airs Tuesdays at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT on FOX.