“I’m not scared… I got a knife thrown at me three weeks ago,” says Gordon Ramsay of a situation in Michigan recently, while filming the latest series of his new hit TV show, Kitchen Nightmares. “The guy just picked up this knife and said ‘listen’ and then whoosh, and it hit the fridge. It was minus 15C outside so maybe he was feeling slightly cold.”
It’s a classic Ramsay story. It has injustice, danger, the hothouse environment of the kitchen… and a win for Gordon. “The chef was an absolute knob, and the owners were absolute sweethearts and they were being raped of all their money by the chef and I can spot it instantly. So when I see vulnerability, with an arse of a chef taking advantage of a 70-year-old couple, it drives me mad. So he got taken out and arrested.”
It will undoubtedly make for riveting television: Gordon Ramsay, the Robin Hood of a global Sherwood Forest, righting injustices with his band of merry TV producers. “Potentially, I push it to the boundaries. I don’t know why, but there’s a mechanism inside me and I take these things, being at the coalface, very seriously,” he says.
It only takes an hour with Gordon Ramsay to understand why he’s entirely made for the restaurant game: a pragmatic, live-in-the-moment workaholic whose core values of work-hard-and-get-ahead – plus, of course, that television show – have helped shape him into the most famous chef in the world. Ramsay’s potent cocktail of cooking talent, raw passion, aggression, ambition, charm, quick wit and apparent fearlessness in the face of those he has deeply insulted has accelerated the Scottish-born council-house lad to a rare position; his omnipresence makes him no more a chef than Bill Gates is a software geek. Just put a Google News Alert on ‘Gordon Ramsay’ and watch your inbox overflow with the media’s obsession.
So how on earth did this 41 year old, who failed to make the grade in professional football as a teenager, go on to build such a vast business empire? Having the hide of a rhinoceros and not dwelling in the past is a good start, says father-of-four Ramsay, who, in conversation, is polite, funny, street smart and only a little under the influence of his own ego. Ramsay may have a face like a celeriac, as someone once wrote, but he is a picture of energy. Tall, taut and in fashionable black sports loafers, pinstriped navy trousers and the ever-present tight-fitting chef’s jacket (although there’s not a lot of cooking today for this increasingly large media target), Ramsay’s legendary drive is clearly fuelled by serious fitness. He’s in training for his first Ironman event, he says proudly.
And he says it without so much as an expletive. He may be famous for the F-word but, in conversation, Ramsay’s language – and vocabulary – is more parlour than pavement. He’s articulate but, despite the material successes, unpretentious. He’s also surprisingly polite. “I suppose that stems from the [mental] injury of football, really,” says the marathon-running chef over coffee and orange juice on the 28th floor of the Conrad Tokyo hotel, one of his two international restaurant consultancies (the other is in Dubai). “There’s two ways I suppose: Do you sit and ponder on what might have been and get bitter, or move on?”
Ramsay chose the latter and, having cooked in the provinces as a young man, dragged himself up to London and prostrated himself before mentor Marco Pierre White, effectively saying, ‘Teach me, master.’ After that, he went to France to continue learning. It was White who subsequently introduced Ramsay to Aubergine in the 90s, and the new kid on the block went on to earn the London restaurant two Michelin stars. It was here, however, that Ramsay’s career reached a turning point for very different reasons.
The producers of Boiling Point – a remarkable 1998 TV series that was part reality show, part documentary – discovered him in the kitchen in his early thirties, at a time when he was at a famously stressed juncture in his life, copping writs from business partners, dealing with death in the family, managing Michelin and the media, covertly setting up his own first restaurant and, to put it mildly, wearing his heart on his snug-fitting, custom-made white-cotton chef’s jacket sleeve.
“Boiling Point was a horrific year in my life,” he says, “after getting sued, the old man dying of a heart attack and being served with a writ at his funeral. When you look at the tactics of a bunch of Italian partners that were screwing you while you’re sleeping… put any young chef in that situation with a £2.5 million ($5.2 million) writ, a million pounds ($2 million) on his shoulders to set up Royal Hospital Road and what are you going to do? Say, ‘Please be so kind as to pass the sea bass?’”
Ramsay was profane and authoritarian beyond belief, yet he embodied that strange paradox in so many chefs; the juxtaposition of an almost brutal persona against the sublimely delicate, highly worked, almost feminine world of restaurant food. It was compelling, car-wreck television. All of foodie London had been talking about the dining experience at Aubergine and the chef’s fresh take on classical French cooking that somehow managed to convey to a London audience its author’s cocky,‘Why can’t we beat the Froggies at their own game?’ attitude. After Boiling Point, everyone was talking about Gordon Ramsay.
Television has taken him, in less time than it takes most chefs to establish just one successful restaurant, from the pages of the food press to the tabloids, the radio airwaves and dinner tables of people all over the world who wouldn’t know lobster ravioli with lemongrass velouté from frozen hamburger.
“That’s the noose you put your neck in,” Ramsay says now of the situation. “Boiling Point was the first horrific insight at the coalface. It had nothing to do with glamour and f-all to do with TV or Michelin stars. That’s what it’s like at the shit-fight, the coalface. When that was going out, Jamie Oliver had just launched as The Naked Chef and so there you have this amazing fing no-intimidation, up-and-coming motorbike-scooter little f*er, and this ogre, this oaf, tearing around… it was quite a hilarious comparison.”
Ramsay wasn’t resting on his laurels, however. With a savvy business structure in place, and seemingly boundless energy, he has kept up a gruelling series of TV commitments, all the while cranking out books and restaurants faster than he can dice an onion. Ramsay’s signature restaurant at Conrad Tokyo, opened three years ago under a licensing arrangement, was his first and remains his only Asian business. For now. Twenty-eight floors above Tokyo’s Shiodome district, not far from Ginza, it’s an elegant, contemporary restaurant built around Ramsay’s trademark accessible French model. He concedes disappointment the restaurant was overlooked by Michelin when the guide publishers launched their mildly controversial Tokyo dining ratings in February. But he is typically bullish. Under (relatively) new chef Shinya Maeda, who returned to Tokyo in 2007 from working with Ramsay in London, Ramsay at Conrad Tokyo will get its first Michelin star in 2009, he says, to be followed by a second in 2010.
Ramsay plans to open several new restaurants this year, in London, LA and, yes, possibly Australia. The likelihood of a Ramsay venture Down Under appears stronger than ever. He says the restaurant he’ll most likely do in Australia will be a Maze (his London bistro model) rather than a fine diner, and that he’ll take the project seriously by investing. There are no signatures on contracts; he has no intention of creating a made-for-TV restaurant and it’s not certain Ramsay will come to Melbourne’s Crown, either.
“There’s no point in bullshitting that there’s no speculation – there is. I’m back there in June and I’m going to see three sites; one in Sydney and two in Melbourne,” he says. “I love the place, the ingredients are amazing and they’re in abundance, but it [the restaurant] can’t be too ‘cheffy’.”
And there will be no opening a restaurant in Australia “just for the sake of doing it”, he insists. “I want to put money in, and that’s the difference. No disrespect to Robuchon and Ducasse and all that, but I don’t want to tiptoe across the world and f*ing just sign up. I could have opened 30 restaurants in the past two years by just putting my name to them. I love Australia, always have done, and the chances of opening a Maze or something along those lines would be great. If we’re happy with the sites, we’ll push the button.”
PHOTOGRAPHY JULIAN KINGMA
This article appeared in the June 2008 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.