Before he discovered his mistress was talkative, before Claridge’s lost a Michelin star, before a debt crisis threatened to scuttle his business, before he breached the covenants on a 10.5million pound loan, before he was halfway lynched for abusing an Australian television presenter, before the smudges in his official biography were exposed, before the critical maulings – before, in short, his world went sour – I once spent a rather odd weekend with Gordon Ramsay in Spain.
It was 2005, and I had been invited to the start of the Volvo Ocean Race, where the chef was working as an ambassador for a yacht team sponsored by the Dutch bank, ABN-AMRO. We flew out by private jet from Farnborough to Galicia, where Ramsay gave me an interview and I watched him perform his duties, such as they were. His main commitment appeared to be to drink as many lattes as possible. Nevertheless, it was an enjoyable trip. In person, Ramsay was engaging, and much less boorish than he appeared on television. He was, by turns, shy and effervescent, like a seven-year-old mainlining on Fanta.
Two things about that weekend, however, now strike me as telling. The first was our interview. It was a time when his empire was in full bloom: two Gordon Ramsay restaurants had just opened in Tokyo, and he was about to enter New York. He had earlier told me how he drove between his handful of London restaurants every night to spend time at each hotplate, checking on quality. He was “passionate” about personally maintaining standards. How was he going to make good on that promise with restaurants on three continents?
His answer: install CCTV in every Gordon Ramsay kitchen. He would then set up screens in his Wandsworth house, and watch as his food went out to diners in Tokyo, Dubai, London, and New York. If there was anything he didn’t like the look of, he said, he’d be on the phone immediately. At the time, this idea seemed far-fetched. In retrospect, it seems one white cat short of Bond villain lunacy. There are now 28 restaurants which bear Ramsay’s name. Does he spend hours poring over CCTV footage of their hotplates? Did he ever? Or was it all, to use a Ramsay term, bollocks? Anyway, what good is CCTV to a chef? Surely if a chef is so passionate, he would need not only to see the food, but to taste it.
The second, more significant point, is this: what was Ramsay doing in Spain in the first place? Not only is a garlanded chef of limited value to a yacht team (they only eat boil-in-the-bag muck, and Ramsay wouldn’t know about that), but he was also, presumably, of no use to his employers. The idea that ABN-AMRO – who were soon to be part-bought by Royal Bank of Scotland, Ramsay’s future creditors, at a grossly inflated price, before nearly collapsing themselves – would somehow benefit from employing a PR company to fly journalists by private jet to talk to a chef, who spoke for a yacht team, who represented an investment bank, was insane. The whole episode seems like a cautionary tale from a more profligate time. It is no co-incidence that this was also the era of Ramsay’s ascent.
How he must wish he could return to 2005. Ramsay’s biography, once a relentless story of success, has since taken a dip. The bones of his narrative will be familiar. He was born in Glasgow in 1966, where his family lived in a tenement block. At the age of 5, the Ramsays moved to Stratford-upon-Avon. His father, also called Gordon, was an unsettled, abusive drinker who dragged his family from town to town in pursuit of various jobs, and who beat up his mother. His brother, Ronnie is a heroin addict. It was, to say the least, a tough childhood.
For a while, Ramsay harboured ambitions of being a professional footballer with Glasgow Rangers, with whom he had a trial. His career never took off, for a number of reasons – one of them being injury – although Ramsay’s story, often recycled, about playing two first team games for Rangers was recently derided as bunk. Indeed, Archie Knox, the coach who Ramsay claimed had “dumped him” from Rangers, told a newspaper: “he must be a very confused individual. I was the coach of Dundee at the time.”
At the age of 19, Ramsay enrolled at catering college. Having started his professional life as a commis chef at an Oxfordshire hotel, he made his way to London, where he worked in a number of kitchens before landing at Harvey’s, on the site of what is now Chez Bruce in Wandsworth, under the operatic control of Marco Pierre White. From Harvey’s, Ramsay worked under Albert Roux at Le Gavroche, before moving to France to work under Guy Savoy and Joel Robuchon, and then on a private yacht in the Bahamas.
When Ramsay returned to London in 1993, he was offered the head chef position at Tante Claire, in Chelsea, before Marco Pierre White offered to help him establish his own restaurant: Aubergine. It was a huge success. Ramsay won his first two Michelin stars. He married Tana, a Montessori school teacher, in 1996, and, with her father, Chris Hutcheson, decided to establish Gordon Ramsay Holdings – a company in which he and his father-in-law still own 69% and 31% respectively. Hutcheson, whose career to that point had rollercoasted between owning his own screen printing firm in the East End and being chased into bankruptcy by a string of creditors in 1993, invested £500,000 in the fledgling business.
When the two men met, Ramsay, by his own admission, knew “fuck all” about money. But his unusally close relationship with Hutcheson is founded on much more than pounds and pence. Ramsay adores Hutcheson. He has said that he learned “more from Chris in five years than I did from my own father in 30” and that the pair are “as alike as two wings on a plane”. Indeed, they speak on the phone dozens of times a day. The Observer restaurant critic Jay Rayner describes Gordon Ramsay Holdings as a “committee of two.”
In good times, no one questioned Ramsay and Hutcheson’s strategy. In 1998, they opened the doors to Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road on the old Tante Claire site, where the chef earned three Michelin stars. He was the first Scot to do so. Ramsay, by the account of those who visited his restaurant at the time, cooked beautifully. He was, said AA Gill, the restaurant critic and GQ contributing editor who Ramsay famously ejected from Royal Hospital Road ten years ago, “a wonderful chef, just a really second-rate human being.” His dishes, and his dining room, spoke to the times. This was fashionable, event cuisine for a confident clientele: French neo-classical food served in hushed restaurants to customers who were happy to pay through the nose for the privilege.
1998 was the also the year that Gordon Ramsay’s public persona was invented. An LWT documentary team called charted Ramsay’s aggressive tirades in the kitchen at Royal Hospital Road. The results, shown in a programme called Boiling Point, were electrifying. It was obvious to anyone who saw Ramsay’s performance that the big, blond man with the origami face and the foul language was a star.
It was also obvious – not least to Hutcheson – that Ramsay was now a rich brand. New restaurants bearing the Gordon Ramsay insignia were rolled out. He opened Petrus, and installed his protegee Marcus Wareing as head chef. He opened Amaryllis in Glasgow, and installed David Dempsey (although the restaurant closed in 2004, after a string of problems – most tragically the drug-fuelled death of its head chef.) He opened at Claridges with Mark Sargeant, and Verre at the Dubai Creek with Angela Hartnett. By the time I met him, in 2005, his company had ten restaurants, and eight Michelin stars.
Gordon Ramsay Holdings, however, also experienced failure – both at Amaryllis and at the short-lived Pengelley’s in Knightsbridge – and it is in these moments one glimpsed a strain of nastiness under the sheen of his business. In 2005, Ramsay had set up Ian Pengelley, the talented chef from E & O in Notting Hill, in his own restaurant in Knightsbridge, which served Asian food. A new members’ club, named M1NT, moved into the same building. GRH leased the property from the Carlton Tower Hotel, and M1NT sub-let the property from GRH.
This arrangement worked fine until Pengelley’s started losing money hand over fist (the reasons for the failure of this restaurant are still hotly contested – Ian Pengelley, has since gone to become the successful head chef at Gilgamesh). Ramsay not only wanted to close his restaurant but to boot M1NT out of the building too. The trouble was, M1NT was doing good business. They said they weren’t going anywhere. At this point, according to M1NT’s CEO Alistair Paton, the Ramsay group resorted to some extraordinary tactics.
“They made it very clear they wanted us out,” says Paton. “Chris is a hard man, and it was mostly him I dealt with. But Ramsay knew what was going on. They changed the locks without notifying us. Over Christmas, they turned off our electricity, and our heat. They intimidated us. We tried to soldier on, bringing in our own heaters. One of my barmen got frostbite, just making drinks. I was only 24 at the time, and probably a bit naive, but we were muscled. It was nasty. Eventually they pushed us to the point where we withheld rent from them, as our lawyers had advised us to do until they turned everything back on, and they used that as an excuse to get us out. I have got absolutely no respect for Ramsay, still. The guy is a dirtbag.”
After the initial success of Boiling Point, television took rather longer to capitalise on Ramsay’s success. It was only in 2004 that the chef began making Kitchen Nightmares, which was, for at least two seasons, unmissable. The central idea was compelling: here is Gordon Ramsay, the show said, a man who has enjoyed success because of his honesty and hard work and talent. He is going to tell you why your restaurant is failing (the answer, always, was because you are not more like him.) If you followed Ramsay’s advice, you won. If you didn’t, you lost everything.
Last year’s revelations that Ramsay and his father-in-law had pumped 5million pounds each into the business in order to keep it afloat – that Gordon Ramsay Holdings had a huge, unpaid tax bill and that their creditors were queuing around the block – has rendered the restaurant guru schtick a little unworkable now (although, it should be said, Kitchen Nightmares ploughs on in the USA, unfettered by reality). What happened? When did Ramsay stop following his own advice? When did the public and the critics start a rebellion?
“History has shown us that a restaurant is only as good as the chef who happens to be in day-to-day charge of the kitchen,” says Richard Harden, whose guide rated Royal Hospital Road its top London restaurant for eight years. Now, Ramsay is in nominal control of 28 kitchens, and regularly cooks in none of them. There have always been chef patrons – senior figures who control a larger group of restaurants – but Ramsay has taken this concept to a new, and unmanageable level.
In truth, Ramsay is no longer a chef, but a businessman and a television personality. Despite appearances, he has developed an intensely loyal staff, and now his lieutenants, (or at least those lieutenants who have not acrimoniously left the fold, like Marcus Wareing), do the cooking. According to one well-placed observer, Ramsay “completely abandoned any pretence at being a serious chef some years ago.” His response to that accusation is always the same: if you buy an Armani suit, you don’t expect Giorgio Armani to have stitched it himself. But cooking and fashion are fundamentally different. It may be Ramsay’s failure to discriminate that led him down the wrong path.
As a restaurateur, Ramsay has a mixed record. His failure to win local critics in New York and Los Angeles has shown his shortcomings in sharp relief. “The restaurant fails to deliver excitement,” wrote the influential New York Times critic, Frank Bruni. “Seldom has a conquistador as bellicose as Mr Ramsay landed with such a whisper.” What happened? It may be that Ramsay is temperamentally unsuited to running restaurants.
“A chef feels more emotion, more kinship towards a turbot than he does towards the couple on table 5,” says AA Gill. “Chefs don’t deal with customers. They deal with ingredients. A restaurateur has to care deeply about the couple on table 5. He has to pay attention to minute things about their meal, and their experience, and whether they are happy. These are things that a chef never has to worry about. The truth is, Gordon was a great chef. He’s not a very good restaurateur.”
Restaurants are not just about food; they are about ambience and aspiration and timing. Gordon Ramsay’s landmark restaurant at Royal Hospital Road still serves outstanding dishes. But the fine dining experience that Ramsay continues to deliver there – the churchy reverence, the show-off stuff – is out of kilter with straitened times and a straitened city. This is not the fault of the kitchen.
Jay Rayner, restaurant critic for the Observer, believes that the food in Ramsay’s restaurants stopped developing some time ago. “He has misread, I believe, where the top end of gastronomy is going,” says Rayner. “The one thing you always see on a Ramsay menu is a tarte tatin. Its continued appearance seems emblematic to me of his inability to move on.” We will discover, soon, whether the new Petrus restaurant – a stone’s throw from the restaurant of his former friend, and now bitter rival, Marcus Wareing, who ran the original Petrus for Ramsay – offers a more contemporary menu.
Restaurants are also about business. And, when Gordon Ramsay Holdings decided to grow at an extraordinarily fast rate, it invited trouble. Ramsay himself allows that “we flew too high, too soon,” but it was where and how they flew that was revealing.
Indeed, the normal procedure for a Michelin-starred chef who wants to start a “diffusion line” of restaurants, is as follows: he owns, and maintains complete control over his flagship restaurant, and then licenses the rest. That is to say, he finds a site he likes, provides a few key staff and “consultancy” services, and splits the profits with the local proprietor. You make less money than owning the new restaurant outright, but you also mitigate potential losses.
Gordon Ramsay did not choose this approach. He and Hutcheson decided that they would own all their restaurants. The strategy proved disastrous, because they were exposed to so much risk. Take, for example, their foray into Paris at The Trianon Palace Hotel. The restaurant lost £1.78 million in eight months, which is some going. Ramsay blamed French “arrogance” for the failure, and has since sold the restaurant back to the hotel. He is now using the consultancy model.
Rayner believes the decisions of the group were a classic case of “business hubris.” “For a while, they were trailblazing,” he says. “They did amazing things for the London restaurant scene. But what Chris and Gordon decided was that they were doing so well, and making so much money, that they would own all their restaurants. That’s a great model if you’re doing well, and everyone is buying big bottles of wine, but when there’s a drop-off in interest, you get hit very hard.”
Hutcheson now admits their mistake. “We weren’t unlucky,” he said last year. “We were clumsy. We’d put too many risks in front of us with too much confidence that nothing would fail.”
Many of GRH’s restaurants have now been sold off as consultancies, and the group’s losses appear to have stabilised – although it’s impossible to know until we see the next set of accounts. His suppliers, meanwhile, say that a payment situation that one described as “dire” 18 months ago, has improved. Gavin Quinney, who supplies the group with house wine from his Bordeaux vineyard, says “the Ramsay group have never paid early, you’re always looking at 90 days, but the situation is much much better today than it has been… If you supply Gordon Ramsay and you don’t manage your credit line, that’s a bad idea, but we’ve always managed to maintain a good relationship.”
Ramsay once barked at me, “I am not a TV chef, I want that put on my fucking gravestone.” But the stonemason would be telling a lie, and Ramsay knows it. In fact, television is now not only an addendum to his restaurant business – it is the cornerstone. In December last year he gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal, in which he repositioned himself: “You tell me a chef anywhere in the world that’s prepared to turn down quarter of a million dollars for an hour’s work on TV, and they’re the biggest lying bastard that ever put on a chef’s jacket.”
Ramsay isn’t cooking the books. The Fox network really does pay him 250,000 US dollars an episode for Hell’s Kitchen (indeed, he was unable to contribute to this article because of filming commitments in Los Angeles). In 2009, Ramsay made around 9million US dollars from American television. This year, as well as hosting Hell’s Kitchen and Kitchen Nightmares in America, he will also host the US version of Masterchef. The recent ratings collapse of the F-Word on British TV is small fry in comparison to what he has achieved in the United States.
The trouble with success on television is that it tends to focus the spotlight on your personal life. Ramsay has not benefited from this extra attention. In November 2008, the News of the World printed a story that Ramsay had cheated on his wife for seven years with a “professional mistress” named Sarah Symonds. The tabloid went to town. The chef, it said, had used his image as a loyal husband and father-of-four to sell books and to spice up his television persona. Now everyone could see he was a hypocrite and a liar.
Ramsay and his wife rode the storm, and met the cameras as a united front. One might have thought the incident would have complicated implications for the business Hutcheson shared with his son-in-law – not so, he still refers to Ramsay as his “son”. The incident did, however, occasion another strategic error. During the tabloid scandal, Gary Farrow, Ramsay’s celebrity PR and a distinguished tactician, called in all the favours he could, and advised Ramsay to shut his mouth. He did so, and the story blew over. Weeks later, Farrow was sacked. Hutcheson said he could no longer afford to pay the publicist for his services. This was a mistake.
“Gary Farrow,” says one senior figure in British newspapers, “is a man who not only knows where the bodies are buried, but can make the skeletons sit up and talk.”
With the publicist out of the picture, Ramsay has been kicked by the press. His footballing past has been questioned, his group has been caught shipping “boil-in-the-bag” food to their pubs from a warehouse, and his finances have been forensically scrutinised. “At times, it felt like a witchhunt,” he admitted recently.
The nadir came during Ramsay’s recent trip to Australia, when he made a sexist joke about a television presenter named Tracy Grimshaw. Having failed, utterly, to squash the controversy, Ramsay gave an interview in which he apologised. He also told the interviewer that his Mum had given him a “bollocking” over the phone. This was not true, as his mother later confirmed. “I certainly didn’t tell him off about what he said in Australia,” she said. In fact, she had not spoken to him since the incident. These episodes may seem like small beer, but they accumulate to give the impression that pork pies are often on the Ramsay menu.
What, perhaps, is more significant, is where brand Ramsay is now positioned. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, the chef was famous for his talent. He stood for absolute attention to detail, and the relentless pursuit of excellence. Now, he’s a light entertainment figure. His recent three-programme gaffe-fest in India for Channel 4 was excruciating, not least because of Ramsay’s assertion that he was there to “get back to what I’m good at – cooking.” It is transparent to anyone with half an eye open that Ramsay now cooks only when a camera is pointing his direction. Meanwhile, how far has Ramsay’s star fallen that he could – until his wife’s exit from ITV’s Dancing on Ice – be seen, behind-the-scenes, promising to give the “Mr. Nasty” judge Jason Gardiner a “grilling”?
Ramsay’s problem seems to be that he wants to have his gateau and eat it. He has never reconciled his culinary reputation with his wish to make buckets of money on television. And, perhaps we can only see now, with the clarity that a recession brings, how cosmically weird the idea of a celebrity superchef always was. I’m not talking about Jamie Oliver or, before him, Keith Floyd – both unabashed television personalities – but someone like Ramsay or Heston Blumenthal, whose claim to fame is their critically-lauded restaurants.
The stars of sport, music, and film all have a shippable, instantly global product. A kid from Rio, for instance, knows that Kaka can caress a football as clearly as the guy sitting on the halfway line of the San Siro, because the man’s talent is there for all to see. But the idea of an haute cuisine genius enjoying mass appeal is inherently ridiculous.
To know whether a chef is worth his reputation, you need to have eat in an expensive restaurant, in a particular city, at a particular time. The chef in question doesn’t need to have julienned every carrot, but he must be in charge of the kitchen. Otherwise, what you’re really assessing is his ability to recruit, or to write a menu. The vast majority of people who consider Ramsay a great cook will never have tasted his food. The “Armani Defence” holds no water. The relationship between a chef and a diner is simple: they cook, you eat.
Recently, there have even been those who have questioned Ramsay’s credentials. Michel Roux Senior, through whose kitchen Ramsay passed, said he was never convinced of the Scot’s talent – “that guy,” he said, “is no better than anyone else.” Harden, meanwhile, has pointed to the Michelin Guide’s propensity to award stars to chefs who have “box office” more readily than to unknown figures. (There does, incidentally, seem to be some merit in this thesis – Michelin once gave Raymond Blanc’s Quatre Saisons restaurant two stars before it had opened.)
“Has Ramsay ‘gone off’ or is it that the media has taken against him?” asks Harden. “Arguably neither. The media – ably assisted by Michelin and the stars liberally sprinkled on Ramsay’s empire worldwide – built him up as a comic book hero to an extent that was never credible in the first place. All that’s really happening is that commentators are now appraising his life and works rather more realistically. In the cold light of day, the emperor turns out not to be wearing no clothes, exactly, but certainly to be less finely apparelled than formerly thought.”
Giles Coren, a friend of Ramsay’s, offers this judgement. “Gordon is a nice, normal bloke, who has always been extremely kind to me,” he says. “I never see much of that in his public persona, or in the decisions he makes. Gordon is a raw material – a good-looking, talented person, not unlike David Beckham – who has been made into something he’s not by other people. I don’t know what’s at the centre. He’s a mystery to me.”
Whatever is at his centre, Ramsay has not helped himself. But one can’t help wondering whether his fall has been more occasioned by the public’s loss of interest in his media persona, as much as anything he’s done. Indeed, the celebrity chef seems to me to have been the ultimate Noughties phenomenon: a smoke and mirrors job. And, like many products in the pre-crash world – credit default swaps, evidence of WMD – its value was illusory. Why did it not seem odd to us that a chef’s opinion on world politics or the football transfer window was somehow, suddenly important? Why were we in Galicia, listening to Ramsay, on ABN-AMRO’s dime? Because these people had currency. No one, however, had audited the system that allowed them to thrive.
The poignant thing is, Ramsay saw it coming. During that weekend in Spain, he tried to convince me of his sincerity. He was, he argued, simply a guy trying his best. “I do give a fuck what people think of me, you know,” he said. “But I don’t walk round trying to charm the nation to kiss my arse. Because you get found out eventually. And that’s the secret of staying successful, too. Customers don’t tell you you can’t cut it anymore. They just fuck off to another restaurant.”