x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Even as regional ventures sour, don't count out Gordon Ramsay

Gordon Ramsay has just closed his signature restaurant in Doha, eight months after ending a 10-year presence in Dubai, but John Henzell finds it isn’t likely to mean the end of the notoriously foul-mouthed chef’s visibility.

Whether you consider Gordon Ramsay to be an uncompromising culinary perfectionist or just an overexposed profane bully, it's hard to avoid the celebrity chef's influence. But for those in the Gulf, that influence is now less likely to be experienced via the taste buds and more likely to be through a television screen.

Verre, at the Hilton Dubai Creek, was his first overseas venture when it opened in 2001. But it closed last October, echoing the dramatic contraction in his restaurant empire sparked by the global financial crisis.

This week, his Maze restaurant on the Pearl-Qatar suddenly closed after being in business for two years. That was offset by two other Gordon Ramsay restaurants opening in Doha's St Regis hotel last month.

Contrast that with his reality television career, with three prime-time shows on the Fox network this summer. The tenth series of Hell's Kitchen is screening alongside the third season of MasterChef USA - earning more than 10 million viewers between them - and will be joined in August by the brand new Hotel Hell. On British screens in February, Ramsay has been linked with Food Glorious Food, Simon Cowell's show searching for the best British recipe.

For someone who now only picks up a frying pan for work when a camera is on him rather than for customers at the score of restaurants that use the Ramsay brand, he's well on the way to being far more celebrity than chef.

These latest twists and turns of Ramsay's career path should surprise nobody who is familiar with his well-publicised back story: after a childhood growing up in the shadow of an alcoholic and violent father, he left home almost as soon as he was old enough. He tried out for a place with Glasgow's Rangers football team and only turned to the kitchen when persistent injuries ended his sporting aspirations.

The unbridled passion that would have earned him endless red cards on the football pitch was applied to cooking, winning the coveted three Michelin stars for his eponymous London restaurant, but it only truly flowered when captured on camera.

The withering profanity he used on Boiling Point, the first fly-on-the-wall documentary television series in which he was featured in 1998, quickly became legendary and propelled the show high in the ratings. It also turned Ramsay from being famous for his cooking to being a true celebrity chef.

Time has not withered this characteristic. One assessment of a later show had him using a particular curse 298 times in one 96-minute programme.

His profanity was such that Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, shown on Australian television in 2008, prompted the country's senate to hold an inquiry into swearing on television.

But even in this era of vacuous reality broadcasting, Ramsay's telegenic rants probably would not have counted for much without being set against a backdrop of considerable culinary ability.

This was recognised early by a series of important mentors, the first of whom was the prototype celebrity chef Marco Pierre White, and later by the anonymous assessors of the Michelin Guide. At the height of his restaurant empire, Ramsay boasted 13 Michelin stars.

He expanded aggressively, at first within Britain and then around the world. Dubai was the first venture overseas and was followed by New York, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Prague, rural Ireland, Australia, Canada, France and South Africa.

All this left Gordon Ramsay Holdings Ltd overextended when the global financial crisis struck in 2008. As someone who played troubleshooter for others' failing restaurants in Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, he found his own restaurant empire in deep trouble. He said he was advised to put the chain in liquidation but battled through.

The stumble came at a cost, with his personal estimated wealth changing from £118 million (Dh671m) in the 2010 Sunday Times rich list to failing to make the list two years later. (At that point his wealth was still valued at a not-to-be-sniffed-at £50m.)

His move from hands-on chef to pure celebrity might prove to be well timed.

Two years ago, Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper described Ramsay's culinary reputation as being in "slow-motion decline", with many concerned that the superchef is now "more sizzle than sausage".

At Maze, Ramsay's just-closed restaurant at The Pearl-Qatar, some of the reviews had been poor.

At the crowd-sourcing site TripAdvisor.com, Maze had been rated just 42nd out of the 161 restaurants reviewed by the website's users. Among the restaurants rated higher were cheap-and-cheerful eateries such as Turkey Central, which offers meals for $10, and the buffet at the Oryx hotel near the airport.

More than a third of the reviews rated Maze as poor to terrible, with some as derogatory as Ramsay's trademark tirades against his kitchen staff when they are found wanting, albeit with far fewer expletives.

"With great expectations around 30 people gathered at this restaurant last year ... but it was a huge disappointment," one said.

"Having watched all his shows I was super exited to finally have the chance to dine at one of his restaurants, but where have you been, Gordon? Maze might as well have been started by a semi-artist without any sense of good food. Bland. Boring. Strange combos.

"I should mention that all of us were disappointed. Every. Single. One."

Where has Gordon been? The nature of having a restaurant empire inevitably means there won't be the day-to-day - or even monthly - supervision by the person with Michelin stars and his name on the door. And especially when that person has three prime-time television programmes. Instead, it's passed on to trusted deputies, none of whom appear on TV.

When taken to task about his involvement in what was then more than 20 restaurants, Ramsay was quoted likening his situation to that of a fashion designer who would never be expected to stitch every creation themselves.

To be fair, a pivotal factor in closing Maze in Doha was that the Pearl-Qatar marina development lost its alcohol licence in December. A traditional business model for restaurants is to make most of their profit on drinks rather than the meal itself, and many of the restaurants in the Pearl-Qatar marina development reported their profits dropping by half.

The decision to close Maze was made in March and last month, two other Gordon Ramsay restaurants had opened in Doha's St Regis Hotel, which retains its alcohol licence.

One is Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, Doha, and is geared around fine dining, while the other is the bistro-style Opal by Gordon Ramsay. In this case, the trusted deputy with the day-to-day control of both restaurants is the Michelin-starred chef Gilles Bosquet, who had worked for Ramsay at the Connaught in London.

No assessment of Ramsay's career could be fair without including his fallings out with his business partners and colleagues. This included famous feuds with erstwhile mentor White (a 2003 rapprochement saw White set Ramsay up as head chef with a share of profits in the London restaurant where he would earn his first Michelin star) and more recently with Chris Hutcheson, his business partner and father-in-law.

The latter was played out in spectacularly public fashion, with Ramsay claiming Hutcheson had misused company money and Hutcheson responding by trying to persuade his daughter to leave Ramsay, whom he called a friendless egotist.

The dispute was settled when Ramsay paid Hutcheson out for his share of Gordon Ramsay Holdings. The most recent records for the company showed that, after reorganisation costs and writing off of loans to a jointly-owned London gastropub, the company had suffered a £4.4m (Dh25m) loss for the year.

But having got through the turbulence of the global financial crisis and his falling out with Hutcheson, Ramsay is expanding his empire once more. Last September, he opened Bread Street Kitchen in the City of London.

While his television career continues to do well, it's time not to rule out any more twists and turns in Ramsay's life.


The Biog

November 8, 1966 Born in Renfrewshire, Scotland

1993 Set up as head chef of Aubergine, London

1994 Aubergine awarded first Michelin star

1996 Gordon Ramsay’s Passion for Flavour published, the first of more than 20 books

1998 Opens Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, London

1998 Ramsay is the subject of the fly-on-the-wall documentary, Boiling Point

2001 Restaurant Gordon Ramsay awarded three Michelin stars

2001 Opens Verre in Dubai

2005 Hosts Hell’s Kitchen, an American reality television cooking competition

2006 Awarded an OBE

2010 Opens Maze in Qatar

2011 Ends deal with Verre, Hilton Dubai Creek

2012 Closes Maze, opens two restaurants at the St Regis, Doha