While visiting his chefs in Dubai, Gordon Ramsay talks about his success and his motivation to carry on.
Gordon Ramsay heats up his Dubai kitchen
"Congratulations on the engagement, I'm really happy for you both. Just a bit of advice, though: don't ever go into business with her father." This not-so-throwaway comment came from Gordon Ramsay during his recent visit to Dubai, and was directed at myself and my fiancé Scott Price, the executive chef at Ramsay's restaurant Verre.
Although refusing to officially comment on the subject, this snippet says enough: the split from Chris Hutchinson, his long-term business partner, one-time mentor, and, significantly, still his father-in-law, is an acrimonious one. Couple this with the fact that the celebrity chef has just stepped off a night flight from the UK, and you can't help but worry that his notoriously short fuse might be dangerously close to blowing.
Yet, behind the scenes at the restaurant in the Hilton Dubai Creek, spirits are high as he banters with mildly awestruck team members, strips a waiter of his waistcoat, before trying it on for size, and poses for a stream of photographs. All those years of TV fame have left Ramsay more media savvy than most, and he is acutely aware of what his public expects from him; in short, boisterous, bouncy soundbites, with the occasional expletive thrown in for good measure. To top this, these days he is as PR-groomed as the increasingly blond locks on his head, making it difficult to determine how much is real and how much is a (botox maintained) mask.
I spent over a year working as a chef in Ramsay's Claridges kitchen (where I met Scott) and it was hard, very hard indeed. Despite the success of the likes of Angela Hartnett and Helene Darroze, the high end professional kitchen is still very much a male dominated environment: the hours are long, tensions run high, and chivalry is as hard to come by as a good nights sleep. But, in an attempt to gain a proper insight into the man who has had a rather tumultuous few years, on Saturday i spent the day observing Ramsay and even pulled on one of my old chef jackets, to venture back into the kitchen for dinner service at Verre.
Ramsay's energy levels seem to know no bounds. Throughout numerous interviews, a cooking class, trip to Dubai autodrome (accompanied by more journalists) and an evening spent alternately dipping into the kitchen to offer advice, and chatting with diners at their tables, his enthusiasm doesn't falter. When questioned about his hectic schedule, he says "I enjoy every minute of it, and i think you'd notice if i didn't. I really think that i've got the best job in the world". It may seem slightly bizarre, but i do actually believe him.
If there is one thing that i find hard to comprehend about the whole Gordon Ramsay phenomenon, it's what motivates him to carry on? When at the age of 43 you've already amassed huge wealth, achieved international celebrity status and attained those coveted three Michelin stars, what is there left to do? And more pertinently, when pretty much your every action is met with a bombardment of controversy and media criticism, why not just hang up your apron, wash your hands of the business side of things and enjoy yourself for the rest of your days?
Ramsay however is adamant that "It's worth every minute of it, i wouldn't change the way things have turned out, no, no definitely not'. With regards to the hostility that he has encountered, he says "I have become very thick skinned over the last few years. Once you start being hit with a certain level of criticism, you learn to let it fly over your head. When that amount of negativity is being directed at you, you can't sit there and worry or start panicking, you just have to get on with it". And negativity there has been: from his business decisions, to his personal life and multitude of restaurants, all areas have come under fire. The extent to which this is deserved is questionable. The Harden's London Restaurants Guide (published less than two months ago) suggested that standards had slipped at his flagship restaurant, and yet Ramsay could counter this claim with the assertion that Royal Hospital Road (said restaurant) "will celebrate ten years of three Michelin stars in January". Similarly, since the recession hit, the UK press has been awash with tales of money trouble at Gordon Ramsay Holdings, but it was recently reported that between October 2009 and August 2010, they made £4.2 million in profit.
Even those that are ardently anti-Ramsay must concede that some of the criticism that is thrown at him boarders on the absurd. Take for example, the tragic news a few weeks back of the suicide of Joseph Cerniglia, a chef who Ramsay had three years earlier, in customary fashion, blasted on his television show Kitchen Nightmares. Some members of the media were quick to forge a connection between his death and Ramsay's comments. When asked about this he says "First and foremost, i was saddened to hear of Joseph's death. Then, suddenly, people started blaming me. The family got in contact and said that they didn't in any way, but you can't say anything. You just have to keep your head down and carry on".
And carry on he does, in a somewhat inimitable fashion. Due to the global nature of brand Ramsay, he is frequently condemned for not spending enough time in the kitchen. By way of retort, he counters that "cheffing is a young mans game. I've done my time at the stove, for years i was practically pinned there. Nowadays, i'm still heavily involved in all my restaurants, but no, i'm not in the kitchen for every service. What i would say is that i have always aspired to train, and the praise that i get for the chefs that i teach or mentor, and the success that they as a result enjoy, far out weighs the criticism".
The calibre of his past proteges is high: Angela Hartnett, Jason Atherton and Marcus Wareing are notable success stories. Although Hartnett and Atherton have now set up on their own, they spent formative years at Verre. Scott has been in charge there for the past eight months, and Ramsay says of this: "Verre has always been an amazing training ground and it is a great place to be a head chef for the first time. Scott has gone from being a senior sous chef, to an executive head chef, and it was very much a sink or swim situation, but so far it has been an amazing swim".
Ramsay seems to allow his head chefs to express their talent and creativity with a relatively free reign-until he drops by and checks up on them of course. I can still remember the fission of fear when the urgent whisper of "he's here" ricocheted through the Claridges kitchen. Occasionally, it would be an astute receptionist who would telephone through and alert us to his imminent arrival, or sometimes the screech of an expensive car pulling up outside would give us an early warning- the thunder before the storm if you wish. Either way, the knowledge that Big G (as he is known, although perhaps not to his face), was on the premises would prompt a throng of urgent activity, as sections were tidied down, aprons straightened, and the consistency of the amuse bouche hastily checked.
Because of this, i rather feel for those in the kitchen tonight at Verre. Not so much for Scott and his talented head chef Nick Alvis, who are both well used to Ramsay's ways, but for the chefs who are tending to petit fours, or cooking the fish, some of whom are set to have their first Gordon Ramsay kitchen experience.
As service begins the sense of expectation is palpable. Rows of silver trays embossed with that famous name are carefully lined up, an array of bottles containing various purees are positioned within easy reach of the pass, and nimble hands are at work plucking micro herbs from their box.
Then, suddenly, an image that we're all familiar with from the television shows: Gordon has arrived and is stalking around the kitchen. His bulky, intimidating presence seems to fill the room, and with tasting spoon poised, he's ever ready to dip into a sauce or soup, and is quick to check that a piece of fish is perfectly cooked or that the bread being carried out of the kitchen by a (terrified looking) waiter, is warm and crisp.
Service itself is fast paced and focused and goes off without a glitch, or the uttering of a single swear word from Ramsay. In fact, he seems extremely happy: "Verre is a serious restaurant, and the food is, without a doubt, worthy of recognition from Michelin. I think that we are managing to hit a really stunning standard here". By way of parting comment, and one that is all too indicative of many a past fracas, he observes "when it's all to perfect and running smoothly, i need to create some jeopardy. I thrive on it, that's when i am at my best". Bearing that in mind, perhaps it's lucky for the kitchen team that the night is over, and Gordon is on the early flight home.