Near the beginning of the interview while the topic meandered around old footballing injuries, a lovely middle-aged lady sauntered over from the London bar and snuck up to Gordon Ramsay from behind. Thinking at first that she was a FOG (Friend of Gordon), I then noticed the slightest hint of inebriation in her eyes and realized that she was a fan drifting over to say hello to Manhattan’s newest star chef. Mr. Ramsay, whose face tends to hide very little of his thoughts, smiled and shook her hand. She introduced herself as a realtor (“I work at the biggest company, the biggest!” she said proudly), and asked him how his apartment hunting was coming along. I leaned forward in my chair, absolutely certain that I was about to witness a humorous, Ramsay-ish brush-off. But...it didn’t happen! He smiled and chatted her up politely for several minutes, exhibiting a flair for patience far beyond what I would ever expect from someone who earns more money in 3 minutes than most folks do in a week. She apparently had emailed his office with her real estate credentials, and although it’s unlikely that Ramsay will earn her any commissions (“I’ve never sent an email in my life,” he told her), she left our table happy, her face adorned with a huge smile; another satisfied customer. So while we were on the subject...
Q: How is your apartment hunting going?
A: I’m looking toward the meatpacking district. It’s got character and it’s got the authenticity of New York. I like something that’s sort of steeped in history in terms of nostalgia, when you think of what was going on there in the 1940s. I went to my first amazing restaurant near there, I went to Bouley when he was there. It had these little archways and you went through them and he had these little boxes of apples as you walked in the door. I was 25 at the time and I was blown away by it.
Mr. Ramsay has just released a new book in which he talks about his life story, “Roasting in Hell’s Kitchen,” whose narrative sounds very much like listening to Ramsay talking, which makes it all the more enjoyable. There are incredible stories of self-destructive behavior occurring all around him – his father’s abuse and his brothers’ heroin addiction being two examples – along with stories that make you wonder how he possibly made it through it all. But his recounting of his escapades in London with Marco Pierre White, as well as the time he spent in France, is by far the most entertaining.
Q: What were your most powerful experiences from your time working in France?
A: I started off with Guy Savoy and I had the most amazing time there. I’ve never known a chef could bring the sea and the earth together in this amazing, balanced way with an articulated lightness and control. Then there was Robuchon and then I went to Ducasse for a season. I never like talking about that because I’m not jumping on the bandwagon of a famous chef, but I worked with Ducasse for one summer season. I had the most amazing time. I scrubbed his kitchen so clean I nearly put a f---ing hole in the place. I had that much respect for the man. I couldn’t speak a word of French, and I had 4200 franks a months to survive, 420 quid, which is bollocks. My accommodation was 4000 so I had 200 franks a month to last me. After working 6 days a week for Guy Savoy, I took a job making cappuccinos and just basically cooking run of the mill peasant food. But what I didn’t realize was that the owner of this café was running a 3-star establishment from Monday to Saturday. So when they started telling me, “God, I can’t believe the way you move so quick, you’ve got a natural flare for food,” I would say, “I’m studying, I’m going to a university here,” I didn’t want to tell them I was working in another 2 or 3 Michelin star restaurant. Then when I became bilingual and completely fluent I got a promotion and more money, so I would not have to work on a Sunday after 7 months of being in Paris, so I’d go and spend money around the market cooking for myself. I’d go around the festivals and the amazing iconic places, and I would go knocking on the doors for menus for a menu collection. I have over 3 1⁄2 thousand menus now, I just love reading through them. They’re all filed A-Z in a filing drawer at home, it’s like a big pull out console at the end of the bed. It’s always close to me, always.
Considering the abundance of interviews and media articles about Ramsay over the past six or seven years, finding interview questions that were fresh and original was going to be a challenge. Although there were a few occasions during our one-hour interview when Mr. Ramsay stopped and said “... but that’s all in the book,” referring to his newly-published memoir, his answers were far from being routine or scripted.
Q: In your book you talk about the difficult relationship you had with your father growing up. How do you think that experience changed who you are today?
A: Gosh, I found out a lot about myself. The football helped propel me into food; it was a perfect excuse in terms of mom and dad were going through a divorce so I switched off on them. I found it character-building in a way that I was totally insecure. I never had that relationship with my father so everything I didn’t do with my dad, I make sure today I do with my son now, and we’ve become best mates, so it skipped a generation. I’ll make sure I never fall out with him. We can have misunderstandings and whenever there’s an issue we’ll make sure we voice it rather than harbor it, it’s dangerous. It’s the same in the kitchen. You start harboring problems and complacency seeps in and before you know it you’ve got an inconsistent restaurant. It doesn’t work.
It would be a mistake to think that Gordon Ramsay brought his world-class cuisine to New York solely for the money. If you think that he is here to score a few more Michelin points (preferably three), you would be partially correct – there is no higher reward in his opinion. If you think he is here because of his ego, to prove to himself that he can perform on one of the world’s top stages, perhaps you are right again. But anyone who thinks that he is not taking this challenge seriously enough, as a recent London Times interview implied, couldn’t be farther from understanding what powers his internal engine.
Q: There was a recent interview in the London Times where the writer was saying that he didn’t think you were taking the move to New York as seriously as you should. What was your reaction to that?
A: I don’t underestimate the challenge in New York, but I’m not as intimidated. I’ve been to hell and back to get where I am today at the age of 40, and the challenges were extraordinary. When I learn and eat out the way I do, constantly going into Jean-Georges and Daniel and Per Se and Masa and the Modern - phenomenal chefs, phenomenal chefs - but I don’t feel that I’m out of their league. They’ve been here as part of the building infrastructure for years and I’m the new kid on the block, someone to scrutinize twice as much so any little mistake becomes a big mistake. I shouldn’t be making mistakes; however, I do. I’m genuine and I don’t underestimate a challenge and I know that it’s a daunting task, but I love that level of jeopardy. I’m at my best under pressure. I can’t function unless I have it. If I’m taking it easy, I’m not interested. I want the best of the best, and there’s a price to pay for that, so no, the challenge is daunting but exciting. I’m still going to sleep with one eye open, trust me.
There are few topics that bring out the boyish enthusiasm in Mr. Ramsay more than speaking about members of his staff. His PR agent brought us a copy of his new book, and he immediately began thumbing through the pages to show me photos of Neil Ferguson, Gordon Ramsay at the London’s executive chef, who has worked for Ramsay for 12 years. The photograph showed a young Neil kneeling in front of Aubergine restaurant in a staff photo. Ramsay laughed and said that Ferguson “looked angelic, like something out of a choir or the London Philharmonic Orchestra, extraordinarily young and not a dimple in sight. Here’s little angelic Neil, he’s barely lost his virginity there for god sake. He looks like he’s just auditioned for Harry Potter.” While I laughed at Ramsay’s jokes, I realized then and there that his son Jack is not the only beneficiary of his desire to be the father he never had – he also thinks of his staff as family.
Q: Why did you select Neil Ferguson to come to New York and run the restaurant here?
A: The guy is superb, he’s just become a dad and his responsibilities have gone up tenfold. Shelly (his wife) is from Boston, she knows the score; we spend more time together then we do with our families, so the bond is extraordinary and I want that man to go on and have his own restaurant someday in Boston or New York. So settling himself here for me and remaining a pillar of strength has been a challenge. The man’s palate is extraordinary. His level of discipline is amazing. He was destined to come here. He’s a man who has had his personal life side-tracked for the last 10 years to get where he is today. In terms of his agility, he’s like a ballerina in the kitchen, he moves with such finesse, a powerful man, very powerful. I spotted that right away. You know what, when you’re in a kitchen scenario and you’re all over your job in a way that you’re a control freak, you can spot in an hour who is going to last 5 years, who’s going to be with you for 3 months, and who is running back to mom during the first week with their washing in their bag to get their ass pampered. Trust me, instantly. So a different ball game this one, talented, talented man. I see what Laurent Gras did for Ducasse in terms of how he ran the 3 star in Monaco and then hit New York as an independent talent. I think that’s what the next stage for Neil is going to be in 3 or 4 years time, he can stand alone and compete with the best.
The enormous responsibility that accompanies the opening of a high-profile restaurant in one of New York’s top hotels can be overwhelming, not only for the owners but for the staff. When that opening occurs in a foreign country, and staff members are flown in and expected to start a life in that new location, you can add culture shock to the restaurant’s list of challenges to overcome.
Q: You’ve brought a large crew with you from London. Has it been difficult for you, and for them, to adjust to life here in New York?
A: Pick 85 New Yorkers up and put them in the middle of London. It’s going to be the same transition for them as it is for us, so you’ve got to understand the culture. We haven’t just arrived 2 months ago, Neil got here a year ago, spent time in California, spent time at Per Se, Daniel, and Jean-Georges, so he’s part of the community. So we haven’t sort of stuck out there like an appendix and tried to make out that we’re arrogant, self-believing, insolent individuals and that we’re going to come here and change the world. This is an exciting city to be in but I don’t see it as any more difficult or any less easy than London or Paris. The last five years we’ve been cooking for Americans so all this adaptation that everyone thinks we have to configure our menus to New York is total bullocks. I’ve been here waiting with bated breath for the last 5 years to hit New York and the response and the support mechanisms from our customers that have been traveling from New York to London has been phenomenal. So my ear’s been very close to the wall and I miss nothing, from Daniel Boulud’s latest special, to Rachel Ray’s f---ing olive oil. Trust me, I know about it.
There are probably enough colorful stories about Ramsay to fill several books alone, but the one where he threw London restaurant critic A.A. Gill out of his restaurant is one of my personal favorites. An article in which Gill referred to Ramsay as having had a shotgun wedding irked him so much that three years later, he politely asked him and his guest, actress Joan Collins, to leave his restaurant. “That wasn’t for publicity, arrogance, or any of that crap,” he explained to me, “it was just to stand strong for what you believe.”
Q: Okay, let’s talk about your favorite topic, restaurant critics. Are you the worst critic of your own restaurants?
A: Yes, and I have been for 10 years. Unfortunately in Britain we have celebrity food critics. They’re far more interested in talking about their girlfriend’s bikini line as opposed to the interior of the dining room and that shit goes over my head now. I’m not even interested to get the review. What are the qualifications today for restaurant critics? Don’t tell me there’s going to be a BA Honor’s Degree now in restaurant critic management? I don’t want to get into a slugging match with restaurant critics. At the end of the day they do their job, and there’s one bigger critic on top of them and that’s myself, critical of everything I do. Do we praise ourselves? Of course we do, we’ve got to pat the dog and stroke the dog at the same time so it’s a love/hate relationship and we’re such delicate flowers that we hate being criticized. When it’s constructive, you’ve got to take it on the chin. When it’s not constructive and it’s personal, then that stinks. But whether it’s A.A. Gill or Frank Bruni, their criticism is crucial as long as it’s not personal. When the product’s good, the food is immaculate, the décor is wonderful, the service is unique, it’s going to be here for a long time. When the food’s shit and service is inconsistent, it’s going to last 3 weeks and no more, so criticism is crucial. I never close my door to it but there is a time in your life where you get slightly frustrated about being judged on food from individuals who know less about it than you do. That’s the nature of the beast. You just put up with it. I’m resilient, I’ve got skin thicker than a f---ing rhinoceros, I swear to god. I’ve got skin that’s thicker than Joan Rivers. Depending on which one she bought recently.
As Mr. Ramsay would agree, the longevity of this very expensive (he put millions of dollars of his own money into this project) entry into the U.S. market essentially comes down to one thing; what’s on the plate.
Ramsay on the telly
1998 - Boiling Point; A Channel Four documentary (UK)
2000 - Beyond Boiling Point; The sequel to Boiling Point (UK)
2004 - Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares; visits failing restaurants and tries to turn them around (UK)
2004 - Hell’s Kitchen; Ramsay trains British celebrities to be chefs (UK)
2005 - Hell’s Kitchen on Fox; Ramsay trains young chefs (US)
2005 - The F-Word; various stories; more personal, with family and friends
Current and future
Hell’s Kitchen (US)–through 2007
Channel Four (UK)-various shows through 2011
The Simpsons (US)–Ramsay teaches Homer how to cook (2007)
Q: Let’s talk about your menu and the products you have found here.
A: Well, first of all, in terms of produce here, it’s extraordinary. Colorado lamb, the most amazing striped bass, and beautiful red mullet. The menu’s seasonal and it’s changing every 10 to 12 weeks. We’ll use the lunch menu to introduce our new a la carte dishes, so the lunch menus are the best bargain in America today, $40 for 3 courses, that’s 20 quid, 20 pounds! You can’t get 4 rounds of sandwiches at Subway for that or 4 café lattés. It’s modern European with an American influence of produce. We’ve just done the new beef dish, we’re going to be poaching the beef tea and clarifying the consommé in Earl Grey, so it’s cleansing. It’s got the root of a celery puree, it’s got poached beef and then this amazing consommé, winter consommé served with shavings of root vegetables, clarified and flavored with Earl Grey tea so it’s got that balance of lightness. We have braised halibut larded with smoked salmon. We’ve seasoned the inside of the fish, which is something incredibly difficult to do. This fish is very bland inside so we’ve enlivened it with smoked salmon, and that’s served with the most amazing grated horseradish volute, so it’s a Noilly Prat Vermouth volute made with scallops, corals and skirts and finished with a freshly grated teaspoon of horseradish. So yeah, I don’t want formalities here, I want happiness, flexibility, and something that has that balance. It’s very difficult to pull off that balance - very difficult.
Having a top-notch, 3-star dining experience often comes down to seeking out the best purveyors and making sure that you’re getting the best product possible. Mr. Ramsay’s front man, Neil Ferguson, has been here since the beginning of the year seeking out these critical relationships.
Q: Was finding the proper purveyors a challenge for you?
A: We know Le Bernardin gets the best fish in town; 20 years down the line I’ll be getting the best fish in town. There’s a pro rata in terms of hierarchy. I respect that hierarchy and if I was Eric and I wasn’t getting the best fish when I’ve got the most successful fish restaurant in the whole of America, of course I’d kick a stink, so we play second fiddle to that, but that’s no big news. That’s just no different than what it would be like if Eric was opening up in Wheelers or Scots in London, then he’d have to play second fiddle to everybody else. So I want to sneak in, keep my mouth shut, do my work, and let my food do the talking. So far that’s been f---ing hard work.
Just before we were expected in the kitchen for the grand tour, Ramsay informed me rather dramatically that “the man” had just called his restaurant to request a table for dinner. He said that the restaurant was fully booked but they had found him a place. “The man,” I repeated. “The man,” he deadpanned back. He was waiting for me to guess who “the man” was, but after a short silence he allowed me to give up and told me that “the man” was Alain Ducasse. It makes sense that Ducasse is the chef that Ramsay looks up to the most these days. He has the most Michelin stars of any chef in the world, a title that Ramsay is certainly capable of achieving some day. But I soon found out that he wanted to talk about Mr. Ducasse for another reason.
Q: You must be excited that Alain Ducasse is coming here tonight, when was the last time you saw Mr. Ducasse or spoke with him?
A: I bumped into him recently in London, the time before that was in Tokyo. I’ve got one thing over him that he hasn’t got, a G5; it’s the latest Learjet. Several people have asked me in the last couple weeks, “Your schedule must be mad,” I said not really, when I take off from my backyard. We go down the A-3 so we always book an early slot, so we have access to the most amazing G5 with 12 seats and it’s extraordinary. I can be on my phone and take off at the same time. It’s lovely. Check in is completely different. The worse thing you can ever do is fly in a private jet, because it just screws you up next time you go to an airport and you’re standing in that queue for 2 hours. So yeah, no Heathrow, no Gatwick, no Stansted, no Luton, time is of the essence. That’s the most important thing I’ve got right now; time. It’s critical.
Most parents know the difference between irrationally heavy-handed discipline, and having the occasional yell at a child who misbehaves; good parents dish out the discipline with love. Ramsay has occasionally been accused – mostly by people who don’t know him well – of being verbally abusive to his staff. In his book he describes several experiences when Marco Pierre White and Joel Robuchon threw vessels containing steaming-hot food at their heads. This, of course, has little to do with fatherly love, and their aim was true enough to cause Ramsay terrible mental and physical pain. But while Ramsay admits he is tough and expects perfection, his troops remain fiercely loyal to him. Over the past ten years he has retained 85% of his staff - a remarkable statistic. As we stepped into the kitchen, he began his frenzied routine of chastising one person, then joking with another. One cook had two Rorgue burners blasting away without pans on them, and Ramsay picked up on this immediately; “What’s that for? Wasting heat in f---ing winter? Well you can start paying the gas bills.” As a female waitress walked by he complimented her, then told a nearby male waiter than he would look great in tights. He then told a runner to move quicker or the desserts he was delivering would melt on the tray. These exchanges all took about 20 seconds. As he dashed along the floor, I never detected anything remotely like fear or anxiety from his staff – even if they were a tad stressed, it was not apparent. What I saw were young men and women who were working hard and who seemed to worship their flamboyant boss.
Q: Some people were saying that you may have trouble here with union employees if you yelled a bit much at them, were you worried about that?
A: When young cooks come in and they say ‘I don’t like the way you talk to me,’ - it hasn’t happened here but we’ve only been open for 2 1⁄2 weeks - then if you don’t like that way, go work for another big chef, go to Daniel or Jean-Georges or Guy Savoy and cook with their reputation in your hands and screw up. If you think you’re not going to take the bollocking for screwing up, you want to get mamsy pamsy at 24, how delicate an angel are you going to be at 34 when you’ve got to take constructive criticism, talk to the bank to get money, listen to criticism in terms of restaurant critics, and evolve as a chef?
Q: You’re going to be sending your chef from The Connaught, Angela Hartnett, to a new restaurant opening in Florida this coming year, is she looking forward to that?
A: Amazing. I’ve never seen a woman with such massive pair of bollocks; she plays Kerplunk with them, they are f---ing huge! If you think Josh (Emett) and I are bad, you should listen to Angela when she rips into a guy - he runs back home looking for his mum. She was a graduate from the university, studied mid-term history, graduated and then started cooking at the age of 20. Amazing lady. She’ll give Mario Batali a run for his money, trust me.
The only way to describe the kitchen is... enormous. It seems to stretch on forever, and from the chefs table you can see every station, every employee, and every facet of the kitchen. Whether the stations are servicing the main dining room, the London Bar, or hotel room service, the action is all there in front of you.
Q:You must be proud of this kitchen, what were some of your goals when you designed it?
A: The kitchen is extraordinary. I haven’t set up some Mickey Mouse piss-pot tin-can alley kitchen, it’s extraordinary and it’s an open plan, it’s all in view, I’m a control freak and so I know what’s coming out of there. The biggest problem in terms of fine dining is that everyone worries about the fragmented state of the desserts because the desserts always come from a different area. So we’ve done something different here, where we’ve got the center island for the dessert. These are the first Rorgue stoves in America. It’s a f---ing Bentley, it’s understated, it’s not flash, it hasn’t got all these fancy knobs and it doesn’t fall apart after 6 months. It’s solid, brushed stainless steel and all black panel and the heat that comes out of it is extraordinary, absolutely extraordinary. It’s got an extended bench for plating as well. Now, step around to the pastry, we’ve got pastry here for fine dining and then we’ve got London bar and main style restaurant going so everything’s open. Now on the upper end there is one hotplate here, one hotplate there, and one hotplate over there, so there are 2 L shapes coming at a symmetrical 90 degrees so everything is done through here. Pastry’s always been treated like a deli, always treated like the appendix. The whole thing is open, it’s like Wembley Stadium.
Q: How do you manage serving both restaurants and room service all from the same kitchen?
A: There is no conflict of interest. There is not “fine dining against the London bar,” we’re united, so the whole thing is a heart beat and we’re all interconnected. Every time you see a set up in a hotel the fine dining is normally the snub factor and they don’t want to associate themselves, so we’re all together. Within 3 months, in January, we’re all changing sections so we can all equate that level of quality around. It’s not second division here and elite there, we’re all elite and we all think along those same lines. There’s a standardized room menu, and then we have a deluxe sort of casual dining and fine dining as well, but that has to be done with a little more patience, which I think Jean-Georges has very cleverly managed to do. I’ve done my homework. Can I take this f---ing makeup off now?