RAM­SAY’S BIG SE­CRET

Matt Sud­dain talks to chef, restau­ra­teur and much-feared TV per­son­al­ity Gor­don Ram­say and dis­cov­ers the pussy­cat within

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Matt Sud­dain talks to with chef, restau­ra­teur and much-feared TV per­son­al­ity Gor­don Ram­say and dis­cov­ers the pussy­cat within

That con­trol is gonna kill you. I’ve seen it. Heart at­tacks, strokes. The in­dus­try will beat you, and you’ve got to be very smart to sur­vive. GOR­DON RAM­SAY

‘T hese days we seem to be busier than ever, but we each make time to cook for dif­fer­ent rea­sons.”

I thought about this quote from his new book the night be­fore our in­ter­view, while eat­ing a bur­rito over a plas­tic salad bowl. The bowl serves two culi­nary pur­poses: first, to stop scald­ing cheese drip­ping on your crotch — which is im­por­tant when your wife is out and you’re eat­ing a cheesy bur­rito in your un­der­pants. Also, the con­gealed cheese can be eaten from the bowl with a spoon at the end of the meal, sort of like a dessert. How would Gor­don Ram­say re­act if he knew I used a bur­rito bowl? Or that I once ate cold baked beans out of a tin with a plas­tic spork while stand­ing over the sink be­cause I didn’t want to do any dishes? As a jour­nal­ist, it’s my job to sniff out peo­ple’s se­crets; as a food lover, my sins weigh heavy on my soul.

Bread Street Kitchen is in the heart of Lon­don, in the shadow of St Paul’s Cathe­dral. The lunch rush was over, and Ram­say was stand­ing near a stack of his new book: Bread Street Kitchen, sub­ti­tled “Delicious recipes for break­fast, lunch and din­ner to cook at home”. He has fluid, fo­cused move­ments and a nat­u­ral floor-ward gaze, like a naughty school­boy — which I guess comes from the fact that he has spent a large por­tion of his life lean­ing over things: plates, pans, ter­ri­fied un­der­lings. He was lean­ing over books as he signed them, while his min­der — who seemed like the kind of per­son who screams con­stantly in­side her own head — hov­ered nearby, mak­ing sure no un­ac­cred­ited specs of dust landed on him.

The PR agent for the book’s pub­lisher came over to tell me that the other two jour­nal­ists hadn’t ar­rived yet. She sent me to a dainty look­ing sofa, where I spent time flick­ing through his book.

Bread Street Kitchen has recipes of vary­ing dif­fi­culty, from French toast with ba­con or berries, to spatch­cocked poussins with chimichurri sauce. No recipe for cheesy soft tor­tilla bur­ri­tos over a bowl, I no­ticed.

I was in the mid­dle of googling “chimichurri” when a voice said, “Gor­don, this is Matt from New Zealand. The other two jour­nal­ists haven’t ar­rived, so it’ll just be the two of you.”

Ram­say shook my hand warmly as he eased on to the sofa and started to rave about New Zealand. “Big, big, lover of New Zealand.” He’s been to New Zealand — “oooh, a dozen times. Eas­ily. I think I like go­ing down there be­cause it doesn’t feel like work.” He spends most of his time in the South Is­land. “I feed off it, and not even from a chef’s point of view. It’s pure, just beau­ti­ful.”

I can tell al­ready that Ram­say’s big se­cret is that he’s nice. Not fake nice, ei­ther, like so many celebri­ties dur­ing me­dia week. He seems like a sweet­heart. The 50-year-old chef gets misty when he talks about start­ing out. Cash-poor, time-poor, count­less hours spent in hot lit­tle hells un­der con­stant bul­ly­ing from ca­reer so­ciopaths like Marco Pierre White, and with very lit­tle time for travel. “For me, trav­el­ling over the past 10 years has be­come so much eas­ier. Mon­day I’m off to Bordeaux; Austin, Texas next week. Chefs have to be like mag­pies, you have to go around and find all these amaz­ing things and bring them back to the pot, then di­vide and con­quer.”

The global travel boom — as well as the in­ter­net — has broad­ened the minds of his cus­tomers, too. These days, peo­ple go out to dine “fully armed”, so to speak. “The knowl­edge cus­tomers walk through our door with now is ex­tra­or­di­nary.” His new book cap­i­talises on our de­sire to cook the food we eat in restau­rants at home. He wanted to give peo­ple a chance to ex­per­i­ment with some of the recipes his team cre­ated for Bread Street. But to test the idea, he had to get out of the pro­fes­sional en­vi­ron­ment and back into his own kitchen.

“I took all the in­gre­di­ents home so I could put my­self in that do­mes­tic sit­u­a­tion. Cooking

in a restau­rant is easy. There’s a brigade, it’s like a sym­phony. You’re the con­duc­tor. You just shout and it all comes to you. Cooking at home’s a dif­fer­ent beast.”

Not that he is en­tirely with­out a brigade at home. Ram­say and his wife, Tana, have four kids — Me­gan, Matilda, twins Jack and Holly — and they like to lend a hand.

“It’s been great for the kids. And they cook any­way. They grew up with a love of food, and they’re not snobs about it ei­ther.”

RAM­SAY GREW up in Stratford-upon-Avon, the birth­place of Wil­liam Shake­speare. Like the im­mor­tal Bard, he had a father whose drink­ing and poor ca­reer de­ci­sions kept the fam­ily con­stantly on the brink. Ram­say left home at 16. He had his sights set on be­com­ing a pro­fes­sional foot­baller, even earn­ing a trial with Rangers Foot­ball Club. He wrecked the car­ti­lage in his knee but, rather than wait for it to heal prop­erly, he kept train­ing, wreck­ing his cru­ci­ate lig­a­ment too. Rangers re­leased him soon af­ter. I won­der how much the dis­ap­point­ment — which must have hurt more than the in­jury — af­fected the way he ap­proached his cooking ca­reer. He seems to have pro­ceeded fairly cau­tiously.

He de­scribes in de­tail the pit­falls of suc­cess in this busi­ness, how it sucks you in, keeps you un­der the il­lu­sion that ev­ery­thing cooked needs to have your fin­ger­prints on it. “That’s the worst thing any chef could be. That con­trol is gonna kill you. I’ve seen it. Heart at­tacks, strokes. The in­dus­try will beat you, and you’ve got to be very smart to sur­vive.”

The key, he says, is del­e­ga­tion. ”Peo­ple al­ways say, ‘If you’re such a hands-on chef, who does it when you’re not there?’ and I say, ‘The same peo­ple who do it when I am f***ing there!’”

He’s work­ing on a tele­vi­sion show for Ama­zon called Raw, which fo­cuses on the sec­onds-in­com­mand at top restau­rants. “I’ve got 10 num­ber twos, and they’re the ones prop­ping ev­ery­thing up. So I’m go­ing to fol­low them around 24/7, see what

sort of shit they have to go through to pro­vide for their chef.”

He still re­mem­bers what it was like to be them. “F***ing raw, not a pot to piss in, ob­sessed with food. Not in it for the money, just want­ing to per­fect and go on a jour­ney. You just do ev­ery­thing you can to be the best you can be. Then you hit the end of that jour­ney, quick.” He slaps his fist hard against his palm, “You think, ‘Shit, I’m here, I’ve gotta keep it now.’ So how do you keep it? You have to be un­selfish, and share all the knowl­edge you’ve gained with all these younger chefs.”

You can hand over the daily tasks of run­ning a restau­rant, but you can’t del­e­gate away the pres­sure that comes from run­ning an empire, of see­ing some projects thrive while oth­ers crash and burn, and watch­ing crit­ics nib­ble away at your suc­cess like reef fish. Cer­tain chefs in New York have been lick­ing their wounds af­ter re­cent maul­ings from pow­er­ful

New York Times food critic Pete Wells.

“Yeah, hi­lar­i­ous. The way he took down Keller a couple of months ago.” Thomas Keller, pro­pri­etor of The French Laun­dry, and holder of seven Miche­lin stars, had to watch in hor­ror as Wells took his pres­ti­gious New York restau­rant, Per Se, to task, call­ing it “among the worst food deals in New York”. For Ram­say, Keller’s mis­take was to apol­o­gise. “It’s only one man’s opin­ion. If he’s deal­ing with a half-empty restau­rant and no one on the wait­ing list, he may have a point.”

But some­times things can be pop­u­lar, and still be a rip-off. Isn’t it a critic’s job to call peo­ple out when they’re charg­ing hun­dreds of dol­lars for lessthan-per­fect food?

“Cus­tomers are your crit­ics. They’re the ones who’re pay­ing your bills. So what does New Zealand do? They’ve got no Miche­lin Guide. At the end of the day it’s about be­ing con­sis­tent and con­fi­dent about what you do. Don’t worry about be­ing a world class restau­rant, just be a lo­cal restau­rant. Be­come em­bed­ded in that com­mu­nity. But yeah, if you’re gonna charge $600 per head, you need to be fault­less. You need to be ab­so­lutely per­fect on a daily ba­sis.”

To make any real money, though, the star chef has to keep grow­ing. They have to open new restau­rants, write cook­books, do TV shows. So I won­der how Ram­say goes about main­tain­ing stan­dards across ... how many restau­rants is it now? “Thirty-two,” he says, a lit­tle brusquely. “Last week we cel­e­brated 18 years of Gor­don Ram­say on Royal Hos­pi­tal Road. Never opened week­ends, Mon­day to Friday, 10 ta­bles, and we cook 35 lunches and 40 din­ners. One brigade. I’ve still got the same maitre d’ I had back on the first of Septem­ber 1998.”

Restau­rant Gor­don Ram­say was his first solo project, and earned him three Miche­lin stars. He’s man­aged to re­tain those stars, de­spite hand­ing over the reigns to younger pro­teges.

“How you set your­self up for fail­ure is you get greedy. You open places with 50 seats, and it be­comes un­con­trol­lable. I still have that lit­tle trin­ket box of Gor­don Ram­say on Royal Hos­pi­tal Road. I went there last night and watched it func­tion to ab­so­lute per­fec­tion. You set your­self up for suc­cess by do­ing that every night, serv­ing per­fect food to 10 ta­bles. Fifty-seven staff for 38 seats. I wasn’t try­ing to con­quer the world.”

His sim­ple phi­los­o­phy trans­lates to any cre­ative medium. Strive for ex­cel­lence, don’t be scared to fail, and don’t worry about what any­one else is do­ing.

“It’s hard to be cre­ative if you’re scared, you’re in­tim­i­dated, you’re a fol­lower. For me, it’s like mu­sic. We have ses­sions in our fam­ily, with Tilly play­ing the drums and Jack on gui­tar. It’s amaz­ing see­ing how peo­ple take an idea, and then go off and steer it in an­other di­rec­tion.

“It’s ex­actly the same with food. But in the kitchen, your job as a leader is to say, ‘Right, that’s it, don’t do any more. It’s done.’ Know­ing when to stop comes with ma­tu­rity, and hav­ing worked in the in­dus­try for so long.” BY GOR­DON RAM­SAY (HACHETTE, $50) IS OUT ON TUES­DAY.

PIC­TURE / FILM MAGIC

RAM­SAY WITH WIFE TANA (LEFT) AND DAUGH­TERS ME­GAN AND HOLLY.

PIC­TURE / DEAN PUR­CELL

RAM­SAY IS WEL­COMED TO PAPAKURA HIGH SCHOOL BY STU­DENT TAY­LOR PAORA.

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