He sur­vived three years un­der Marco Pierre White, be­came the UK’s best chef and learnt that risks are es­sen­tial. Gor­don Ram­say is the gut­si­est chef of the last 20 years, says Mark San­som

Food and Travel (UK) - - Chefs -

Gor­don James Ram­say was born on 8 Novem­ber 1966 near Glas­gow and raised in Strat­fordupon-Avon af­ter he moved there at the age of five. Ram­say’s first love was foot­ball and he joined Glas­gow Rangers at 15. A knee in­jury cur­tailed his ca­reer and he en­rolled at North Ox­ford­shire Tech­ni­cal Col­lege to study ho­tel man­age­ment. His first TV ap­pear­ance was in 1996 on MasterChef. In 1999, he was the fo­cus of doc­u­men­tary Boil­ing Point. Ram­say’s Kitchen Night­mares and Hell’s Kitchen aired in 2004 and he’s since taken the fran­chises to the US. He’s married to Tana. They have four chil­dren:

Me­gan, Holly, Jack and Matilda.

If you were to plot a curve of Gor­don Ram­say’s ca­reer tra­jec­tory, only an in­ter­ga­lac­tic mis­sile at­tached to the graph line would do jus­tice to his strato­spheric rise. From humble be­gin­nings on coun­cil es­tates in Glas­gow and the West Mid­lands to one of the world’s big­gest stars, he’s forged a path that many are now try­ing to fol­low.

Last year, his earn­ings topped £45 mil­lion – as much as Bey­oncé – and as he raised a toast on his 50th birth­day last Novem­ber, his banking app blinked a net worth of £140 mil­lion. His shows Hell’s Kitchen and MasterChef are some of the most popular in the States, he classes A-List movie stars as close friends, hol­i­days with the Beck­hams and he has re­cently launched a global pro­duc­tion com­pany. But it’s easy to for­get: he’s first and fore­most the most tal­ented chef of his gen­er­a­tion.

As Food and Travel meets him in the pri­vate din­ing room of Hed­don Street Kitchen, his West End restau­rant, he’s fresh off the Good Morn­ing Bri­tain sofa. TV makeup stains the col­lar of his im­mac­u­lately tai­lored suit and he has the har­ried look of a man who’s spent half an hour with Piers Mor­gan. ‘Fuck me, I need a

cof­fee,’ he says with em­blem­atic aplomb. This in­tro­duc­tion tells me two things: a) yes, he ac­tu­ally does start sen­tences with swear­words in real life; and b) there’s ev­ery chance I could be get­ting both bar­rels he might have liked to train on Mor­gan. Ei­ther way, it prom­ises to to be an in­ter­est­ing af­ter­noon.

Heavy­weight con­tender Ram­say is a big man. I wasn’t quite pre­pared for a frame that matched his per­son­al­ity. Stand­ing 6ft 2in with shoul­ders that out­stretch the back of his chair, you can well imag­ine that his bite equals his bark. He clocks me ad­mir­ing his physique: ‘I might look in de­cent shape now but I was a fat fucker,’ he says. ‘I bal­looned to 18 stone when Tana was hav­ing Me­gan, our first baby. It was weird. As Tana was get­ting big­ger, I felt like I needed to as well. Don’t ask me why. If you look at pic­tures of us then, it looked as though I was the one car­ry­ing the baby.’

That was in 1997, the same year that Ram­say gave birth to Restau­rant Gor­don Ram­say at Royal Hospi­tal Road, still his flag­ship, and the same year that we pub­lished the first edi­tion of Food and Travel. There’s a de­gree of syn­ergy be­tween our mu­tual paths: as the UK’s palate grew more so­phis­ti­cated, we’ve both been there to cater to it.

‘The late Nineties was a manic time. I just had to take the plunge,’ ex­claims Ram­say. ‘First, I had to con­vince Tana that it was a good idea to sell our first house to fund the restau­rant and then a sim­i­lar dis­cus­sion with my bank man­ager. Every­thing was in one pot. For the next two years, we were do­ing 16 hours a day. We spent the week­ends de­vel­op­ing and the weeks cook­ing our ar­ses off. I’ve never known scru­tiny like it. Ev­ery­one wanted a piece of me. The phys­i­cal and mental drain were like noth­ing I’d ever ex­pe­ri­enced. It sim­ply had to work for fi­nan­cial rea­sons; you can’t just cre­ate this restau­rant mecca and ex­pect peo­ple to come.’

Even though it was two decades ago, as Ram­say talks, his shoul­ders hunch and his eyes nar­row – it was clearly a test­ing time. ‘When peo­ple say that Miche­lin-starred restau­rants don’t make money, it winds me up. Ev­ery starred restau­rant I’ve been in­volved in has made money. It’s just bad prac­tice if a top restau­rant loses cash.’

He’s not wrong. For the early stages of his ca­reer, every­thing Ram­say touched turned to gold. Af­ter a cou­ple of brief stints at ho­tels and restau­rants in the Mid­lands, he rolled up his knives and came to Lon­don to work for the mer­cu­rial Marco Pierre White at his restau­rant Har­veys in Wandsworth. Ram­say was in­spired, in­sulted and ed­u­cated in his three years with the Leeds­born chef and counts his ten­ure in South Lon­don as the most valu­able of his ca­reer.

‘Marco was never in the wrong. If you didn’t like that, you were more than wel­come to walk out the door and take a job in some other restau­rant,’ wrote Ram­say in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy Humble Pie, pub­lished in 2006. ‘But he knew and we knew that there wasn’t any­where like Har­veys. There were bet­ter kitchens with more stars and older rep­u­ta­tions, but this place was some­thing dif­fer­ent. We were a tiny, young team and we were blaz­ing a trail.

‘The trou­ble was that Marco made you feel that noth­ing mat­tered out­side Har­veys. And that just wasn’t true. Even if I hadn’t been sick to the bot­tom of my stom­ach of the rages and the bul­ly­ing and the vi­o­lence, I needed to spread my wings if I was ever go­ing to be­come the kind of cook that I so des­per­ately wanted to be­come.’

French con­nec­tion

From Har­veys, Ram­say headed north across the Thames to Le Gavroche in Lon­don’s West End. He wanted to fur­ther his clas­si­cal French train­ing and saw the Miche­lin star-col­lect­ing Al­bert Roux as the man to do it. The two chefs im­me­di­ately hit it off and Ram­say was so suc­cess­ful that Roux in­vited him out for a sea­son in France at Ho­tel Diva, a ski re­sort above Nice. With the help of a rapidly ac­crued French girl­friend, Ram­say learnt the lan­guage.

His thirst for French skill was barely quenched, so he moved to Paris to work un­der Joël Robu­chon and Guy Savoy, the lat­ter of whom Ram­say calls his men­tor and the man who pro­vided the fin­ish­ing school for his French culi­nary ed­u­ca­tion.

He re­turned to Lon­don in 1993 with the spring in his step that hasn’t left his gait since. With con­fi­dence, a wealth of knowl­edge and hard­ened scar tis­sue from his Har­veys days, he was ready to take the reins at the restau­rant that made his name and ce­mented his rep­u­ta­tion: Aubergine.

A lot has been writ­ten about how Aubergine in­flu­enced the boom of the Lon­don restau­rant scene but the most em­pir­i­cal in­di­ca­tion of its qual­ity is its alumni. Mar­cus Ware­ing, Mark Sargeant, An­gela Hart­nett, Stu­art Gil­lies and Mark Askew are just some of the names who passed through Aubergine, as the restau­rant won its first star in 1995 fol­lowed by a sec­ond in 1997. It’s fair to say these ac­co­lades put noses out of joint.

‘I was work­ing with a kind of in­de­pen­dent flair that no one else was cook­ing with,’ says Ram­say. ‘I was giv­ing the likes of Al­bert and Marco a run for their money and do­ing it all at onethird of the price. As Lon­don grad­u­ally clicked on to this, those chefs went from be­ing my men­tors to my en­e­mies.’

Ram­say left Aubergine in late 1997 af­ter a pub­lic spat with its own­ers that cul­mi­nated in a staff walk­out. Could it have got three stars? ‘Def­i­nitely,’ Ram­say says. ‘I sup­pose what I was think­ing was that if I was go­ing to win three stars, I’d want to do it in a restau­rant that I owned [at the time, he had a 25 per cent stake in Aubergine]. It was like driv­ing for a For­mula One team that you can’t own, so you don’t want to win the cham­pi­onship.’

Writ­ten in the stars

Which brings us back to the launch of his mag­num opus, Gor­don Ram­say at Royal Hospi­tal Road. ‘It’s 19 years since open­ing that lit­tle baby and 16 years at three star,’ he says proudly. ‘I’ve kept the restau­rant at 40 cov­ers to main­tain per­fec­tion. Three stars in six years is a quick jump.’

And his se­cret? ‘How do you get three stars? You be­come the best two star in the coun­try. You need to have a cre­ative, ar­tic­u­late food iden­tity. You need to con­stantly evolve and push those bound­aries. We never play it safe. The tightrope is more dif­fi­cult with no safety net. At two star, you can sit there and think, “Fuck it, I can drop down to one.” At three, there is noth­ing there to catch you.’ And Ram­say’s for­mula clearly works – he’s just de­fied crit­ics to win an­other two stars 17 months since open­ing Le Pres­soir d’Ar­gent Gor­don Ram­say on the first floor of the In­ter­Con­ti­nen­tal Bordeaux – Le Grand Hô­tel.

These two restau­rants are the jew­els in the crown of an em­pire that spans four con­ti­nents and 30 sites. With so many restau­rants in dif­fer­ent ports, it’s no sur­prise that he clocks up the air miles; a cool 3.7 mil­lion in a year at the last count. As such, he’s had plenty of time to con­tem­plate the qual­ity of cui­sine in the air. ‘Christ, it’s bad. I worked with an air­line to de­velop their food. I know what hap­pens to it and how long ago it was cooked. The big­gest prob­lem is they try too hard. They think peo­ple want restau­rant ser­vice but we don’t. We just want some­thing light that won’t make us feel like shit af­ter we’ve eaten it.’

Ram­say has put his money where his mouth is. He’s in­vest­ing heav­ily into his Plane Food brand, which fo­cuses on a calo­rie-led con­cept at Lon­don’s Heathrow Ter­mi­nal 5, while, soon, pas­sen­gers will be able to pick up a meal to eat on a flight with Plane Food Grab ’n’ Go. ‘If I’m go­ing long-haul, I’ll have the tuna tartare and then steamed sea bass. Ab­so­lutely no dairy – flights are not the place for that.’

In spite of his ca­reer, the house in LA, hol­i­day home in Corn­wall and jet-set lifestyle, he still calls Lon­don home. It’s where he made his name, learnt his trade and earned the ma­jor­ity of his for­tune. ‘For me, Lon­don restau­rants are where it’s at. There’s no bet­ter place in the world,’ he says. ‘There are some great things hap­pen­ing. Clare Smyth [who was his head chef at Royal Hospi­tal Road] will be fan­tas­tic at her new restau­rant Core and I wouldn’t be sur­prised to see her be the next per­son here to win three Miche­lin stars.’

Though, as you’d ex­pect, cer­tain things get his goat, too: ‘The big­gest in­flu­ence here, re­cently, has been the Nordic, Scan­di­na­vian ap­proach to food. There’s some great things you can do with cur­ing fish but with­out dis­re­spect, do I want to come to Lon­don and watch a restau­rant for­age and cure in Mile End? No. Fuck that. I’ll go to Reyk­javik for that.

‘Grains too. Ev­ery­one’s go­ing mad about them and it’s pretty bloody un­com­fort­able eat­ing them course af­ter course. I’m not a rab­bit. Think of some­thing new,’ he po­litely sug­gests.

But for chefs mak­ing their way in the in­dus­try, he has some ad­vice. ‘You’ve got to take risks. It might be eas­ier to say “yes” and open a restau­rant with some­one else’s money but it will never be you. Get your ducks in a row, stick your neck on the line and show some balls.’

Balls? Ram­say’s are made of weapons-grade ma­te­rial and one as­sumes he has some shots left to fire yet.

‘Do I want to come to Lon­don and watch a restau­rant for­age in Mile End? No!’

Above: in­side The Savoy Grill. Be­low: pre-flight at Plane Food

From top: Bread Street Kitchen’s pass; lob­ster bisque

Above: Pétrus in­te­ri­ors. Be­low: nu-petal, Royal Hosp­tial Road

From top: Bread Street Kitchen, One New Change, St Paul’s; Hed­don Street Kitchen’s ter­race; seared Here­ford beef tataki, Plane Food

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