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
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.’
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