First he became Britain's greatest (and rudest) chef. Then he took on Dubai and the US. Now he has his sights set on Japan. Craig MacLean follows a trail of offended critics and exquisite cuisine to come face-to-face with Gordon Ramsay

Of course it has: when Gordon Went To Japan, nothing would be left to chance. Britain's most fastidious chef doesn't plant his flag in the shadow of the world's most expensive real estate, go into partnership with a high-end hotel chain, and enter a culture renowned for its obsession with the right way to do things, without joyfully microscoping every detail.

"Oh, it creates fire in your belly," declares Gordon Ramsay of Gordon Ramsay At Conrad Tokyo, a restaurant that pits de luxe artistry against, well, more of the same. He has so much fire in his belly that his tongue is positively scorching. "A lot more energy," he continues, barely pausing for breath or punctuation. "But yeah, I'm shitting myself. The press conference two months ago, in front of 400 journalists, it's long-winded, you've got an interpreter and a lady, smart arse, from I can't think of what newspaper, said: 'If you're such a hands-on chef, who's gonna do the cooking when you're not there?' And I said: same person who's gonna do it when I am there... can I ask you a question? 'Yeah.' Your suit. 'Yeah, it's Armani.' I said, 500 quid? She said, '$2,500.' I said, that's a lot of money for a suit - when you bought it did you ask if it was fucking Giorgio who stitched it? And that told her."

It's around 9pm in the dining-room of Gordon Ramsay At Conrad Tokyo. The hotel opened just days ago and there's an intoxicating newness about the place. The linen is crisp, the cutlery shimmering. At subtle spots around the 80-capacity room, and in the adjacent "casual brasserie", Cerise By Gordon Ramsay, are flashes of the colour-scheme that is shot through the Ramsay brand: across his eight London restaurants, his cookbooks, his luxury chocolates and, occasionally, on telly (when he's confronted by a particularly grievous bout of ineptitude during Kitchen Nightmares or Hell's Kitchen), on his face. Racing Purple we might * call it. The man himself may not be here tonight - not that I'm questioning that or anything - but his presence is everywhere.

To my right at the dinner table, Conrad Tokyo's unflappable German general manager Jan Mönkedieck is reeling off furniture dimensions and fitting specifications, and declaiming that within "nine to 11 minutes" of learning that he would be running this hotel, "I knew I had to get Gordon." After all, hadn't they worked so well together in the Middle East, at the Hilton Dubai Creek, where the restaurant Verre, which opened in 2001, was the first international outpost of Ramsay's empire? With their respective manias for minutiae, it's easy to see why über-hotelier and super-chef work well together.

Ramsay has dispatched one of his rising stars, 28-year-old Andy Cook, to be the chef in Tokyo. Cook, raised like Ramsay in Stratford-upon-Avon, proved his mettle working for the boss at Gordon Ramsay (his Chelsea restaurant) and at Claridge's. He's had eight months in Tokyo to work on his menu, and it is inarguably something of a work of art.

Me, by the time Friday dinner rolls around, I've had four days of being attentively guided round Tokyo and Japanese cuisine by the good people from Hilton, and it was really, truly, almost embarrassingly lovely, thank you very much. But I have had my fill of sushi, pickles, cold noodles, cold (but soft-yolked) fried egg and a peculiar soy bean derivative called yuba that can be turned into umpteen yellow-grey foods, savoury and sweet, and also, it seems, into putty. I can't wait to get stuck into some gorgeous French gastronomy.

But the talented Mr Cook hadn't been alerted to the fact that someone in our party doesn't eat meat (me). The much-ballyhooed starter of mosaique of foie gras and smoked duck breast, and the roasted cannon of lamb main course, will clearly not do. With no notice, less than a month's live experience, and with Cook still bedding-in his multi-lingual kitchen brigade, chef is already being confronted by a pernickety customer who wants to go off-menu. As the sommelier pours me a glass of Louis Roederer Brut Premier Non-Vintage champagne, the suspense is incredible. I hope it lasts.

I had met with Ramsay just before lunchtime four weeks previously in Maze, Gordon Ramsay Holdings' newest restaurant in London. He almost ran in - blond bouffant hair bouncing, 15 stone, 6ft 2in and broad in his whites - 90 minutes late, apologising profusely. He'd just bombed up the M3 from Southampton, where the night before he had given a motivational speech to members of the catering industry onboard a ship.

He was to be guest of honour at Conrad Tokyo for its opening, but by the time I got to Japan he'd been and gone, zooming off to tend to other corners of his global operation: to Shanghai with Singapore Airlines - to whom he supplies business- and first-class meals - for discussions ahead of the commercial launch next year of the new, gigantic Airbus 380. (He would also find time to check out a potential restaurant site in Shanghai.) To New York, for meetings with the Fox network about the US version of Hell's Kitchen (the first season is currently on-air) and a television appearance being interviewed by Whoopi Goldberg. (There would also be a visit to the prime Broadway location of his next venture, a frankly epic-sounding New York restaurant, opening summer 2006). And to Los Angeles, to guest on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and have a kickabout at Robbie Williams' house in LA. Once a former footballer, always a former footballer.

How on earth does he fit any cooking into all of this? How does he juggle so many projects?

"The level of cynicism in this industry?" he begins with a sigh. Then, as he's wont to do, his train of thought veers off. "Last night, on this boat, catering forum, 1,000 delegates, they had an opinion poll. Forty per cent said I was bad for the industry, 60 per cent said I was positive. But out of that 40 per cent, 39 per cent had never eaten in my restaurants. So: don't judge me, judge the product. How do I juggle? I'm at my best under pressure. I'd never do a project if I didn't think I could pull it off." (For all his gung-ho dismissiveness, the results of the poll clearly rankled. Later in our conversation he abruptly refers back to it. "The opinion poll - I laugh at it! I said, 'You think I take things like that seriously? You must be mad. I'm leaving this boat at 7.29, you sad fucks are staying on it for three days.'")

We sit at the chef's table in the Maze kitchen as he sprays me with his machine-gun chatter. I take several direct hits from his rapid-fire ranting, and suffer collateral brain damage courtesy of his tendency to favour staccato non-sequiturs over real words and proper sentences in the right order. It is fun.

The pugnacious chef's ear-peeling enthusiasm for his Japanese venture comes thick, fast and persuasive. Clearly Ramsay - father of four young children, Ferrari-driver, motorbike-lover, marathon-runner - doesn't do anything at less than full-pelt. Even talk.

"Oh, it's a big one this," he says beamingly of the Tokyo project. "It's serious. Combining that level of style and integrity. Every big chef in Europe is in Tokyo - [Alain] Ducasse is there, [Joel] Robuchon is there. So it's not an automatic assumption that when you've got three [Michelin] stars it's a licence to sell. We have the most amazing support from Japanese customers in Britain. We've been experiencing that since September '98 when we went independent. We started focusing more on the customers than we did at Aubergine, it was a completely different ballgame. So, got a really good reputation out there, the restaurant was sought after. So it seemed an automatic sort of... why not?"

This is his answer (edited down for clarity) to my first question, and what a salesman he is. See what he did there? Unprompted and * out-of-context, he slipped in references to his three stars for Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road, how he's upped his customer-service game since he went solo after a legal battle with his former backers, how globally he's The Man.

Which is cool, you might say, because he is, and has done, and has won, all of those things. That full-force, strong-minded, open-gobbed way that has made him such a television star on both sides of the Atlantic - that's just Ramsay. But such is the force of his conviction, the intensity of his focus, the chest-out pride in his achievements, he's also a wee bit blind to the realities of who he is and what he represents. Or, at least, he pretends to be.

I begin to ask him about the attention to detail required when you're in Tokyo making your brand international - "I hate that word because it makes you feel that it's a concept and an image as opposed to the reality of it. And I still feel like I've got six of us in the kitchen and six in the front of house. But we've a thousand staff now and 10 restaurants. [There he goes again.] So, I like to feel that nothing's changed. And I made one crucial promise to myself - I've never tried to run the business because chefs are the world's worst businessmen."

Then, when I point out that doing lots of cookery books and chocolates is arguably "brand extension", he replies, "Well, we are working on a project now for summer 2006, a domestic chinaware. Extraordinary! But I wouldn't do it unless it's fine bone china. The scary thing is, when you look at chocolates at £5 or £6 a box, and it's a brand now with £3.5m to £4m a year turnover, with very little marketing, it's just self-propelled. But, something like the fine bone china, you can't just go and deliver a crockery set at £3,500 or £4,000."

For someone who claims to be a poor businessman, he bandies figures around an awful lot. Then comes that other phrase he hates, "celebrity chef".

"I'm fed up with the bullshit," he declares, "with this glamorous image that everyone wants to put on restaurants. What is a celebrity chef? Is that Brian Turner on Ready Steady Twat? Is that Alain Ducasse, 35 restaurants, perhaps the most powerful chef in the world?"

Some would say it was doing a networked television show in America.

"Oh! That's gone wild out there!" he says, not getting, or choosing not to get, the point, and adding that now he "can't get off the plane" in the US without people wanting to talk to or "own a part" of him.

He's signed on to do five seasons of the US version of Hell's Kitchen, earning "a fortune" every season and Brit-in-Hollywood fame like Simon Cowell and Anne Robinson. The US series finds him working with non-celebs. He says this is infinitely preferable to having to cope with the likes of ditsy Abi Titmuss and squeamish Belinda Carlisle.

"Yeah, real people! Everyone didn't understand the celebrity factor - every fucker [on the British show] was on 25 grand a week. Now, 25 grand a week, you want someone moving their arse. Al Murray and Jen [Ellison] and even James Dreyfus moved their arse. But there was a real arrogance from certain individuals in there who didn't think they needed to work. So, I pushed it to the extreme. Working with the opposite end, professional or domestic [chefs] in America, was extraordinary because they were food nerds who were totally possessed with becoming good and famous at the same time. Which was slightly spooky. So yeah, we had a ball-stroke-shitfight."

He likes television so much that he's about to start another series. The cleverly-titled F-Word is a weekly, chatty, current affairs-y foodie show that begins on Channel 4 in October. Topics may include "a discovery in obesity that was breaking news yesterday, or whether horse's milk is the closet thing to human milk for nutrient value. There's no script. It's Top Gear meets Kitchen Nightmares. It's live. It's quite real. It's of-the-moment."

We know he's a blisteringly self-assured man in the kitchen. Is he as comfortable in front of the television cameras?

"I don't see anything to do with the camera. It's really weird. I talk one-on-one. I'm very used to intimidating situations. Everyone asks about the Bafta I won for Kitchen Nightmares. How did you win the Bafta? It's nothing to do with the camera; it's not scripted, there's no cue-cards, no autocue, so you" - he snaps his fingers - "get on with it. You just do it. I've never been that shy."

How does Gordon Ramsay do it? As he says, by just getting on with it and just doing it. But also by obsessing over service and marketing himself excellently. By finding the very best young chefs and personally training them up with ferocious vigour. Now his protégés - among them Marcus Wareing at Pétrus and The Savoy, and Angela Hartnett at The Connaught - are both partners and ambassadors for the Gordon Ramsay - oh, yes it is - brand. It's a highly effective way of spreading his talents and his experience all round his kitchens, and all over the world. You can either keep up with him or bugger off. When the food's this good, fair enough really.

Back in the rarefied ambience of Gordon Ramsay At Conrad Tokyo, sorties of Japanese waiting staff begin ferrying divine dishes, elegantly proportioned and exquisitely presented. The tiny introductory serving of gazpacho with basil oil slips down a treat. The solitary but brooding lobster and salmon ravioli is jaw-dropping. The brill with mashed potato and cevette and baby leek is firm and creamy and explosively tasty in all the right places. Cook, Ramsay's loyally rigorous Far East ambassador and his latest up-and-comer, is delivering on the boss's worldwide promise of matchless food.

Last week, after we had both visited Conrad Tokyo, I call Ramsay. He says he'd had a great time at the opening, wearing a Japanese cape and smashing open the traditional barrel of saki. What did he think of his restaurant?

It was good, he barks, but not quite there yet. The humidity played havoc with the deserts. The language barriers in the kitchen needed to be hurdled. The cooks needed more training. "But we're on the road. By the start of November we should be pretty much there." I can just imagine the thin, hungry-for-perfection smile stamped across his meaty face.

For more information visit www.conradhotels.com.

Craig McLean flew to Tokyo courtesy of ANA

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