The spying game

Gordon Ramsay has given his chefs a mission: find out the secrets of New York's restaurants. David Usborne joins the undercover sleuths
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Three Englishmen take a table at the Spice Market restaurant in the hip Meatpacking neighbourhood of Manhattan and try to keep a low profile. All top chefs with Gordon Ramsay, the culinary wunderkind with fingers in seven "fine dining" spots in London, including Petrus and the Boxwood Café, they are here to engage in what most of us would consider spying but they prefer to call "research and development".

Three Englishmen take a table at the Spice Market restaurant in the hip Meatpacking neighbourhood of Manhattan and try to keep a low profile. All top chefs with Gordon Ramsay, the culinary wunderkind with fingers in seven "fine dining" spots in London, including Petrus and the Boxwood Café, they are here to engage in what most of us would consider spying but they prefer to call "research and development".

It's not that Ramsay is worried about how his spaces are working - he also has one in Dubai and another coming soon in Tokyo - but rather that he wants to get his next London project right. Maze, opening in May in Grosvenor Square, is going to be big - 95 seats - and classy, folding Asian flavours into a French theme.

New York may not be Paris or Bangkok but it is a world capital of dining. Eat in a different restaurant in this city every night and it will take you 45 years to get done. But Ramsay's trio have only four days to seek out the best and must make their reservations carefully. They will visit about seven establishments, including Kraft and the lauded Per Se in the Time Warner Centre. The Spotted Pig, a popular British-style pub, is on the list and so is WD-50, recently opened by chef Wylie Dufresne on the Lower East Side. When they are done, they will return home well stuffed - with food and possibly some new culinary tricks too.

This is the second day of their undercover mission and things are not going too well so far. It's not just that Soho House, where they are staying, messed up and put all three lads in a rather small room with a bathtub in the middle of everything (no walls, you understand). Jason Atherton, formerly in charge of the kitchen in Dubai and now slated to be chef patron at Maze, is also full of grumbles about their first night's dining experience at the new Megu, an ultra-expensive Japanese haunt in Tribeca.

What Atherton and his colleagues - Darren Velvick and Mark Askew - most want to witness is how New York's best restaurants earned their reputations for mathematical efficiency and military organisation both in the kitchen and on the restaurant floor. They report that the presentation of the food in Megu was impeccable. But beyond that, they are less generous.

"It wasn't quite what we expected," Atherton starts. "It just seemed disorganised. It was chaos, frankly, and we were quite shocked." It did not compare favourably at all, they agreed, with the Japanese-Peruvian fusion Nobu, also in Tribeca. Their table wasn't ready and it took 20 minutes just to get a stool at the bar. And, once seated for dinner, their food came erratically. When you are spending $100 (£55) a head, you expect things to be as smooth as a perfect roux.

Spice Market, an Asian eatery owned by the celebrated Jean-Georges Vongerichten, that opened to rave reviews a year ago, starts out better. The Malay-style decor, its subterranean lounge and the backless dresses on the waitresses all give a fine impression. Atherton, though, falls for the siren call of a blood-orange mojito. He frowns. "It's a case of trying to make a classic more complicated just for the sake of it."

Once at their table another, albeit happy, problem quickly becomes evident. Under instructions from the waitress to share every dish - Maze will encourage the same thing - they duly order an appetiser and a main course each. At once, however, samplers start appearing that have never been asked for. Shrimp fritter dripped in mushroom emulsion, satay-style skewers of meat with delicate mint sauces, seared tuna morsels in wild mushrooms. What was already going to be a feast of gastronomic over-indulgence quickly turns into an all-you-can-eat blow-out. Their cover, in other words, has been blown, and Spice Market is out to impress their brethren from across the water.

The best is yet to come: an invitation to visit the kitchen. There is no point pretending any more. Yes, they tell Micah Maughan, the sous-chef, they are Michelin-star chefs from London and they hope he doesn't mind the intrusion. On the contrary, Maughan is more than happy to boast about his so-called "line" arrangement for their cooks. This is exactly what Atherton is setting up for Maze, everyone working along a parade of hobs and ovens down a long wall, instead of around traditional islands. Few places have tried this in London. "I'm putting my balls on the line and I'm going to prove all the sceptics wrong," he says. It seems to work well for Spice Market. The boys leave well impressed.

They don't exactly explain why, but visiting a club or two tonight is deemed imperative before returning to their bathtub suite. The joys of Spice Market - versus Megu - are discussed at The Apartment, one of those self-satisfied Manhattan spots, also in the Meatpacking district, that draws crowds of fashionable revellers even though it doesn't bother advertising itself with any kind of sign above its graffiti-covered metal door. Holding a beer, Askew explains why calling him a spy for Ramsay is not quite fair. "In this business, it's perfectly normal to emulate one another. People do it all the time. You look at other people's ideas and it may trigger some of your own. It's good to see something new."

Call it the globalisation of gastronomy. Atherton has not just been to New York in his quest for perfection at Maze, but also to France, Vietnam and Bangkok, and will be visiting Spain shortly. If Britain does not have a world-class indigenous cuisine, it surely has world-class chefs and the ingredients of their inspiration are being harvested around the globe.

So I have a plan. When Maze opens, I will also fly the Atlantic and pay it a visit, subtly letting it slip that I'm a chef at Spice Market or Per Se in New York. Just scavenging for "ideas", you understand. And I will expect Ramsay's new eatery and its chef, Jason, to spoil me royally.

Maze, Grosvenor Square, London W1, tel: 020 7592 1363, is opening in May

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