The fall and fall of Gordon Ramsay

He serves ready-meals; his restaurants are no longer in the top 100; and now he's slipped off the Rich List. So, is it all over for the celebrity chef, or will he bounce back? Andy McSmith reports

Gordon Ramsay is well known for his fruity language, so the air around him must have blue indeed last week as one setback after another made life hell for the man who created Hell's Kitchen and The F Word.

There was the embarrassing revelation that some of the meals offered in his London restaurants are pre-prepared in a mini-factory across town. Then he was told his eateries had been dropped from a list of the world's best restaurants. On top of this, Ramsay is no longer thought to be rich enough to make it into the latest Rich List (Jamie Oliver is). And to cap it all, he has been on antibiotics - while preparing for the London Marathon - after eating a dodgy dish of chilli beef.

Not a good week, in all, for the owner of the only restaurant in London to merit three Michelin stars. Not that the past six months have been great, either. At the end of last year, the apparently happily married Ramsay was accused of having had a seven-year affair, and a few weeks later his highly regarded PR Gary Farrow resigned. If this were not a family newspaper, one would be tempted to ask: "Is Gordon Ramsay finally F***ed?"

The problem with this celebrity cook, his critics say, is that he is too much of a celebrity and not enough of a cook. He is everywhere. The company he runs with his father-in-law owns nine London and seven overseas restaurants and three gastropubs, including the three-star Gordon Ramsay, opened in Chelsea in 1998. His books are in every bookshop. Hardly a night passes without his appearing on a television screen somewhere.

But if the compilers of today's Rich List are right about the state of Ramsay's business empire, this might be the moment for some other celebrity chef – Jamie Oliver, say – to front a similar programme in which they pay a critical visit to Gordon Ramsay's kitchens. It is said that Gordon Ramsay Holdings is being chilled by recession, despite a turnover of over £41.6m in 2008-09. Last year, Ramsay, who is 42, was placed 1,348th on the Rich List with a fortune estimated at £40m. This year, because of fears about debts and profitability, he is not there at all – but 33-year-old Oliver is, with an estimated worth of £50m.

Oliver was in the news for all the right reasons at the start of this month when he was accorded the honour of serving dinner in Downing Street for the world's most powerful politicians and their wives on the eve of the G20 summit. Gordon Ramsay's restaurants featured even more prominently in the tabloid newspapers last week, but for entirely the wrong reasons.

It was disclosed that he was serving "boil-in-a-bag" meals at a considerably more than they cost. Diners at Foxtrot Oscar, or one of Gordon Ramsay's gastropubs, may have believed that they were paying for coq au vin or braised pig cheeks cooked on the premises. In fact, these delicacies were prepared in a kitchen facility near Clapham Common, owned by Gordon Ramsay Holdings, and delivered by the van to the back door, in plastic bags. The revelation just invited the headline "Coq au Van". Fish cakes that cost £1.92 from the central supplier appeared on the menu at £11.25. Diners were charged £3.50 for sausage rolls costing 75p.

Ramsay's PR people were still dealing with this story when Restaurant magazine published its annual list of the world's best restaurants. None of Gordon Ramsay's outlets made the top 50, and only one, The Maze, placed 91, made the full list. Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, which was rated 13th last year and is considered by the Michelin Guide to be the best restaurant in London and one of the three best in the UK, was omitted altogether.

The magazine's editor, Paul Wootton, said: "There may be a feeling among part of the restaurant industry and the foodie fraternity that some of the superchefs with large empires of restaurants are spreading themselves too thin."

The sentiment was echoed by Ramsay's former protégé and current rival, Marcus Wareing: "A chef is only going to be successful if he's in the kitchen."

A spokeswoman for Gordon Ramsay Holdings said: "Gordon is totally relaxed and unconcerned about such unscientific league tables and is perfectly happy that his businesses in all areas are doing very well and showing better performances everywhere year on year and that his customers love his restaurants."

All this fuss leaves us wondering whether we need Gordon Ramsay. Come to think of it, do we even need celebrity chefs?

Yes, actually, because these people are social reformers in their way, tiresome though some of them can be. Years ago, the supermarkets were puzzled by unexpected patterns of customer demand, when items such as cranberries, or vegetable bouillon powder, would suddenly vanish from the shelves, leaving frustrated shoppers empty-handed. The mystery was solved when the stock-takers tried watching Delia Smith's television appearances, and realised that she had only to say the words "pestle and mortar" and suddenly thousands of people were flooding the shops in search of one. By 2001, the "Delia effect" was so well known that it merited an entry in the dictionary.

Meanwhile, the likes of Madhur Jaffrey have taught people that they do not need to go to a restaurant to eat Chinese or Indian meals, Jamie Oliver has launched a campaign to improve the quality of school meals, and Gordon Ramsay has used his celebrity status to urge the Ministry of Defence to improve the fare served to frontline soldiers.

He has also done his bit for the rehabilitation of offenders by inviting on to The F-Word four inmates of Marshgate Prison, Doncaster, who wanted to be cooks. He was so impressed by the speed with which a convicted burglar chopped vegetables that he offered him a job on his release. And he has promoted good causes not directly related to food, such as the National Blood Service.

On Friday, Ramsay was in Waterstone's bookshop, in Piccadilly, central London, to sign copies of his latest book. He arrived 20 minutes late, but the crowd did not seem to mind. The queue of people clutching copies for him to sign stretched out the shop and a long way down the pavement. Some had as many as four copies.

For over an hour, Ramsay stayed on his feet, chatted to each punter, scrawled his florid signature on their newly purchased titles, and posed for pictures, without a sign that he was wilting. He did not look like a man who is finished. If he is, the message has not got through to the fans.

Biography

1966 Born 8 November in Johnstone, Scotland.

1987 Awarded HND in hotel management.

1989-1991 Works for Marco Pierre White at Harveys, Albert Roux at Le Gavroche and the Paris kitchens of Guy Savoy and Joël Robuchon.

1993 Returns to London and offered head chef at Aubergine by Marco Pierre White.

1995 Aubergine wins first Michelin star.

1997 Aubergine wins second Michelin star but Ramsay falls out with the restaurant's backers and leaves.

1998 Establishes his Chelsea restaurant Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road. Stars in fly-on-the-wall documentary Boiling Point.

2001 Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road wins a third Michelin star. Also opens his second restaurant, Petrus.

2002–2007 Opens a series of restaurants, including Amaryllis in Glasgow, Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's and at the Connaught Hotel, as well as several restaurants abroad.

2004 Begins filming Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares and Hell's Kitchen.

2005 Launches C4 food magazine show The F-Word.

2006 Awarded OBE for services to hospitality.

2007 Becomes one of the most Michelin-starred chefs in the world.

2008 Nearly dies during filming in Iceland. Denies allegations of an affair.

2009 Company is fined for filing late accounts, admits some meals in his gastropubs are pre-prepared and his flagship Chelsea restaurant drops out of the top 100.

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