Gordon Ramsay: Cooking up a storm on the high seas

He's a force 10 in the kitchen. But at the moment Gordon Ramsay is taking orders, not giving them. He tells Ed Caesar why he's nautical - but nice
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The Independent Online

Gordon Ramsay and I have been flown out to this outpost by ABN Amro, whose two yachts are competing in this year's Volvo Ocean Race. Ramsay's job is to offer nutritional and motivational advice to the crew. Someone foolish has even let him compete in the first inshore leg of the race, during which he uncharacteristically buttons his lip and does what the skipper asks. "It was extraordinary," he says, after the event.

Despite having to follow orders rather than hand them out, being involved in this is a natural role for Ramsay. Before he started his first restaurant, Aubergine, he spent a year on a yacht that crossed the Atlantic and circumnavigated the Caribbean. He used to enjoy it when a force 10 blew in: "A boat is a pretty intense place to be in a big breeze," he recalls.

Ramsay fancies himself as a sportsman. He was, famously, signed by Rangers as a teenager before giving up owing to a dodgy knee. He's run six London marathons and the Comrades super-marathon in South Africa. The first time he ran the Comrades, he returned in a wheelchair.

So he likes a challenge. But being involved with the Volvo Ocean Race - acknowledged as the toughest fully-crewed race in the world - is, for Ramsay, more about being seen than participating. How much nutritional advice can he offer when all the teams are going to eat is freeze-dried? And one suspects that crews about to brave the Southern Ocean are already pretty motivated.

At home, the Ramsay restaurant machine grinds on. And there have been suggestions in the press that he might have been letting standards slip. The Good Food Guide recently awarded his flagship restaurant on Royal Hospital Road nine out of 10 - a point less than it had ever been awarded.

"It was weird, very weird, to get nine out of 10," Ramsay says, chain-quaffing lattes in the boathouse. "I said to the staff, 'Don't change. I'm confident we'll win 10 next year.' And I think it's a very arrogant statement for the Good Food Guide to say that no restaurant in Britain is worth 10 out of 10, which is what they've done. Bullshit. I could tell you 10 restaurants who deserve it. What you have to do is look at these things for 24 hours, put them to bed and stay focused."

Fifteen minutes later, Ramsay's still talking about the Good Food Guide. "We're so consistent there," he implores. "We've got 12 tables, 38 seats and 57 staff. We function Monday to Friday. I could make my life easier by opening seven days a week, employing more staff and making another £750,000 a year from that business. But I protect that restaurant."

Like all great chefs, Ramsay has self-confidence to burn. But he needs his plaudits too. He says he is frustrated at being judged by people who know less about food than he does. He says it is easier to criticise something than to do it. He says the Good Food Guide is punishing him for his success.

But if you need proof of Ramsay's determination not to let standards slip, this is it. He's now starting to open restaurants all over the world - Singapore and New York are his two next projects - but physical distance will not stay his controlling hand.

"We've just invested £70,000 in a website," he says. "We're going to have a webcam pointed at every hotplate in every kitchen in every country. It will all be centralised at home, and it will be live. I can tap into New York, Dubai, wherever. On a Saturday or Sunday lunchtime, before the kids have dinner, I can look at a widescreen TV and see what's going on. If I'm not happy, it won't leave the kitchen. That's how fucking disciplined I am."

Evidence of this borderline megalomania has been apparent to the nation on television shows such as Hell's Kitchen, Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares and The F Word. But he doesn't see himself as a telly chef - he once said: "I am not a TV chef. I want that put on my fucking gravestone" - and is often outspokenly critical of the chefs he calls "Ready, Steady, Twats".

He claims he never watches himself on television. "I went to the BBC Good Food Show, and all these guys were getting massages. I said, 'What's going on?' Ainsley Harriot looked over and said, 'Relax, get a rub. Remember, it's showbiz.' Fucking hell. It's not showbiz.

"Cooking's not a job, either, it's a passion. I've busted my balls to learn my craft. Television's secondary to that. But it allows me to be me. It doesn't portray a right or wrong image. It's just me. I love the jeopardy of those situations - like in Kitchen Nightmares - there's real danger, and we just record a very honest documentary. It's a serious drama because you never know what's going to unfold."

So does he take his top off that often in a normal day? "Actually, that's at the request of the producer," he smirks. "And apparently it's got me quite a gay following."

Television is a powerful way for Ramsay to impress his ebullient philosophy on millions of viewers. But he's no different in the flesh; he acts like a naughty eight-year-old who can't believe he's not being told off. He says outrageous things about women, swears prodigiously, plays with his very grown-up toys - fast cars, big boats, beautiful customised kitchens - and challenges the world to upbraid him. "I'm so lucky," he says, and he means it.

But suggest that he deliberately courts controversy, and he looks genuinely shocked. "I don't do it on purpose," he says. "I don't do it to piss anyone off."

Really? Is it possible that Ramsay is naive enough not to know that saying, as he did recently, that he wanted to get women back in the kitchen would raise hackles? "Listen, I've been slightly misconstrued," he says, with a wild grin. "I never said that women can't cook. I've been in France and Spain, where 35, 40 per cent of professional kitchens are women. But in Britain, it's not seen as a woman's job. Nearly everyone in kitchens is male. A lot of early thirties professional women have spent years getting smashed on champagne, and have no idea how to cook. Their families are on the way now and they're panicking."

Whatever the rationale, you'd expect nothing less from a man who prides himself on his no-bullshit approach. But, in a moment of reflection, he asks: "Do you see my television persona as being inconsiderate or inept in today's world?" He seems genuinely interested. It's hard to know what to say. Ramsay is just Ramsay.

"I do give a fuck what people think, you know," he says. "But I don't walk round trying to charm the nation to kiss my arse. Because you get found out eventually. And that's the secret of staying successful, too. Customers don't tell you you can't cut it any more. They just fuck off to another restaurant."

What this oddly jumbled mixture of the personal and the professional shows is that, for Ramsay, there is no division between the two. Every aspect of his life is infused with the same values - attention to detail, caustic humour, brutal honesty. He's the chief spokesman and artist-in-chief of Brand Ramsay.

His protégés - Angela Hartnett at the Connaught, Marcus Wareing at Petrus, Jason Atherton at Maze - must have found it tough. David Dempsey, a talented former Ramsay trainee, who even named his children after Ramsay's, found it very tough indeed. He killed himself by jumping out of a window heavily under the influence of cocaine, the night after an argument with his boss.

"No, he couldn't take the pressure, that's true," says Ramsay, maintaining eye contact. "And he was more selfish than he needed to be. But I don't worry about Jason and Angela and Marcus. They wake up every morning with a choice in life. They're partners in the company, an integral part of the team. They have responsibilities."

One can sense it's hard for Ramsay to delegate, but if a tragedy such as Dempsey's can teach him anything, it is that creating a legion of mini-Gordons is unhealthy. His new breed of head chefs are certainly being allowed to express themselves in the kitchen, as autonomous chiefs to Ramsay's suzerain.

And spare a thought for his wife and four children, whose time with Dad is seriously limited. "The payoff is that they have something I never had," says the man who grew up in a council house, the son of an abusive father. "The security of not moving 20 times in their life, of not growing up with no money.

"Everything Jack has, for instance, I never had. But I'll never stand over him and say, 'I told you so,' or 'I never had what you had.' I want to know what he really wants to do and then I'll get right behind him." Conspicuously, when Ramsay talks of his children's future, he talks only of this father-son relationship. "If Jack says he doesn't want to play football and he wants to cook for a living, I will personally make sure he gets his nuts crushed in every top restaurant in the world before he comes to any of mine. He's five, and he is already obsessed with food. Imagine the shit he'll get if he wants to go into cooking. Fucking hell."

Ramsay senior is 37 and he's still obsessed with food. Having spent two days watching teams of skilled yachtsmen bend the elements to their will, he's desperate to get home to bend events to his.

What it will take for Ramsay to be satisfied? "Alain Ducasse. Three Michelin stars in three different cities," he says reverentially. "The fucking benchmark."

Gordon Ramsay was representing Team ABN Amro (www.abnamro.com/team)

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