The talented Mister Ramsay

He's Britain's most successful - and most controversial - chef. But just what is it that makes Gordon Ramsay tick? Interview by John Walsh
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Gordon Ramsay gazes with satisfaction at the five CCTV screens ranged along a shelf in the gleaming kitchen of Claridge's Hotel in the heart of London's restaurant world. "With these," he says, "we don't have to rely on the waiters telling us when people are finishing a course or ready for the next one. We can identify every table, and see for ourselves." He smiled his thin, barracuda smile. "We're thinking of putting sound in next, so we can hear what they're saying."

For much of the time, they're probably talking about him. The droll Mr Ramsay is now both the most successful and the most controversial chef in the kingdom. He has an empire of Michelin-starred restaurants - one in Chelsea under his own name, and five more in four glitzy, metropolitan hotels: The Berkeley, The Connaught, Claridge's and The Savoy. What makes him a talking point, however, is his alarming reputation: Gordon the Hard-on, Ramsay the Human Amphetamine, the superchef as tough guy, the über-cook as two-fisted gangster. Years ago he took over from Marco Pierre White as the wild'n'crazy guy of modern gastronomy after appearing, in full, perma-swearing Folkstone-docker mode, on Channel Four's Boiling Point documentary. Legends of his phenomenal truculence have been doing the rounds for years - the fist-fights with local bar-owners, the molten rage towards inept subordinates, the love-hate vendetta with Marco Pierre White, the hate-hate relationship with Anthony Worrall Thompson - and more keep arriving. Like the story from Miami, earlier this year, of how he walked out of an exhibition dinner for a thousand people and was pursued to the airport by a furious Ian Schrager, the doyen of American hoteliers, who later called him an "egomaniacal, obnoxious, rude, ignorant slob". Or the tragic tale of Ramsay's protégé, David Dempsey, who rampaged in a cocaine frenzy through a block of flats in Chelsea, before throwing himself to his death from a third-floor ledge.

People who meet Ramsay for the first time discover not a thug, but an admirably straight-talking and boyish enthusiast. You take in his frank gaze, his friendly demeanour, his matey f joshing with the Claridge's head chef, Mark Sergeant, and decide to discount the alarming scars on his chin that suggest he has recently emerged from a backstreet bottle fight in Leith. He is a man of crazed energy, driven by God knows what impetus of achievement and perfection, but torrentially impatient of anything that gets in his way. This impatience makes him good company - he clearly believes life is too short to be vague in his views. He's become the most opinionated talker on food and restaurants in the land. He is a sage who knows his onions.

Together we considered the recent gloomy figures of restaurant closures. Sad to report, no fewer than 112 London eating-houses closed their doors in the last 12 months - a jump of 70 per cent on the previous year. What is it, Gordon (I ask), that most restaurants get wrong?

"Pricing," he says, without hesitation. "If the pricing is too expensive, and the restaurant hasn't hit its level of continuity, people feel hard done by. When the pricing's cheap, even if the service is a bit hit-and-miss, people don't have a reason to complain. Second, the financial pressure from the City, where chefs are branded and contracted and told to make a profit from day one. Set-up costs are staggering now and you can't expect a restaurant to be at its best from the first day. No restaurant knows what it's doing for the first two months, and you shouldn't charge full price during that period. But we don't have run-in periods with London restaurants. Instead, we have instant-celebrity food critics who come round on the first day.

"Third, there's the service, which can be too ornate or too stiff. Automatic service charges have a bad effect on any business, because the waiters allow themselves to take the customer for granted, and assume they'll get their £700 a week in tips without having to work for it. Fourth is the chefs who want to cook for themselves as opposed to the customers, so they get over-ambitious and refuse to listen to what the customer wants. They want to experiment with offal, say, and the menu will have calf sweetbreads, veal spinal cord and pig's ear on it. But at any table of six people at lunch today, I guarantee that four of them won't give a fig what they're eating. They'll have the beef and a salad. You've got to listen to the punters, and not believe it's your little jumped-up ego that dictates what they're going to have. Too many chefs stipulate things like, 'Beautiful baby Pyrenees lamb roasted with gratin Dauphenoise, cooked pink', and they'll serve it pink and nothing else. Like they're saying: 'You're the punter, you're paying £75 a head, but I'm going to tell you how you must eat it.' And another thing I've noticed over the last 12 months is a new fascination of chefs for spoon-feeding customers, I mean literally coming in with trays of spoons containing mashed potato with apple jelly - the idea being, I suppose, to blow you away - but it doesn't blow anyone away, because there's nothing worse for women punters than having spoons rammed in their mouths. They're forgetting, we're all in danger of forgetting, that without the customer" - he snaps his fingers and addresses the top of an invisible chef's head - "hell-oo, coo-ee - without the customer, we're stuffed."

Throughout this eloquent rant, Mr Ramsay's friendly demeanour doesn't waver. He neither bangs the table nor whacks his interviewer with a handy spatula. He is good at impromptu ranting. It makes him a difficult man to argue with. He has, I suspect, a pathological need to be right all the time. And he is utterly passionate about food. Even when he isn't talking about it, food invades the conversation. Discussing Michelin awards, he says, "It's the restaurant that's awarded the star, not the chef - I don't care whose name is on the canapé" (meaning, presumably, "canopy"). In one of his frequent vituperations about rival chefs, he cites one who suggested, "that I should go on Ready Steady Cook. He said, 'Ramsay would be able to do fuck-all without 30 of his little mignons'" (or minions, even). There's an off-hand obsessiveness about the way he rattles off recipes, lists of ingredients and cooking methods like someone reciting prayers. "We've been using a lot of mango with seafood, lately. Mangoes are slimy, but you let it overripen, peel it, purée it and blend it into a vinaigrette with Dijon mustard, white wine vinegar and oil, it gives the vinaigrette a less cloying, sedated flavour, and serve it with a beautiful salad of langoustines and baby spinach. And I'm very keen on serving Cromer crabs and a purée of white peaches. Why white ones? Because, as with white truffles, they're only in season for five or six weeks; they're the Rolls-Royce of peaches in summer, and the flavour is staggering."

There's little trace of the quivering gourmet about his new cookbook, Gordon Ramsay's Secrets (Quadrille, £25), a bracingly masculine and no-nonsense work, whose tone is set by its first recipe, for poached lobster with potato and rocket salad. Are you ready? Okay then: "Take two small live lobsters, about 500gm each. Put them in the freezer for about 30 minutes to make them sleepy. When ready to cook, make sure you kill them quickly: the simplest way is to detach the head from the body as fast and firmly as possible. Put the lobster, belly-side down, horizontally in front of you." Gordon, I said, you cannot tell an audience of liberal-humanist, middle-class British domestic cooks, weaned on nothing stronger than Delia's lasagne and Nigella's blancmanges, to kill living creatures like this. What are you like? You might just as well advise them how to de-gut a rabbit or dismember a stag. "Nah," says Ramsay. "You always feel better after killing something. I do. Whenever I get pissed off with the cooks now, you can't push them or hit them or kick them or slap them around, like you could 10 years ago, so what do you do? Fuck it, you stab the head off a lobster. You feel all the better for it. And it stops women being squeamish. God knows how many I've killed. We used to plunge them into boiling court bouillon, and their tails flip up and they scream and you can hear their claws scraping on the sides, and I got great pleasure out of that. I don't want any animal rights protestors outside my door. I've had it with foie gras protestors and the Vegetarian f Society of Great Britain. They follow me around. They say [adopts stern housemasterly voice], 'I notice you're still serving foie gras on your menu, and I think you should have more vegetarian dishes.' They turn up at book signings and stand there, spitting at you." Do you retaliate? "If I'm in a hotel, I go up to the top floor, get a duck-down quilt or pillow and sprinkle feathers all over them."

Nas-ty. At times, Gordon Ramsay comes on like the Fat Boy in The Pickwick Papers whose refrain was, "I wants to make your flesh creep." Sometimes it's hilarious, sometimes less so - as when he tells you about how horrified his daughter Megan was to learn that he planned to take the sweet little frog she'd found in the garden, yank its legs off, deep-fry it and serve it with minted crystals. It must be a tough break, to be a family pet in the Ramsay household.

Along with recipes, the book is full of "chef's secrets", like freezing stock in ice cubes, with a spoonful of olive oil at the centre of each, to serve in your watercress and potato soup, each cube a time-delayed explosion of flavour that goes off while you're drinking it. "Lots of these ideas are pinched, of course," says Ramsay with a laugh. "Because chefs are the world's worst secret-givers. They're so insecure, they think if they off-load any individual secrets, every other chef in the world will copy them. But we've [Gordon really does use the royal "we"] never been difficult with our secrets. When someone visiting the kitchen asks, 'How do you caramelise the belly of pork?' we say, 'Well, sweetheart, we braise it for three-and-a-half hours, remove it from the braising stock, re-roll it, reduce the braising stock, put it back in, and then we caramelise it because everything's stuck together internally ...' And people sit there for half an hour, totally blown away because they can't understand how the pork belly gets caramelised."

He is, you'd think, not an easy man to impress; but you'd be wrong. He has been to Spain a lot lately, and has become fixated on the cuisine of Barcelona - specifically the exquisite food served up at El Bulli, the Costa Brava temple of gastronomy where Ferran Adria serves up a four-hour, 28-course "gourmet tasting". "One of the most remarkable restaurants I've ever found," breathes Ramsay. "The man is a genius. He's 50 years old, he's got three Michelin stars, and he serves Fisherman's Friend ice cream. It's cooking 20 years ahead of its time."


"Last year he was obsessed with clingfilm. Everything came in clingfilm."

"That doesn't sound wildly adventurous," I suggest. "In fact it sounds a bit ..."

"But the clingfilm is the food itself," says Gordon. "There was a little sachet of peas, a transparent slice of clingfilm made out of peas, and tasting of peas. Just staggering. The year before, it was cauliflower couscous, which was grated cauliflower, blast-frozen and sprayed. No, really, sprayed. This guy will go round the dining room with an aerosol can of lemongrass and spray it in front of your mouth before you eat. The last dish I had there was cockles and mussels and oysters with a passionfruit soup" - Ramsay paused, theatrically, "but the passionfruit soup was made with seawater. It's like - well, it's the trip to the food Mecca of today".

Perfection is, of course, what Ramsay is after. It's hard to tell where his Olympian ambition comes from, though amateur psychologists might infer a desire to make himself whole - and serve himself up to a startled and impressed world - after a very raggedy childhood. He was born in Scotland in 1966, but grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon. His father was an unsuccessful musician who worked at sports halls and played gigs at social clubs. He used to drive Gordon's mother mad with jealousy and was obsessed with moving house. When Gordon was 16 the family moved to Glasgow, and at 17, he was famously signed to play for Glasgow Rangers FC, as a kind of Caledonian Wayne Rooney. But cruel Fate had given him weak knees, and he was forced, by the age of 18, to join a lower league. Uninterested in anything less than the top of the world, Ramsay quit football, and, seemingly randomly, went to catering college instead. This aleatoric career shift paid off. He got a job at the Intercontinental Hotel and there met Marco Pierre White. One look at the wild-haired, tormented Marco, "as if he'd gone 15 rounds with Mike Tyson" was enough to persuade Gordon to follow him anywhere. He joined White's first restaurant, Harvey's, beside Wandsworth Common in London, then left for Paris under Joel Robuchon, and there began his obsessive quest for Michelin stars.

Inevitably, we talk about food and attitude, food and passion, food and violence. Gordon, I say, the photos in the book mostly show you as a moody, brooding, rather sinister figure. Why there's a shot of you in tagliatelli handcuffs, fists knuckling your brow in despair, across the page (rather bathetically) from the Pasta and Rice chapter. You seem to be in tears of rage.

"Yeah, well, I think I'd just had Michael Winner for lunch," says Ramsay. "He's been slagging me off lately about how I can't make a doughnut with a proper hole in it. I laugh about it because: a) I don't lose any sleep about being able to make fucking doughnuts; and b) I should have asked him to put the holes in for me."

Gordon, I persist, haven't you become a slave to an identity? All this agonising. Does good cooking only ever come out of conflict and passion? "You can't produce perfection by being as charismatic as a paper clip," he said. "You can't sit there being polite and saying, f 'When you've finished your coffee, James, would you mind passing me the spinach? Table 4 are waiting for their main course.' Cooking is exciting - there's a rush. If you're a food junkie, you can get turned on by all that boisterousness. I suppose it's like being in an S&M chamber - you really have to go full-on if you want to get the best out of them. The chefs won't perform if you're running a best-mates scenario, all happy-go-lucky, with big hugs and kisses."

Don't the Japanese, I ask, say you should cook food only in a state of Zen-like equilibrium? Don't they send home any chef who's in a foul temper, because his mood will communicate to the dish he's preparing? Ramsay roared with laughter. "There's nothing fucking cooked in a Japanese restaurant!" he shouts. "It's all fucking sushi! There's no heat in the kitchen! But stand over there [he indicated the heart of his own gleaming kitchen] for six hours and see what a shit-fight it is."

Which brought us to the thorny subject of David Dempsey, the 31-year-old chef de cuisine at the flagship Gordon Ramsay restaurant in Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea, who fell 60 feet to his death in May, after having a row with Ramsay the previous night over the resignations of three of his female staff. Nobody explicitly blamed Ramsay for pushing his protégé to breaking point, but questions were asked, particularly about Dempsey's addiction to Class A drugs.

"It was a Tuesday morning, I'd just had a long Bank Holiday, a couple of days off, and it was 8.30 in the morning when I heard. There was a policeman outside my house with a man dressed quite casually. 'Is your name Gordon Ramsay?' he said. 'We've found a wallet. We'd like you to come to Horseferry Road and identify a body'." Ramsay looks away to his right, distraught. "I was out with him the night before, having dinner. The guy was amazing. If you'd told me he was doing coke or crack at the weekend and then coming in to cook ... One thing this episode has taught me is not to keep hold of cooks for too long. You keep them for three or four years and they become Mini-You and want everything you've got. We've decided, 18 months or two years is the longest we want to keep a cook before we pass him on, so he doesn't get carried away and start thinking life is a fucking dream after working for Gordon Ramsay. Because it isn't."

Ramsay claims never to have tried cocaine himself, despite being offered it in a million kitchens ("It scares me, the level of drugs in the industry right now. Everyone believes for some reason that cooking is rock'n'roll, but it's just not") but there's a second drugs tragedy close to home. His younger brother Ronnie was a heroin addict at 19, and has just finished a prison sentence for petty theft and non-payment of fines. He's now in a rehabilitation "halfway house" subsidised by Gordon. He reminds Gordon of Dempsey, whose death has clearly knocked the superchef for six. "I was cross-examined at the inquest, which was fucking grim. I wouldn't want anyone to go through that. They quizzed me, they started diving into situations." What did he mean? "They think David was murdered. They're now trying to re-open the case. His mum is desperate to get his name cleared. [In fact the Westminster coroner recorded a verdict of accidental death on 23 September.] But it's not fair on the rest of the family. And it's hard on me because his children have the same names as my kids."

Come again? "He called his kids the same names as mine."

My God. So he really was trying to turn into you? He was Scottish. He was driven and passionate. He yelled at people in the kitchen. He was rude to women until they resigned. He ran the restaurant that bears your name. Is there a terrible feat of doomed impersonation going on here?

"I can't help but take part of the responsibility, because I bred the fucking monster," says Ramsay. "And I worry about it. At night, when it's a quarter past one, the kids are in bed and you've had one hell of a day, that's the time when I think: 'Did I give David Dempsey the impression, with my over-ambitious, energetic, 24/7 persona, that I was on something?' That's the fucking question I ask myself. At the end of a busy week, when I took all the chefs to Up All Night [the Chelsea diner, now Vingt-Quatre] for a full English breakfast at 3.30am, still hyper, still going for it, talking about all the things that happened during the week, did he look at me and think: this guy's on something?"

Along with Ramsay's appalled remorse, there's more than a little appalled pride in his own mad energy. He hates being told there's anything pathological about his driven state. Indeed he still seethes about being told, four years ago, by a psychiatrist at a rehab centre (where Ramsay was visiting his brother) that he was himself an addict. "He said my addiction was perfection, and whatever I said, as long as I had a hole in my arse, I would always be an addict. And I had to sit there and take this public humiliation, surrounded by recovering addicts who had a dependency on chemicals, and I was supposed to be one as well?"

He constantly measures other chefs against his own standards of energy and rigour. Names fly past all the time; chefs who've sold out, or become a brand, chefs who're keener on merchandising than marinades, chefs who've pissed him off by talking to the press about his private life: Gary Rhodes, Rick Stein, Jean-Christophe Novelli, Marco Pierre White, Raymond Blanc, Richard Shepherd. "These guys are always putting on gloves and inviting me into the ring, but what fascinates me is that they're in no position to criticise me because they don't cook any more. If I'm in my kitchen, working my goolies off every day, I wish they'd just fuck off and leave me alone and concentrate on their own kitchens." Except he doesn't really want to be left alone. He has taken up with glee his hated rival Anthony Worrall Thompson's challenge to go head-to-head on Ready Steady Cook. "I would love that showdown, in a kitchen with him for 20 minutes. It would be the difference between cooking perfect, stunning food, and providing food for the staff canteen at Claridge's. I'd love the challenge, just as I'd love to see him do a full day's work, from 8am to midnight, in a full-on kitchen." Like a gourmet selecting a petit four, he considered his final choice of insult. "When I get to their age, I don't want to be as cynical as they are towards the young chefs coming up. I want to be a great inspiration. I don't want to be standing there with a thong tucked up my arse, saying to members of the public, 'I'm a twat - get me out of here'." E

'Gordon Ramsay's Secrets' is out now, published by Quadrille (£25)