In the top restaurants of London and Glasgow yesterday, the talk in the kitchens was of little else: what everybody wanted to know was what lay behind the bizarre and bloody death of the leading chef David Dempsey.
In the top restaurants of London and Glasgow yesterday, the talk in the kitchens was of little else. Forget which punter was running up the biggest tab or who had found the season's best asparagus: what everybody wanted to know was what lay behind the bizarre and bloody death of the leading chef David Dempsey.
At 31, Mr Dempsey appeared to have everything to live for. He had survived a brush with cancer, beating Hodgkin's disease at 22. A gifted devotee and protégé of the chef Gordon Ramsay, he had helped his mentor to gain a Michelin star at his Glasgow restaurant, Amaryllis.
Just two weeks ago, Mr Dempsey had become head chef at Ramsay's eponymous Chelsea restaurant, holder of three Michelin stars, one of only two such establishments in the country and a kitchen at the very zenith of the culinary firmament. He was earning about £70,000 a year.
There seemed little doubt that Mr Dempsey's career path would soon lead to him running his own kitchen and earning the rosettes, stars and laurels for himself. After Amaryllis won its Michelin star, Ramsay predicted that Mr Dempsey would become the most famous chef in the country. He was seen by those who knew him as a talented and hardworking cook who believed only in his craft and his family; his third child, Felix, was born on Christmas Day last year.
What, then, led to Mr Dempsey being found dead on Sunday night on the basement patio of a building in Elm Park Gardens, just off King's Road in west London?
The police are still trying to piece together what appears to have been a violent and confused series of events leading to his death. They report that Mr Dempsey had entered another building near by, not long before he was found, by climbing up the scaffolding and then smashing a window.
He then appeared to have broken into a flat and was confronted by an occupant who had seen him standing and staring into a mirror and holding a golf club he had grabbed. The two men fought and, after a struggle, the chef ran off and climbed out of a window.
He moved across a number of window ledges to another building in the same block. He smashed another window to gain access and ran to another flat, smashing his way in through a window in the door.
Mr Dempsey, who lived in Fulham, south-west London, appears to have broken several windows and entered a number of flats. At some point he injured himself, presumably on the glass splinters, because he was covered in blood when he was found.
One man alerted by the commotion looked out of the spyhole in his door to see Mr Dempsey in the hallway, apparently waving a baseball bat. "I heard screaming and looked through the door. I saw a guy in a white T-shirt with blood all over his chest and stomach. I didn't open the door because I was so frightened and worried about protecting my family,'' said the man, who did not give his name.
The end came when Mr Dempsey climbed out to the window ledge of a second-floor flat and was apparently trying to jump across to an adjacent ledge. He misjudged the distance and fell to his death on the basement patio.
The behaviour of this man who supposedly had it all remains a mystery. Was Mr Dempsey pursuing an alternative career as a cat burglar? This seems unlikely, given his respectable salary. Was he seeking revenge on a friend or a secret lover? Again, this does not seem probable; he was known as a devoted family man.
Or was it, as many were speculating yesterday, the consequence of a drink and or drugs binge brought on by the many stresses of his chosen profession? Certainly, the residents of Elm Park Gardens believed he had taken drugs. The man who struggled with him said: "He was clearly out his skull on drugs." The porter who found his body was reported as saying: "From everything I heard and saw, he looked like a classic victim of hallucinogenic drugs who thought he was Spiderman."
If drugs and or drink were responsible and it will be some time before the official toxicology analysis is complete those who knew Mr Dempsey will be surprised.
Graham Hamilton, who worked with him as restaurant manager at Amaryllis, said: "This all sounds totally out of character for David. If anything he was anti-drugs and never seemed to drink much apart from the odd glass of wine. He was very focused on his work and, together with his kids, that was his life. And I never saw any signs of stress. He handled the kitchen pressure very well. People looked up to him and learnt from him. His only indulgence that I knew of was going to buy French cookbooks, which he used to translate for me.''
Ramsay made no statement yesterday. But he visited Elm Parks Gardens to see for himself the scene of the death, and then travelled to Glasgow to console Mr Dempsey's family and former colleagues at Amaryllis. After that, heissued a statement expressing his "devastation" at what had happened to his "brilliant protégé and friend". If there was anything relevant in the fact that the two men had dinner together at Harvey Nichols on the Saturday night, Ramsay did not reveal it. The flagship restaurant, which is close to Elm Park Gardens, is closed on Saturday and Sunday nights.
Some speculate that Mr Dempsey was overwhelmed by the novelty of life in the capital or the difficulties of working in a Michelin-starred kitchen. But he was used to both, having left Raymond Blanc's two-starred Le Manoir Aux Quat' Saisons in Oxfordshire to work for his idol in London and then Glasgow, where he gained Ramsay the Michelin star. But the demands of a three-star Michelin from the sourcing of produce to the finished works of art on the plate, via long hours in the kitchen are among the greatest of the profession.
Joanne Wood of Caterer and Hotelkeeper magazine, said: "The pressure is on to deliver absolutely certain quality all the time. This is the most pressure you will find in the business, much greater than kitchens in lesser establishments." Gordon Ramsay Restaurant is one of only two three-star Michelin establishments in Britain Michel Roux's The Waterside Inn at Bray, Berkshire, is the other.
Such pressures can manifest themselves in different ways. Drinking is one way out and the level of alcoholism among chefs recently led to the establishment of the Ark Foundation, by the former leading chef and reformed alcoholic Michael Quinn, aiming to deal with what many saw as a buried problem in the profession.
But many see drugs as providing relief for the younger chefs. While many are known to take them recreationally, many others can become reliant upon drugs such as amphetamines to keep them going. Anthony Bourdain, the author of the popular book Kitchen Confidential, described how he worked for many years as a chef in leading New York restaurants, working 14-hour days, fuelled by caffeine and a serious heroin habit.
Then there is Bernard Loiseau, chef and proprietor of La Cote d'Or in Burgundy, a temple of French gastronomy, which holds three Michelin stars. In February, in an act that led to a national outcry, he used his hunting rifle to kill himself, apparently mortified by the fact that his restaurant had dropped two points in the rival GaultMillau guide, from 19 out of 20, to 17.
Marc Veyrat, a French chef awarded 20/20 by GaultMillau, responded by speaking out about the pressures of the business. Chefs were, he said, "like fragile little boys, under pressure from all sides: from ourselves to do better every time, from the public and then, when we've reached summit, from the guides and the critics, swords of Damocles hanging over our heads ... because for us, where we are now, there's only one way to go.''
The next Michelin guide to Britain comes out in January.Reuse content