Kitchen Tarantino; John Walsh meets Gordon Ramsay

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The Independent Online
You inch your way down Park Walk, Chelsea, looking for blood on the sidewalk. You push open the door of the Aubergine restaurant, alert for flying ramekin dishes. You sit at Table 1, prepared for a ferocious row about the state of your jacket, tape-recorder, palate etc. You clock the yellow decor, the walls ragged in late-Eighties style, the toning chairs in dusty green and raspberry. You scan the pounds 45-a-head menu and note that aubergines feature in only one dish. A waiter brings you a cappuccino with a white, satinate froth on it. Some petit fours arrive, freezing balls of white chocolate containing a nectar of strawberry ice. Well, well, you think, looking round, this is nice. Maybe all those news reports...

While we're waiting for the chef-patron to show up, let me remind you who he is. Gordon Ramsay has a reputation for two things. One is cooking and the other is fighting. He is, they say, a legend, a two-Michelin-stars Nijinsky of haute cuisine, a Leonardo of the tortellini - inventive, pretentious peut-etre, but sublime. He is also, they'll tell you, a tough guy, a brawling Red Clyde scumbag, a failed footballer in biker leathers who lucked out in catering college and has hoodwinked the burghers of Chelsea and their poncey media friends. He has been in the papers lately for fighting on the pavement with the restaurateur next door. He's been criticised for upsetting Fay Maschler, the prima donna assoluta of foodie criticism, with snide personal remarks about her age. He had some shocking dust-up recently with Marco Pierre White, whose pupil he was and whose mantle (they say) he is trying to steal. And everybody but everybody knows that this 30-year-old rough- diamond chef once played for Glasgow Rangers FC. Handily combining two key interests of the Nineties middle classes - eating and Association Football - Ramsay is a walking mega-trend. But is he a visionary or a nasty piece of work? Or both?

"Hi," someone says, and a burly figure looms over you. His face is youthful but slightly bashed-around, like a high school prizefighter, and his hair springs from his brow in an unruly shock. When you shake hands, his grip is as firm as that of a fisherman who's been pulling giant hawsers on a North Sea lugger. It's when you encounter his conversational flow - its belligerence, its machine-gun delivery, its relaxed attitude to verbal restraint - that you notice his strong resemblance, squished features and all, to Quentin Tarantino.

"You haven't come to talk about the guy next door, have you? A very sad bastard. He's got this horrendous tapas bar, which is open till two. The average age is about 16 and they pile in there at midnight when the Khartouche closes. I have to keep the blinds half-shut in the bar here because the little bastards get pissed and fall over outside while my guests are taking a cigar or a cognac, or they stand there peeing all over the flowers..." The dispute with El Bodegon's owner Salvator Soriano, was because "this man was trying to dictate where I put my rubbish", and Ramsay scribbles angrily on a paper pad to indicate the battleground of pavement, lamp- post and road that has so preoccupied him. His delivery speeds up alarmingly: "He says I should put my rubbish this side of the lamp-post because he owns the pavement, well nobody owns pavements. And one night, the rubbish started cascading over the barrier and he started throwing it back. Nightmare. I saw these bags hurtling across the pavement and said, `You can't do that'. He said, `No you can't...' Then this bouncer came up and cracked me in the eye. 'Course, I lashed out. The boys came up from the kitchen, his boys came out of their kitchen and within seconds we had this Western brawl going on. Bloody nightmare."

This narrative tirade does not, in fact, come out in one burst. It's interrupted by displays of Ramsay's hold over his glamorous clientele. A copy of his book Passion for Flavour: Recipes from the Aubergine is slid under his elbow, and he signs the flyleaf with a flourish. Hearing, via a waiterly murmur, who it's for, he says, "Would you excuse me a moment? It seems rude not to say hello..." and goes off to schmooze with Rocco Forte, who's been lunching in a corner. Minutes later, another gourmet has proved unable to leave without adding the book (price pounds 25) to the bill; this one isn't famous enough to warrant a chat, but a tiny note from "Hugh and Marian celebrating their anniversary" directs him to the appropriate inscription. A third interruption features Richard Attenborough, milling about all by himself. He presses a banknote into the hand of the sommelier, Thierry, who is 23 going on 14 and a whiz with pudding wines. "Yeah, Lord Attenborough," says Ramsay rejoining the table. "His Roller's outside, with RA11 number plates, and he's forgotten his credit cards. He says, `Can you post the bill?' I said, `Sure.' " He chuckles. "I don't think we're going to make him come down and wash fucking dishes for half an hour, are we?"

Ramsays's fondness for his celebrity foodies is palpable. Though he affects to be blase about the extraordinary drift of famous faces through his tiny establishment (it takes 30 for lunch, and 55 for dinner), he is clearly tickled pink by their approval. Aubergine is where Robert de Niro eats when he's in London, and Princess Diana and David Bowie and Princess Margaret and Fergie and Andrew Lloyd-Webber. So popular has the place become, there's a now a queue for dinner that's like the waiting list for a fashionable gentleman's club. There's no chance of a table for two before November. Surely, I said, you must keep the odd table in reserve, in case Peter Mandelson phones up, or the Palace...? "No, I don't believe in that. Why should one of my locals, from Park Walk or The Boltons, who've supported me from the beginning, not be able to eat here because we're keeping a table clear?"

Ramsay's admirably democratic stance has disconcerted many stars in the past. Martina Navratilova rang from Wimbledon in person on the day she won the championship, and was denied a table. Madonna tried it on once, with nine friends, and was likewise turned down.

What they're all after - tennis champions, bolted royals and rock stars - is Ramsay's cooking, which has an unearthly lightness and flavour about it. He combines things with seeming recklessness, like his signature dishes of foie gras with Earl Grey consomme (goose liver with tea soup?) or "creme brulee, jus Granny Smith" which is a bizarre but appley delight some million miles beyond the eggy horror we know so well, or braised turbot with sea urchin sauce. He is famous for his frothy soups, served up as "cappuccinos", with a sprinkling of grated truffles where the ground chocolate would normally go. His dishes cram half a dozen flavours together in a swooning harmony. Seabass, for instance, comes with boulangere potatoes seasoned with thyme flowers, braised fennel and sauce nicoise. He steers clear of butter and cream. "The Escoffier days, when everything was inundated with it, are gone. I can't stand sauces clogged with butter and cream. I have a lot of purees of vegetables, purees of herbs, lots of vegetable stock infused with lemon grass. Our style is light. It's nice to come and eat three courses without stuffing yourself and not being able to eat for days." Not that he doesn't break his own rules now and again. I asked him the secret of a perfect scrambled egg. "Always finish up with a good spoonful of cream. It stops the cooking process, cools it down and gives it a nice consistency."

Gordon Ramsay was born in Renfrewshire in 1967 and still revels in his Scottishness, even though the family moved to Stratford when he was four. His favourite place in the world appears to be Ibrox Park, the Rangers ground where he gets to sit in the directors' box alongwise the Rangers chairman, Sir David Murray. Ramsay's father was a PE teacher at Glasgow University, then manager of Stratford swimming pool. Was he strict? "Very disciplined, yeah. He used to make us swim in the mornings before school. I opted out of that, but my little brother and big sister went on to swim at county level. We were brought up to be very polite, very well mannered, very sensible." A childhood passion for football brought him to play for Glasgow Rangers, where he lasted three months, under the alarming tutelage of Jock Wallace, before being told he wasn't needed. Why did they drop him? Ramsay selected a spectacular Freudian slip in reply. "I could only cook with my left foot. I mean kick..."

Interviewed by careers officers about this dismaying setback, he thought about joining the paratroopers or the police, with an eye on getting back into the footballing loop - but being "a stubborn little bastard", he decided on a clean break and went to catering college. Work experience in a Stratford hotel horrified him. "I spent six weeks in the kitchen and six in the dining room. It was a fucking nightmare. Crepes Suzettes and veal cordon bleu and trolleys with cognacs everywhere..." He resolved never to be a waiter. "In the kitchen, though, you had the freedom to express yourself, on a plate..."

And in due course, he met Marco Pierre White, the wunderkind of modern British cuisine. Guess what? "He was very disciplined." Gordon, I said, you're always using that word. What do you mean? "You can't just say he was an utter bastard, can you? A very aggressive character. A perfectionist, and I admit I'm one too, but the way I go around demanding things and the way he does, they're very different scenarios. But if you wanna work for a particular guy, if you want his knowledge, to be inside his brain, if you wanna capture everything he's got to give you, then fuck it. Getting a slap or the odd boot in the arse, that's no problem." The same principle applied when he went on to Le Gavroche under the Roux brothers, then to France for three years in Paris and Monacio, under Guy Savoy and Joel Robouchon (who hurled a plate of langoustine ravioli at his head on Ramsay's first day).

He and Marco fell out in a partnership row over the Canteen, the restaurant in Chelsea Harbour started by White, Michael Caine and Ramsay's partner Claudio. They hadn't spoken for two years until the other day, when, by chance, they found themselves in a restaurant in Bray. White summoned the proprietor and got him to eject Ramsay and his wife. A tremendous stand-off ensued, somewhere between the final scenes of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Pulp Fiction. But Ramsay doesn't need White any more. His stake couldn't be higher in restaurant circles. His empire is broadening, with the launch next month of Teatro in Shaftesbury Avenue, for which he's menu consultant and 20 per cent shareholder. Aubergine's sister restaurant L' Oranger in St James's is flourishing. All the energy of this restless, driven, expletive-explosive man goes into the unending search for a third Michelin star. So we tiptoe out into the Park Walk battlefield, leaving him with the truffles, the barbue roti and crab ravioli, creating with urgency and style, cooking, as it were, with both feet at last.