Gordon Ramsay: has the tiger become a pussycat?

By Matt Suddain

Matt Suddain talks to chef, restaurateur and much-feared TV personality Gordon Ramsay and discovers the pussycat within.

"These days we seem to be busier than ever, but we each make time to cook for different reasons."

I thought about this quote from his new book the night before our interview, while eating a burrito over a plastic salad bowl. The bowl serves two culinary purposes: first, to stop scalding cheese dripping on your crotch - which is important when your wife is out and you're eating a cheesy burrito in your underpants. Also, the congealed cheese can be eaten from the bowl with a spoon at the end of the meal, sort of like a dessert. How would Gordon Ramsay react if he knew I used a burrito bowl? Or that I once ate cold baked beans out of a tin with a plastic spork while standing over the sink because I didn't want to do any dishes? As a journalist, it's my job to sniff out people's secrets; as a food lover, my sins weigh heavy on my soul.

Bread Street Kitchen is in the heart of London, in the shadow of St Paul's Cathedral. The lunch rush was over, and Ramsay was standing near a stack of his new book: Bread Street Kitchen, sub-titled "Delicious recipes for breakfast, lunch and dinner to cook at home".

He has fluid, focused movements and a natural floor-ward gaze, like a naughty schoolboy - which I guess comes from the fact that he has spent a large portion of his life leaning over things: plates, pans, terrified underlings. He was leaning over books as he signed them, while his minder - who seemed like the kind of person who screams constantly inside her own head - hovered nearby, making sure no unaccredited specs of dust landed on him.

The PR agent for the book's publisher came over to tell me that the other two journalists hadn't arrived yet. She sent me to a dainty looking sofa, where I spent time flicking through his book. Bread Street Kitchen has recipes of varying difficulty, from French toast with bacon or berries, to spatchcocked poussins with chimichurri sauce. No recipe for cheesy soft tortilla burritos over a bowl, I noticed.

I was in the middle of googling "chimichurri" when a voice said, "Gordon, this is Matt from New Zealand. The other two journalists haven't arrived, so it'll just be the two of you."

That control is gonna kill you. I've seen it. Heart attacks, strokes. The industry will beat you, and you've got to be very smart to survive.
Gordon Ramsay

Ramsay shook my hand warmly as he eased on to the sofa and started to rave about New Zealand. "Big, big, lover of New Zealand." He's been to New Zealand - "oooh, a dozen times. Easily. I think I like going down there because it doesn't feel like work." He spends most of his time in the South Island. "I feed off it, and not even from a chef's point of view. It's pure, just beautiful."

I can tell already that Ramsay's big secret is that he's nice. Not fake nice, either, like so many celebrities during media week. He seems like a sweetheart. The 50-year-old chef gets misty when he talks about starting out. Cash-poor, time-poor, countless hours spent in hot little hells under constant bullying from career sociopaths like Marco Pierre White, and with very little time for travel. "For me, travelling over the past 10 years has become so much easier. Monday I'm off to Bordeaux; Austin, Texas next week. Chefs have to be like magpies, you have to go around and find all these amazing things and bring them back to the pot, then divide and conquer."

The global travel boom - as well as the internet - has broadened the minds of his customers, too. These days, people go out to dine "fully armed", so to speak. "The knowledge customers walk through our door with now is extraordinary." His new book capitalises on our desire to cook the food we eat in restaurants at home. He wanted to give people a chance to experiment with some of the recipes his team created for Bread Street. But to test the idea, he had to get out of the professional environment and back into his own kitchen.

"I took all the ingredients home so I could put myself in that domestic situation. Cooking in a restaurant is easy. There's a brigade, it's like a symphony. You're the conductor. You just shout and it all comes to you. Cooking at home's a different beast."

Not that he is entirely without a brigade at home. Ramsay and his wife, Tana, have four kids - Megan, Matilda, twins Jack and Holly - and they like to lend a hand.

"It's been great for the kids. And they cook anyway. They grew up with a love of food, and they're not snobs about it either."

Ramsay with wife Tana (left) and daughters Megan and Holly. Photo /  Film Magic
Ramsay with wife Tana (left) and daughters Megan and Holly. Photo / Film Magic

Ramsay grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of William Shakespeare. Like the immortal Bard, he had a father whose drinking and poor career decisions kept the family constantly on the brink. Ramsay left home at 16. He had his sights set on becoming a professional footballer, even earning a trial with Rangers Football Club. He wrecked the cartilage in his knee but, rather than wait for it to heal properly, he kept training, wrecking his cruciate ligament too. Rangers released him soon after. I wonder how much the disappointment - which must have hurt more than the injury - affected the way he approached his cooking career. He seems to have proceeded fairly cautiously.

He describes in detail the pitfalls of success in this business, how it sucks you in, keeps you under the illusion that everything cooked needs to have your fingerprints on it. "That's the worst thing any chef could be. That control is gonna kill you. I've seen it. Heart attacks, strokes. The industry will beat you, and you've got to be very smart to survive."

The key, he says, is delegation. "People always say, 'If you're such a hands-on chef, who does it when you're not there?' and I say, 'The same people who do it when I am f***ing there!'"

He's working on a television show for Amazon called Raw, which focuses on the seconds-in-command at top restaurants. "I've got 10 number twos, and they're the ones propping everything up. So I'm going to follow them around 24/7, see what sort of shit they have to go through to provide for their chef."

He still remembers what it was like to be them. "F***ing raw, not a pot to piss in, obsessed with food. Not in it for the money, just wanting to perfect and go on a journey. You just do everything you can to be the best you can be. Then you hit the end of that journey, quick." He slaps his fist hard against his palm, "You think, 'Shit, I'm here, I've gotta keep it now.' So how do you keep it? You have to be unselfish, and share all the knowledge you've gained with all these younger chefs."

You can hand over the daily tasks of running a restaurant, but you can't delegate away the pressure that comes from running an empire, of seeing some projects thrive while others crash and burn, and watching critics nibble away at your success like reef fish. Certain chefs in New York have been licking their wounds after recent maulings from powerful New York Times food critic Pete Wells.

"Yeah, hilarious. The way he took down Keller a couple of months ago." Thomas Keller, proprietor of The French Laundry, and holder of seven Michelin stars, had to watch in horror as Wells took his prestigious New York restaurant, Per Se, to task, calling it "among the worst food deals in New York". For Ramsay, Keller's mistake was to apologise. "It's only one man's opinion. If he's dealing with a half-empty restaurant and no one on the waiting list, he may have a point."

But sometimes things can be popular, and still be a rip-off. Isn't it a critic's job to call people out when they're charging hundreds of dollars for less-than-perfect food?

"Customers are your critics. They're the ones who're paying your bills. So what does New Zealand do? They've got no Michelin Guide. At the end of the day it's about being consistent and confident about what you do. Don't worry about being a world class restaurant, just be a local restaurant. Become embedded in that community. But yeah, if you're gonna charge $600 per head, you need to be faultless. You need to be absolutely perfect on a daily basis."

To make any real money, though, the star chef has to keep growing. They have to open new restaurants, write cookbooks, do TV shows. So I wonder how Ramsay goes about maintaining standards across ... how many restaurants is it now?

"Thirty-two," he says, a little brusquely.

"Last week we celebrated 18 years of Gordon Ramsay on Royal Hospital Road. Never opened weekends, Monday to Friday, 10 tables, and we cook 35 lunches and 40 dinners. One brigade. I've still got the same maitre d' I had back on the first of September 1998."

Restaurant Gordon Ramsay was his first solo project, and earned him three Michelin stars. He's managed to retain those stars, despite handing over the reigns to younger proteges.

"How you set yourself up for failure is you get greedy. You open places with 50 seats, and it becomes uncontrollable. I still have that little trinket box of Gordon Ramsay on Royal Hospital Road. I went there last night and watched it function to absolute perfection. You set yourself up for success by doing that every night, serving perfect food to 10 tables. Fifty-seven staff for 38 seats. I wasn't trying to conquer the world."

Ramsay is welcomed to Papakura High School by student 
Taylor Paora. Photo /  Dean Purcell
Ramsay is welcomed to Papakura High School by student Taylor Paora. Photo / Dean Purcell

His simple philosophy translates to any creative medium. Strive for excellence, don't be scared to fail, and don't worry about what anyone else is doing.

"It's hard to be creative if you're scared, you're intimidated, you're a follower. For me, it's like music. We have sessions in our family, with Tilly playing the drums and Jack on guitar.

It's amazing seeing how people take an idea, and then go off and steer it in another direction.

"It's exactly the same with food. But in the kitchen, your job as a leader is to say, 'Right, that's it, don't do any more. It's done.' Knowing when to stop comes with maturity, and having worked in the industry for so long."

Bread Street Kitchen, by Gordon Ramsay (Hachette, $50) is out on Tuesday.

- Canvas

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