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It’s been a hair-raising couple of years for Gordon Ramsay, who has faced bankruptcy and endured a perfect storm of bad publicity. But Britain’s most famous chef isn’t complaining. As he prepares for the high-profile relaunch of Pétrus, he tells Ben McCormack how his recent troubles have made him a tougher and wiser man
‘Last year was a testing time,’ admits Britain’s most famous chef in the kitchen of Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s. But he’s bullish about the fact that he has survived the media flak and financial quicksands relatively unscathed: ‘I never cracked and I didn’t enter rehab. I got where I am today on the back of drive and incredible determination. I always respond to negativity and I face things straight on. And, fuck me, it’s made me stronger.’
We’re sitting at the chef’s table to talk about Pétrus, one of the most eagerly anticipated launches of 2010. This is the restaurant’s third incarnation: it opened 11 years ago on St James’s Street before moving to The Berkeley hotel in 2003, where the kitchens were captained by Marcus Wareing – Ramsay’s then best friend. Gordon Ramsay Holdings (GRH) retained the legal rights to the restaurant’s name following the much-publicised and acrimonious split from Wareing two years ago, and the revival of Pétrus (without Wareing on board) represents something of a new start for Ramsay. Like Murano, Ramsay’s last London launch (in 2008), it’s a genuine standalone restaurant rather than the sort of symbiotic hotel dining room that defined many GRH outlets during the Noughties.
More significantly, this is Ramsay’s first London opening after a distinctly lurid period of professional and personal revelations, combined with a serious buffeting from the recession. The stakes couldn’t be higher.
Not surprisingly, the man has done his homework in advance of this new venture. ‘I’ve been out 21 times in the last 10 days and eaten my way across London, from Galvin La Chapelle and Texture to Tom’s Kitchen. I want to create that kind of affordable glam with Pétrus. I don’t want up-its-arse service, I want to be left alone to enjoy my food, I want to close my eyes and think, “Wow, that’s extraordinary”.’
He’s also aware that the recession has placed a new focus on what customers want to eat, rather than what chefs want to cook. Not that the reborn Pétrus is following in the casual idiom of Ramsay’s gastropubs. The 48-seat restaurant, which also has a chef’s table for eight, is a cross between Murano and his three-Michelin-starred Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. ‘I’ve got to take my chefs’ heads out of their chef-isms and get them to cook what the customer wants. A Knightsbridge lady isn’t going to go to Pétrus and eat a stunning lamb faggot – even if it’s wrapped in cos lettuce and beautifully done.’ Instead, he hopes to seduce visitors with the likes of pan-fried sea scallops with cauliflower, anchovy and caper beurre noisette, and pork fillet with Bayonne ham, black pudding, creamed cabbage and Madeira sauce.
‘I got where I am today on the back of drive and incredible determination. I face things straight on’
Ramsay also talks excitedly about the serious quality of local competition: Amaya, Zafferano, the imminent arrival of Heston Blumenthal at the Mandarin Oriental and, of course, Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley. However, he claims that Pétrus’s location – a stone’s throw from its old home – is merely a coincidence, and that he has no lurking animosity towards the chef who was best man at his wedding. Apparently, the breach with Wareing was simply because the hotel wanted to embark on two years of building work. ‘We got told the construction was taking place. We wanted to go, and Marcus wanted to stay, and so he went his separate way. There was never any angst or bitterness involved.’
Wareing, of course, told a different story. In an interview, he famously proclaimed, ‘if I never speak to that guy for the rest of my life it wouldn’t bother me one bit’. Ramsay, however, won’t be drawn into a slanging match. ‘I’ve kept my powder dry, because it’s dignified. It was just a little myth in Marcus’s mind that he created this turmoil. But then we’ve all been delicate, dainty and insecure. I’ve gone through those emotions, too.’
And in recent times, Ramsay has had more reason than most to feel emotional. The rupture with Wareing in May 2008 marked the beginning of a nightmarish cycle that saw him move from the most fêted chef in Britain to media whipping boy. ‘It was coming in from every angle,’ Ramsay says of the public flogging he’s had to endure. Like his friends the Beckhams, he became a soft A-list target and ‘fodder for the press’. What followed was an avalanche of jibes and speculation.
In November that year, he hotly denied allegations in the News of the World that he had been conducting a seven-year-affair with Sarah Symonds, and worse was to come over the next 12 months. In
April 2009, the tabloids claimed that Ramsay’s gastropubs and Foxtrot Oscar bistro were bringing in pre-prepared dishes and heating them up on site by sous vide. Then, in May, the chef’s
longstanding boast to have played for Glasgow Rangers was revealed as no more than a trial with the club. June brought an apology to Australian TV presenter Tracy Grimshaw for comparing her to a
pig. In July, company accounts showed profits at Gordon Ramsay Holdings had slumped by 90% over the previous year. And in January 2010, Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s lost its Michelin star.
His view that it’s been a ‘turbulent, tempestuous 18 months’ is certainly backed up by the financial facts. Gordon Ramsay Holdings opened seven restaurants in 2008 but, just as the company was expanding globally, the worldwide economy began to contract. ‘When Lehman Brothers went down in September 2008, we were tightening our belts within 24 hours. The UK business remained very strong, but we were dealing with a serious downturn in fine dining in Paris, New York, Prague and LA. So for every pound we were making in this country, we were losing £2 outside the UK.’
‘We were being told by the auditors to make hundreds of people redundant, but there was no way that was going to happen. It would have made me sick’
Crucially, Ramsay differed from Alain Ducasse and Joël Robuchon (both of whom have global gastronomic empires peppered with Michelin-starred restaurants) by owning his ventures outright rather than operating them under a consultancy deal – making Gordon Ramsay Holdings responsible for everything from rent to salaries to dealing with powerful trade unions. ‘I laid myself bare,’ he admits.
Consequently, when GRH made combined losses of £4.3m for the year to the end of August 2008, Ramsay and his business partner (and father-in-law) Chris Hutcheson had to inject £5m of their own money to avoid collapse into administration. Ramsay, however, denies that his business model was flawed. ‘No one saw the recession coming. I didn’t open a restaurant in New York to make a lot of money, but we broke even for the first time last June. We weren’t doing a bad job. It was the financial climate that dictated the losses.’
Failure, though, was not an option. ‘We were being told by the auditors at KPMG to declare bankruptcy, shut down all but our best-performing restaurants and make hundreds of people redundant, but
there was no way on earth that was going to happen. It would have made me sick. I’d never have done that to my staff, to my customers or suppliers. They all got guaranteed payment plans and were
told exactly when and where everything was happening.’ Nevertheless, Gordon Ramsay Holdings has now adopted the consultancy approach of Ducasse and Robuchon, and the company is on track to move
into profitability in 2010.
Meanwhile, Ramsay himself remains a hugely marketable brand, with a bulging portfolio of lucrative deals and endorsements across a whole range of products and services. But he doesn’t see any disjunction between being the third-most Michelin-starred chef in the world (11 at the last count) and, for instance, lending his name to Gordon’s gin, Royal Doulton or a worldwide range of kitchen electricals. ‘That exposure isn’t denting the quality of what you eat at my restaurants. You don’t stop going to Jamie Oliver’s restaurants because he’s endorsing Tefal pans, or The Fat Duck because Heston Blumenthal is developing flavours with Walkers crisps.’
He’s also unmoved by those who carp about his media omnipresence and the amount of TV airtime he occupies, especially with high-profile global
shows such as Kitchen Nightmares and The F Word. ‘Being paid a quarter of a million dollars an hour to work on television with Fox, do some cookingand turn a restaurant around – there isn’t a chef in the world who would pass by that opportunity. So I have to be blatantly honest. If it’s going to fundmy company, bring down my borrowings, and help put some tidy sums away financially, through thick and thin, then I would be very stupid not to appear.’
‘I want to create affordable glam. I don’t want up-its-arse service. I want to close my eyes and think, Wow, that’s extraordinary’
As for his TV persona, everyone still talks about the expletives, although Ramsay is quick to point out that his swearing is confined to the heat of the kitchen. ‘It’s like being in the dressing room at half-time when Man United are playing Man City and there’s been a penalty.’ What he calls ‘industry language’ clearly comes with the high-pressure territory: ‘If I was flipping burgers or dressing Caesar salad, I’d probably be a lot softer and a lot gentler.’
But the criticism that annoys him the most is that he is not behind the stoves at his own restaurants. ‘Bless him, Raymond Blanc. If he ever mentions one more time how ridiculous it is that I’ve got three stars and I’m not in my kitchen – Jesus Christ. We have a high level of self-discipline within all of our restaurants, especially at Royal Hospital Road. Do I cook there? No. Head chef Clare Smyth is my right-hand man.’
However, it isn’t just his rivals and pundits who expect to see Ramsay in his whites. ‘I had a bizarre time coming back from New York before Christmas, I met a guy in the airport lounge who cancelled his reservation for his 80th birthday party at The Narrow when he found out I wasn’t going to be there. Sunday is my day off. What makes him think in his tiny mind that I’m going to be in a kitchen that’s the size of a toilet trying to make his Yorkshire pudding? I didn’t buy The Narrow to cook in it.’
As to the future, outposts of Maze in Doha and Melbournehave already opened this year, while London’s Savoy Grill re-launches in late summer, reviving the spirit of Escoffier with classic grills cooked over open charcoal and iconic specialities such as peach Melba served on ice. Ramsay is obviously excited by the prospect of future highs, but after all he’s been through, doesn’t he just want to slow down and retire? ‘Robuchon is 65 and he’s screwed it for all of us. When will I retire? God knows. I’m 43 now. I’d be a bigger pain in the arse without having a kitchen to go to. Tana would kill me.’
It’s hard to imagine how anyone as hyperactive as Ramsay could call it a day. He may wax lyrical about buying a 200-acre vineyard and cottage near Aix-en-Provence for family holidays, yet this is a
man whose current idea of relaxing is running two circuits round Richmond Park while wearing
a Nike diving jacket that weighs 30 kilos.
Slowing down clearly isn’t on his agenda just yet, although ‘consolidation’ might be. One thing is sure, we can expect more eateries, more books, more shows, more column inches and more global ventures. But at least Pétrus is back to remind us why we fell in love with Gordon Ramsay in the first place.
Pétrus, 1 Kinnerton Street, SW1X 8EA; 020 7592 1609
Editorial feature from Square Meal Lifestyle Magazine Spring 2010