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25 July 2014

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Ramsay's return: the big interview

(menu)

ramsay returns_gordon ramsay and davide degiovanni - vb119368_UnionStreetCafe_portrait_05xx_resized.jpgWith a high-profile London launch and his New York flagship losing its Michelin stars, it’s been a topsy-turvy year for Gordon Ramsay. Square Meal caught up with him and head chef Davide Degiovanni (pictured, right, with Ramsay) prior to the opening of Union Street Café to find out about his future plans, London’s restaurant scene – and David Beckham.

Gordon Ramsay may spend much of his time away from the UK, but Britain’s most famous chef is still a big deal in his homeland. Just before Union Street Café (pictured, below left) opened its doors, the new restaurant’s Twitter account was chirruping that it had already taken almost 11,000 reservations. His latest London launch was one of those openings that make it beyond the fluffy confines of the lifestyle pages and become news events in their own right – not least when it was announced that collaborator (and bookings-bait) David Beckham was no longer on board. Yet the suspicion that Beckham’s involvement was merely a PR stunt has done little to dampen the public’s enthusiasm – the restaurant is almost fully booked on Friday and Saturday nights for the next month.

Ramsay’s resurrection as one of the biggest draws in London dining may come as a surprise to those who had written him off as tabloid fodder. Since his last restaurant, Bread Street Kitchen, opened in 2011, the brightest stars on the London scene have been his former lieutenants, Angela Hartnett and, especially, Jason Atherton, who have been busy building up their own empires much as Ramsay once did; their erstwhile mentor, meanwhile, has seemed focused on his TV career in the United States, where his five prime-time shows generated more than $150m (£93m) in advertising revenue for the Fox network over the past 12 months. But while Ramsay may have left behind the parochial world of British celebrity chefdom to become a global megastar, he’s keen to stress he hasn’t cut his ties with the UK.

‘London is still my home’, he tells me in the week of the launch. ‘I split my time between here and the US and I’m back every few weeks. It’s a good balance, and I use the opportunity when I’m travelling to see what else is going on in the food world.'

Perfect timing

Union Street Cafe - Union_Street_Cafe_2013_-_CAM_01__FINAL_29MayV2..jpgIt’s what’s been happening in London’s food world that’s had the greatest influence on Ramsay. ‘I randomly found the Union Street site a few years ago and immediately knew I wanted to open a restaurant there’, he says. ‘However, there are lots of factors to opening a restaurant; a site is just one of them. It also has to be the right time – and it wasn’t right a few years ago.’

The intervening years have not only seen Ramsay go more casual with Bread Street Kitchen, but great swathes of the London dining scene also adopt an easy-going pose. ‘Since I started out, there’s been a vast change in terms of the restaurant offering in the capital. Londoners have developed a taste for new and exciting restaurants and dining styles, and the shift to more casual dining has encouraged more people to dine out. London is now a population of food lovers.’

Anyone who hasn’t set foot in a Gordon Ramsay restaurant since the early-noughties golden years of Claridge’s, The Connaught, Maze and Pétrus, will be surprised by Union Street. For a start, the large warehouse conversion doesn’t feel like a Ramsay eatery: with its smart polished-concrete floors and top-of-the-range Italian furniture, peeling-paint pillars and gritty industrial ducting, it is both urban and urbane, and there’s a terrific downstairs bar (pictured, below left), too – it’s all a world away from the three-Michelin-starred luxe of Royal Hospital Road.

The food is also a departure: nominally Mediterranean, it’s mostly Italian, with a strong emphasis on the north of the country, thanks to head chef Davide Degiovanni, who hails from Manta in Piedmont. In the run-up to opening, Degiovanni spent a month emailing menus to Ramsay in America, who would phone back the next morning with his feedback.

How did Ramsay find this transatlantic style of culinary collaboration? ‘It was surprisingly easy actually and I really enjoyed it. Davide has some great ideas and vision, we spoke and corresponded daily, then we met in person for additions and tweaks. I am very pleased with what we have here: a fresh, daily-changing menu.’

Simple menu

Union-Street-Cafe-Restaurant-2013-2.jpgFor his part, was Degiovanni nervous about meeting the man famous for reducing chefs to gibbering wrecks on TV? ‘Yes, but Gordon’s completely different to his Hell’s Kitchen persona. When I met him, I was impressed straightaway by his personality and his charisma. I think he’s a fantastic person. The first question he asked me was to show him around the kitchen, then we had the tasting and sat down together and he was super happy. He tasted 20 dishes in two days. It really made a difference hearing from someone who is so experienced about how to change little details.

‘This menu is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time’, he continues. ‘It’s the kind of food I cook when I invite guests over to my house. The menu changes daily, so we don’t want a hundred items on it. We just want to have a few and do them right.’ In practice, that might mean veal carpaccio with lemon, anchovy, olive and celery followed by baked spiny lobster with chilli and marjoram or pasta with artichokes, pancetta, mint and ricotta.

‘A great chef needs to know how to do the simple things’, Degiovanni says. ‘You need to know the basics, like understanding good produce. Working at a fine-dining restaurant doesn’t mean you are a star.’

Degiovanni speaks with the authority of someone who has earned his stripes. He began his career in London as chef de partie at the Picasso Room at L’Escargot in 2002, moving to Teca in Mayfair [now closed], where he was Fabio Trabocchi’s sous-chef, before spells at Ristorante Semplice and Locanda Locatelli. His biggest influence? ‘Definitely Fabio. He impressed me with his character and his cooking – I saw things that I’d never seen before. He opened my eyes and showed me what I could do.’

London legacy

ramsay returns_union street cafe bar 2013 - vb119365_UnionStreetCafe_portrait_02_resized.jpgRamsay’s kitchens have proved a springboard for some of London’s greatest culinary talents. Does Degiovanni feel privileged to be part of the same stable that produced Atherton and Hartnett, as well as Marcus Wareing and Mark Sargeant? ‘I’m very proud to be a part of the Ramsay tradition. I haven’t spent that much time with them but I am, of course, happy to be a part of the family.’

None of these chefs would arguably be where they are now without Ramsay, and the restaurant scene as we know it would be unrecognisable without the excitement he generated. Does Ramsay see himself as a trailblazer? ‘The London restaurant scene is amazing, but to be honest, it has always been exciting – it’s just bigger and more diverse now,’ he says. ‘I’m proud to have been part of it. I’ve learned from some of the most amazing chefs and nurtured some great talent. If I’ve helped shape things, then great.’

On his most recent visit to London, Ramsay tweeted how much he enjoyed his meal at Restaurant Story in Bermondsey. Where else does he like eating when he’s back home? ‘Le Caprice is an old favourite. And I recently went to Grain Store [in King’s Cross], which was brilliant.’

Does he look at the generation of chefs who have followed him and see anyone with the potential to be the new Ramsay, someone who can combine quality and variety with large-scale operations? ‘I think there’s a really exciting wave of new talent – but my advice to anyone would always be to find your own style and not follow in any one person’s footsteps.’ No tips for future talent there, then. And who would he like to see taking over at Claridge’s? ‘That would be telling.’

One famous name that has been connected with Ramsay has been his friend David Beckham: the footballer was photographed visiting the Union Street site and his involvement was confirmed by PR releases back in June. What happened after that? ‘David is not involved with Union Street Café,’ comes the reply. ‘There were early conversations, but he is not involved in this project. We may do something together in the future.’ What about the pie-and-mash shop that has been widely reported? ‘That has been rumoured for some time. There’s nothing more to say about it at the moment – we have no firm plans, but never say never.’

This feature was published in the autumn 2013 issue of Square Meal Lifestyle.

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