Lunch with Gordon Ramsay
October 2006.- Gordon Ramsay’s children will no doubt grow up with well developed palates. Their father doesn’t encourage pickiness at the meal table.
He tells the story of serving them a dish of chicken and wild mushrooms with vinaigrette. One daughter wasn’t that keen on the mushrooms, but after they were given a further application of dressing, she happily ate them. When all the plates were clean, Ramsay told them they’d just polished off a meal of frogs’ legs and snails.
Ramsay seems to be a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde character. There’s the hard-nosed chef who doesn’t suffer fools gladly and is celebrated for his kitchen rants. But there’s also the man who cares passionately about his food and his customers. He wants the food to be perfect and the customers to enjoy their Ramsay dining experience. Under that hard shell, one suspects there could be a bit of a softie.
Cooking is a very creative occupation and creativity and a hard business sense seldom go hand in hand.
“It’s quite extraordinary to think how bad chefs are in business,” he confided at his Melbourne book launch. “Maybe I’m a successful chef. I know how to cook and I know how to motivate staff – and I certainly know how to tell them off as well,” he said. “But I have made a conscious effort from the early days of being at the coalface to get the balance. Chefs get success in the kitchen and all of a sudden they think they're some sort of genius in terms of finance."
Clearly Ramsay doesn't think this is the case. "So I have never run the business.”
He’s on the verge of opening a restaurant in New York. He’s been busy signing leases covering a 10-year period and worth half a billion dollars. Enough to make most of us lose attention and curdle the hollandaise. So Ramsay’s business is run by a CEO – who also happens to be his father-in-law – “which is a little bit sticky, especially when I beat him every year in a marathon by an hour. I also remind him some times I do pay his salary ‘so go easy on your executive chef’. It’s a phenomenal relationship and something that goes in tandem.
“No matter how big we become, one thing we can’t afford to do is miss out on the level of creativity from a chef point of view.”
Ramsay gets together monthly for two hours with his head chefs, sous chefs, chef partners. “We discuss the figures and we discuss the young chefs coming through and we discuss the menu seasonal changes, and we discuss how many of us have all got asparagus on the menu and how much we’re paying for it – how we’re buying and the way we negotiate.”
At a recent meeting, it got round to Ramsay’s five minutes - “we’ve all got five minutes round the table” – and he threw his colleagues a little. “I wanted to know what pisses them off when they come to work.”
They were “somewhat anxious and very tense and didn’t want to come forward. And then one person opened up and told everybody round the table how he felt.”
It had a domino effect. “What came out of the two hours was extraordinary and in a way of helping each other, identifying the problem and coming up with a solution. Sometimes it’s hard to see the wood from the trees, to see beyond the next menu. It was an amazing two hours and a phenomenal time for everybody in the way they offloaded and got things off their chest and discussed across that meeting something they would never, ever have done.”
Ramsay says “the more successful you become in this industry, it becomes slightly sinister where they start to think you’re diluting your strength… that you no longer cook. Well that’s bollocks. That has never been the case.”
He and his team work hard at planning six months in front of their customers.
“We work so hard at making sure that there’s never a question of standards and I’m always asked from New York, to Tokyo, Dubai to Chelsea, if you’re such a hands-on chef, when you make sure that standard’s the same, how can you run all those kitchens at the same time and who does the cooking when you’re not there? Well it’s the same team that do it when I am there. There’s no difference, and that is the secret.
“Monday night’s the same as Thursday night, Tuesday night’s the same as Friday night, Friday lunchtime is the same as Wednesday lunchtime. There’s no difference. And that’s the harder thing to accomplish in cooking, is becoming consistent, establishing that level of continuity.”
When a dish is evolved “and when we’ve got it consistently right” the brigade in the kitchen is tested. “It’s all very well you cooking and bringing that dish together, but how good are the brigade at bringing that dish together within a two-hour service from 12 o’clock to 2?”
All Ramsay’s restaurant menus are seasonal. “There’s nothing worse than seeing strawberries 12 months of the year, there’s nothing worse than seeing asparagus six months of the year, fresh peas in the middle of winter. So we have a market report that gives an indication a week in advance to the availability, on what’s going on in terms of the seasonality.”
Pricing dishes on the menu is a critical issue. A diner’s perception of the cost can influence the evening’s spending. “If we go into a restaurant and we know that the food’s good and not expensive, I guarantee you’ll spend another £5 or £10 on a bottle of wine. Subconsciously we know damn well it’s not as easy to make money on wine as it is on food.”
He said they had a situation at Claridge’s five years ago where they opened the restaurant with a £21 lunch menu. “The general manager got really upset with the fact that I was ‘degrading’ the front of the hotel. He thought that we were cheapening the brand of Claridge’s. So we had an argument, as we do, and we established the importance of removing intimidation and admittedly we never made money on £21, but what we did do, we established a very healthy business and the money we didn’t make on the food was made up on what we’d done on the wine. Now of course, five years later, the lunch menu is £30 and we still cater a fully booked lunch five, six lunches out of seven.”
On the chefs’ side, his restaurants were always strong, he said.
“We’ve never suffered in terms of developing chefs. Waiters were the area that was slightly questionable and three years ago we set up a restaurant skills centre where we took in all these young hungry talented waiters and put them through our own training school system.”
First point of contact with a restaurant is phoning for a reservation. In Ramsay’s case, this service is centralised, handling 2500-3000 calls a day for his nine London restaurants. Details are stored on client’s birthdays and anniversaries.
“We log that information in a way that helps them so that when they come back whether it’s a business lunch or a straightforward Saturday dinner, we know the guests, we look after the guests we don’t become too slightly over the top and that’s the secret behind good service in a restaurant - being attentive without being noticed.”
Five years ago Ramsay set up a chef’s table and “each and every kitchen now has the most amazing table in the kitchen where members of the public come in an eat on that table.”
At Claridge’s it’s a beautiful marble table with a U-shaped leather banquette on a raised platform overlooking the kitchen, “almost like being in the cockpit of a Boeing and it’s just right over the hotplate.”
The chefs cook from a market list. “We scour the market the night before and we come up with things like baby turbot and we’ve got the most amazing albino caviar from sturgeon that is very rare – unique vegetables, beautiful wild mushrooms, truffles and we cook six or seven courses for this table. That was set up for a purpose in order to improve the social skills of a young chef. In the olden days we never got to meet the customer because we were sort of cooped up, locked up and never actually saw anything of the dining room and the idea is getting these young chefs aged 18 to 23-24 to go up to the table and to present their dish to members of the public, not to waffle on but to give a short sharp vibrant insight into what they’ve spent the last 4 1/2 to 5 hours preparing. And in that time the level of confidence in young chefs has been extraordinary – the amount of social skills in terms of dealing with the customer and understanding the importance of their customers [increased] tenfold. The respect is phenomenal, their attention to detail is extraordinary and having contact in the kitchen makes them work better.
“Again the general manager got slightly upset with the fact that we were having members of the public in the kitchen. My God, supposing something goes wrong – what’s going to happen. And I said at the end of the day it’s a boisterous exciting environment to be in, it’s great for them to see exactly what it’s like.”
Sometimes the public even venture down into the kitchen, “get the chef things on” and work with the cook.
Those tables have now become that successful, there’s not one table in the group that doesn’t turn £1 million pound a year – that’s one table that seats eight to 10 guests. Ramsay says its like sitting in air traffic control “where you’ve got 180 people booked for dinner and a team of 25 first chefs and you’ve got to bring that together within four minutes.
“That level of energy and pumping up – the atmosphere in the kitchen is healthy. I dread to think one day what it would be like to run a kitchen in a ‘best mates’ scenario and again there’s several individuals out there today who think it should be ‘please be so kind as to pass the spinach’, ‘run along and roast the barramundi, and have a cigarette and come back and serve it’.
“It’s a kitchen. We’ve a duty to customers. We charge customers money and the minute I personally get to a stage in my career where I send the food because I think the customer will not know the difference between that level of perfection and that level of normal, I personally would rather get out.”
Ramsay said he had been asked what it would be like if he won three Michelin stars in New York and lost one in Chelsea [where his Restaurant Gordon Ramsay has three stars]. “You can’t win it back. I wouldn’t sit there and start crying over spilt milk. Sometimes it’s good to have a touch of negativity and to readdress and focus.”
According to Gordon Ramsay, Alain Ducasse was an amazing mentor – “three stars in New York [recently lost because Ducasse is relocating and rebuilding his restaurant there] three stars in Paris and three stars in Monaco – but it’s the old sort of syndrome that you’ve got to be there over every dish. If I was over every dish and I was in that kitchen 18-19 hours a day, then the individuals who are with me today wouldn’t be where they are in terms of being exposed and that’s the journey that one’s got to go through in terms of understanding that this job’s never … going to be a 9 to 5 job, it’s never going to be weekends off, Thursday, Friday, Saturday night off. It’s the best job in the world to have but you’ve got to understand your trade.
“If you’re reading medicine or studying law you’ve got an eight to 10-year apprenticeship before you qualify and become a partner. So food is no different but I quite like the demands our customers are putting on us in terms of creative ability and identification in terms of flavour.
The average chef stays in Ramsay’s kitchen between between four and five years and then, “in a very unselfish manner”, they’ll be sent out on a sabbatical for two to three years – maybe a year in France, a year in California and then finishing school. Over the past couple of years, Spain, particularly Barcelona, has become a very exciting place for young chefs to go to research and develop. Not necessarily in terms of the molecular gastronomy or science applied to food that Spain has become noted for, but just in terms of what is happening in Spain at the moment.
The Ramsay group keeps its eye on trends. “Every time a new direction opens up, whether it’s here in Melbourne, in Barcelona or even in New York City there’ll be a team from the restaurant go out - six waiters and six chefs – they’ll go out and taste and identify what is good and what has made that restaurant so successful. Then when it comes to one that’s been slated in the press, condemned for perhaps overseasoned food, undercooked fish - we still send them there. For me there’s just as much to learn from the bad experience as there is from the good experience.”
Ramsay’s young staff members have a chance to have their partners or parents in to eat at the restaurants. “It’s just nice for the parents or partners to identify why they work so hard and make their lives a bit easier on their days off. But then I ask the individual working alongside me ‘Really glad they could make it. Do you want to go and get changed and eat with them? How do you feel?’ and it’s quite an interesting turning point whether they want to show and confirm to their parents what they learned or whether they want to be on the other side of the fence and indulge.”
Ramsay says he has never eaten in his restaurants. “I can’t face going in there, sitting down and waiting for food. I wouldn’t put that message out to my customers – how would I feel if I walked into Claridge's and sat in a corner with my family with the wine and champagne and three or four courses – what sort of message is that?”
He likes to be in the kitchen seeing exactly what is going into the dining room. He doesn’t think it would give the right impression is he was out in the dining room indulging. He’s far more comfortable in the kitchen.
“And, secondly – we shouldn’t really indulge, should we? We’re there to surprise and excite and motivate in a way that that’s why they come back. So it’s a fascinating relationship yet I’m dying to go and eat in there.”
In his Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in Chelsea which opened in 1998, and where he has three Michelin stars he made a very conscious decision to close Saturday and Sunday, “close for the reason that I want the same standard each and every day and secondly I wanted to take some time out finding that balance. There’s no script for that, is there? You don’t get a script in life that tells you how to do A, B, C, D follow 123 and it’s going to happen. So pacing yourself and keeping fit is crucial.”
He was, Ramsay says, “a real fat bastard” when he ran his first marathon. He tipped the scales at 18 stone “and trust me, I was a real chunky monkey.” He knew things were going pear-shaped when he got back “and it was dark”. He was struggling and getting agitated with himself that he’d let himself go. Something he’s since remedied.
“Staying fit and staying on top of my game, I suppose, has made me not just a better person but I can tolerate a lot more now on my shoulders and I fell we’ve just started.”
Asked if he had any plans to open a restaurant in Australia, he said he was frustrated with chefs who did consultancies – “that’s basically print your name on the menu and piss off – ‘we’ll see you next year’.” He says he does things somewhat differently. “We invest and we put money into the business and we establish 10-15 year leases and we provide every member of the staff. “
He said he’s had an opportunity 12 months ago to do something in Sydney but “I don’t want to negotiate with three partners. I don’t want the owners, the operators and then me. If I put money in, I want to do it my way.”
Meanwhile, however, Gordon Ramsay has close to a hundred staff from Australia, both in the kitchen and in the dining room. “Only trouble is in summer in London when the sun comes out, they all piss off down to Cornwall to work with Rick Stein and cook fish and chips.”
Gordon Ramsay’s team has been in place since 1993 and staff have been with him nearly 10 years.
“So everyone thinks … this global empire – that we’re dominating the world. I really believe that we’ve just started and we’ve nine operations over the next three years and the opportunity for the team alone is staggering. So it doesn’t get any better.”
But says Ramsay, “because it is where it is, it doesn’t stop you working harder to make sure that we’re consistent and we don’t rip customers off.
“When you go to a restaurant and you don’t have a brilliant time, all of a sudden you start questioning the bill and that’s a big big big big disadvantage. When you leave a restaurant and you’ve had a good time, you tend not to worry about the bill because that’s what you really pay for – that level of excitement. And as long as we can continue that each and every day, then I can sleep at night.
“But I still go to bed at night with one eye open. I may be 40, but don’t underestimate me. I’m halfway there.”
[Ramsay is involved in nine restaurants in Britain. His international restaurants are in Dubai, Tokyo, New York (opening November 2006). These will be followed with Gordon Ramsay restaurants in Florida and Los Angeles in 2007.]
After lunch Gordon Ramsay signs my book - and yes, he worked in the F word