Head of the House: Gordon Ramsay
Traffic has ground to a halt and I’m late for my interview with Gordon Ramsay. Having spent the morning watching clips from Kitchen Nightmares and Hell’s Kitchen, I’m worried the famously fiery British chef is going to call me a “f--king donkey”, “a f--king disgrace” or just a plain old “idiot sandwich.” I finally make it to London House, his new Hong Kong restaurant, but instead of getting the torrent of abuse I probably deserve, I find a smiling, affable and very charming Ramsay, happily chatting to his staff while eating one of his legendary sausage rolls. “Ah, Tatler,” he says, with a twinkle in his eye. “I should have known you’d be late. You’re far too posh to own an alarm clock.”
Being shouted at by Ramsay is a privilege most young chefs would gladly put their hand in a vat of hot oil for. Not only is he one of the most famous television chefs in the world, he’s the proud owner of 26 restaurants spread around the globe from Las Vegas to Singapore that possess seven Michelin stars among them. Pretty impressive for a man born on the wrong side of the tracks in Glasgow and who eschewed the kitchen for the football pitch until the age of 19. An injury in 1985, when he was training with the Glasgow Rangers squad, forced him to rethink his future. “Nobody, and I mean nobody, expected me to become a chef,” he says. “My mum sort of understood but I could never have told my dad, so I went off to make it on my own.” And make it he did—13 years later Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in Chelsea opened to rave reviews and earned three Michelin stars.
“Ah, Tatler,” he says, with a twinkle in his eye. “I should have known you’d be late. You’re far too posh to own an alarm clock.”
Hundreds of column inches have been dedicated to dissecting Ramsay’s colossal success. Yes, he’s a talented chef, but that’s not usually enough to make the £40 million Ramsay is reported to be worth. I think it has more to do with his charisma, his charm and that sexy-ugly thing he’s got going on that makes women go weak at the knees. And, of course, he’s brilliant at insulting people, somehow striking the perfect balance between scorn, warmth, volume, advice and humour. Many of Ramsay’s insults have gone viral—“My gran could do better. And she’s dead,” “This omelette looks like a bison’s penis”, or “I wouldn’t trust you running a bath let alone a restaurant”—but on this sunny Saturday in Hong Kong, he’s on his best behaviour.
Ramsay is in town to promote his new pub-like venture in East Tsim Sha Tsui, London House, a branch of his hugely popular Battersea-based original. It’s his fourth restaurant in Asia (he already has Bread Street Kitchen in Hong Kong, Singapore and Dubai) and Ramsay has had to adjust his British pub-fare menu for the local palate. “The first thing I learned was not to underestimate the sophistication of Asian diners. All my dishes have had to be tweaked out here. You up the ante on the seasoning, make everything more intense, switch black pepper for cayenne pepper—just generally make everything more in-depth in terms of flavour. The opposite of what I have to do for my American customers,” he says, with a wink.
Ramsay is brilliant at insulting people, somehow striking the perfect balance
between scorn, warmth, volume, advice and humour
Although Ramsay is yet to open a restaurant that serves predominately Asian cuisine, he does incorporate our local flavours into his cooking back home too. “I really admire the food in this part of the world. At my flagship in London [Restaurant Gordon Ramsay] we serve a few Japanese appetisers, and that came about after I went to Kyoto and was totally blown away by the meals I had. The same with Vietnam and Malaysia—the restaurants and the street food are incredible, and I think all the best Western chefs can learn so much from them. But am I going to open a dim sum restaurant in Hong Kong? Of course not. I’m not a complete f--king idiot.”
Ramsay’s liberal use of the f-word is arguably the most memorable aspect of his television career, which began in the UK in 1998 with the fly-on-the-wall documentary Boiling Point. To date, he has hosted or been a judge on a whopping 19 shows. For a man who is so passionate about ingredients and cooking, I wonder if Ramsay misses the simplicity of spending his days in the kitchen rather than in front of the camera. “Absolutely not. Over the last 10 years, I’ve seen chefs lose their lives. It’s intense and some have to do drugs just to survive. It’s a young man’s game and I’m 48. I don’t want to be at the coalface every minute of the day. But I don’t like it when people call me a television chef. I manage a kitchen and I’m a chef who works in television and that suits me. If I hadn’t changed my attitude I’d be on my third heart attack by now. Being a top chef is about training people under you to be great, otherwise your whole restaurant is built on a deck of cards. What happens if you’re ill? You close the whole f--king place? You need to be generous with your knowledge. Men like Joël Robuchon taught me to cook, and I’ve done the same thing with people like Jason Atherton and [Restaurant Gordon Ramsay head chef] Claire Smyth.”
“Am I going to open a dim sum restaurant in Hong Kong?
Of course not. I’m not a complete f--king idiot.”
Ramsay, who lives in southwest London with his wife, Tana, and their four teenage children, is now mentoring aspiring chefs even closer to home. His youngest daughter, Tilly, 13, is becoming famous in her own right thanks to her cooking show, Matilda and the Ramsay Bunch, which recently started airing on the BBC’s children’s network. When I mention her name, Ramsay’s face breaks into a wide grin. “She’s a great kid,” he says, in a gentler tone of voice than he has used so far in our interview. “All my children love cooking but I told them to find their passion, and so far Tilly’s passion is being in the kitchen. And she’s a natural in front of the camera.”
Does he envision her running his empire one day? “If she wants to, absolutely. She’s a firecracker. But she can’t train in my restaurants. No f--king way. She needs to earn her stripes somewhere where she’ll get kicked, and I’m not the person to do that. But it makes me angry when I read comments on the Daily Mail saying ‘She has it easy’ or ‘It’s nepotism.’ That girl cooks seven days a week.” So does he read reviews and articles about himself, then? “Do I f--k? Opinions are like arseholes. Everyone has one and some of them stink.”
Ramsay is a man with more opinions than most, and he certainly isn’t afraid to share them—although everything is said with such humour and breezy charm that I can’t help but like him. He was criticised in the British media for refusing to attend the births of his children on the basis that he didn’t want to ruin his sex life, and his thoughts on childrearing are as provocative as his thoughts on childbearing. “I say to my kids, ‘When you’re 21, nobody will want to be around you if you’re a pompous little bitch who goes on about how you got 10 A stars for your GCSEs. Nobody wants to have sex with a bookworm, and being socially inept isn’t a good way to get ahead. Pull back, get out in the world, play sports, get in the kitchen and find out what you like. That’s what I did. And it worked.”
It certainly did.