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Lunch With Gordon Ramsay, Bread St Kitchen

24 March 2016

With 36 restaurants, 16 Michelin stars, countless TV credits and more than a few curse words, he’s been a full-frontal assault on the culinary world for 28 years.

Gordon Ramsay is bouncing around Bread St Kitchen his latest – and second – Dubai restaurant. Nothing unusual there, you might think, but he’s had a long day and our dinner is his last appointment. His new restaurant still isn’t quite ready to open (even though it will in a matter of hours) but there’s something spritely about him that I can’t quite put my finger on.

It’s interesting to watch the 49-year-old in action. His chef’s jacket is on and his word is clearly law, but he’s rather relaxed about it all. It’s still typical staccato Ramsay-speak, but he laughs and jokes with his team, grabs cleaning staff and has photos with them, asks their names, and chats.

This is not the rather angry chef who once ejected food critic AA Gill and his superstar dining partner, Joan Collins, from Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London, and it’s difficult to work out why. Is this the real Ramsay or simply the nous of a man who knows there’s media in the room and, over the course of the last 20 years, he has learned how to play the game well?

“Two years ago, I woke up in the middle of the night when we were shooting Costa Del Nightmares,” starts Ramsay, at my suggestion that he appears a man reborn.

“I was just about to start my second day filming with a guy who had ran a ski resort, then decided to open a restaurant in the South of France. I just thought, **** it, I’m done. I’m fed up of working with idiots who think they can jump into an industry in which they have no credentials. They have a dinner party, at which their mates tell them how good they are, then all of a sudden, think they can open a restaurant. That’s how stupidly they think. You can’t become a doctor if you haven’t gone to medical school, you can’t become a lawyer if you haven’t passed the bar…”

He tails off, still clearly agitated by the thought. “So I cancelled my own show.”

Ramsay’s own entry in the culinary world is a well-documented piece of folklore these days. Once injury robbed him of his dream of becoming a footballer, his desire simply became finding a route out.

“I did it to get away, pure and simple,” explains Ramsay on why he took an HND course in hotel management at 19. “You can travel anywhere in the world and pick up a job without any big credentials. I thought that I was going to be the manager of a five-star hotel, but it was just an escape route, really.

“I ended up getting a job in a kitchen and the idea was to spend two years in London and then develop. I ended up being there much longer as I worked with Marco [Pierre White] at Harveys, and that was the turning point in my career. Eventually he set me up at the Michelin-starred French restaurant, Le Gavroche, and that set me up to go to France. Heading there was crucial. Go there, learn French, cook better.”

As we talk, the starters arrive. A plate of Ramsay’s signature tamarind chicken wings – sweet, sticky comfort food at its finest – and a swirling bowl of pea soup with a fantastic touch of spice that hits the back of the throat with every mouthful. I eat, Ramsay talks.

On his return to England in 1993, success was swift. Reunited with Pierre White as head chef at the newly named Aubergine, he won his first Michelin star within 14 months, and a second three years later. Unfortunately, his time there would end in rather inauspicious circumstances 12 months later, by virtue of a helmet-clad motorcyclist walking into Aubergine to steal the reservation book and an eventual threat of legal action by White.

Rightly or wrongly, it was events such as these that suddenly made being a chef, or a restaurateur, seem, well… kind of cool. TV executives clearly thought so too, and the whole affair was documented in the first episode of Boiling Point, Ramsay’s first foray into the world of television.

“Boiling Point – that was a very naked exposé,” he admits with a shudder. “It was brutal and that’s what it’s like in the industry, when you’re standing at the coalface trying to make it and climb the ladder.”

A five-part mini-series, Boiling Point charted the most intense months of his life, as he opened his first restaurant. While he still looks a little traumatised by the experience, it was the show that brought him to public attention and helped achieve the type of stardom he has today… just don’t call him a celebrity.

“I think celebrity is the wrong word,” he says, clearly a little irked by the connotation it brings. “I became famous for my talent – I’m a master of my craft – I didn’t become famous because I was on TV. Take it from me, some of that work has really put me in the ****.”

It’s a fair point, but while his moments in the mire have certainly been well documented, when he’s being mobbed like a member of One Direction at the restaurant’s opening just a few hours later, his fame does appear rather more enjoyable, even to him.

Whatever the reality, it’s undeniable that Ramsay’s talent, drive, bombast and no small amount of curse words have created a behemoth brand. At the time of writing Gordon Ramsay Holdings – which presides over his restaurant and media and consultancy interests – has amassed 23 restaurants across the globe, nine of which currently hold 12 Michelin stars between them.

The main courses soon appear out of nowhere. Braised feather blade that lies delicately on a bed of carrot purée and creamed wild mushrooms, along with a seriously huge plate of organic lamb chops accompanied by hand-cut chips.

“I was 27 when I opened my first ever restaurant – Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London that’s held three Michelin stars since 2001. I’m 48 now, so that’s 21 years in the business and I think it’s finally starting to come to fruition in terms of the effort I’ve put in.”

It’s a statement that, on the face of it, seems a little strange. Ramsay has been a very public presence for the best part of 15 years, with Michelin stars, high-profile restaurants and numerous television credits to his name. But then perhaps the key to the clear change in demeanour is that, suddenly, he’s looking at things a little differently.

“Five years ago we completely transformed the group. I basically sacked all of the family who had worked for me. I’d shown way too much trust in Chris [Hutcheson, Ramsay’s father-in-law, who allegedly syphoned money off the company], so I felt somewhat let down.

“The way I looked at it, the key was repositioning, gaining strength and doing it my way; planning succession, and pacing it was vital. I said no to pretty much everything for two years and focused on America. We opened three places in Vegas and just took America on. We took them on at a burger, took them on at a steak and took them on at a gastro pub. We learned a lot from that.”

Another thing he’s keen to point out is, despite the undeniable ego, it’s not all about Ramsay.

“It doesn’t all hinge on me. It’s not a house of cards. That means more pressure on the team to come to me with the solution, not the problem. When I started, I took the problem. It was a heavy burden. But when I looked at it, they all wanted to be shareholders, they all wanted to have their revenue driven and make a lot of money out of it, but for that percentage of the profits they have to come to me with the solution. This doesn’t happen overnight, of course, it’s two or three baby steps at first and you need to be there to occasionally pick up the pieces, but when they get there you find that very little **** comes back to your doorstep.

“It also helps answer that awkward question of, ‘If you’re such a famous chef, who does the cooking when you’re not there?’ Well the answer is: the same people who do it when I am there. I have that level of unselfishness in terms of teaching people how to cook properly. So it’s a team effort.”

If this sounds like the actions of a world-weary chef stepping back and scaling down the operation so he can finally enjoy the fruits of his labour, Ramsay disagrees.

“There’s so much going on, but I feel that I’m currently the best I’ve ever been. I’m the fittest and I’m the most in control. Experience helps. You manage better, you’re a little less frivolous, but getting fit has been vital. Five years ago I started training for triathlons and it just increases your levels of thought. By training I spent far more time alone, was less distracted and became much more creative. When I came into work I was focussed. You then departmentalise who you’re dealing with and what you need to do. Then you shut it down and move on to the next thing.”

For Dubai, that next thing is Bread St Kitchen, the restaurant that Ramsay describes as “the bedrock of his brand”. Occupying the space once held by Rostang at Atlantis The Palm, it’s a modern bistro serving British classics and it’s, well, huge. Two kitchens – one hot, one cold counter – and a long bar as you walk in; the ceilings are high, lighting low and the floor’s punctuated with leather booths and dark wood pillars. It’s a stylish addition to Dubai’s culinary set, and one clearly not content to survive on the name of its superstar owner.

Since opening in October last year, it has already cemented a solid reputation for a contemporary take on comfort food classics, with a brunch and themed nights also part of scenery. Ramsay himself is even known to make an appearance on occasion, meeting the people, pushing the brand. It’s a never-ending cycle, but one which he’s currently embracing.

“The pressure on a chef today is crazy. Rents are more expensive, standards are higher, staff want to work less and earn more. Thankfully I’ve managed not to make myself sick of it all yet. It’s not about money for me, if it was I think I could have stopped quite comfortably about five years ago. For me it’s about achieving what I set out to achieve, and right now the mantra to get there is simple. To succeed I need dates; two dates for an event to train for every six months. Get fit, stay in shape, don’t **** it up. That’s what really keeps my plans aligned.”

Words: Andrew Nagy / Images: Alex Atack

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