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Gordon Ramsay

Gordon Ramsay: The Interview

INTRODUCTION FROM GORDON: I’m very excited about season four, more so than any other year before.  When you look at the setup in terms of the level of professionalism, this year we’ve raised the bar.  Looking for a chef personally is something I’ve stood by, got very nervous about and more importantly, I’d like to think that we have the most amazing—I hate that word “cast”— I call them chefs.  FOX wanted to run a show and I run the restaurant, so it’s a great team of chefs, more so than any other year, and an amazing, talented female following this year, which I’ve never seen before anything quite like it.  It’s quite refreshing, really on the back of a male dominant, chauvinistic stance that kitchens have today, so I was really pleased.

SHAKEFIRE: The Hell’s Kitchen 2 winner was from Long Island.  The first two seasons of Top Chef were won by Long Islanders.   You have a few Long Islanders in this season.  What is it about Long Island that produces so many winning chefs?

GORDON RAMSAY: It’s amazing.  It’s like that little place in Berkshire, a place called Bray, where you’ve got the Waterside Inn and the …, both … star establishments in the middle of the U.K.  Long Island, I don’t know really.  It’s quite a fascinating area.  We’ve just gone back to revisit Kitchen Nightmares over the last couple of weeks as well, and it’s been so refreshing to see so much talent there.  Long Island for me, it’s producing more chefs coming out of there than Paris.  So yes, it’s buoyant, it’s on the outskirts of Manhattan, and so they have access to phenomenal restaurants.  I can’t say, maybe it’s something in the ingredients, but again, we have a couple of contestants from Long Island this year and a phenomenal array of chefs.  Long Island seems to be the draw at the moment.

SF: How is it with so many great chefs, four of the ten restaurants on Kitchen Nightmares last season were in Long Island?

GR: That’s amazing.  I’ve just come back, like I said, from the revisit.  It’s just so refreshing to see them doing so well in terms of where they are and how they’re doing.  Of course not everybody makes it, which is a great shame, but it’s something that I take really seriously.  Again, this year 22,500 participants entered Hell’s Kitchen for 15 to go through, so more so than any other season I actually get put into this prosthetic mask, my name is Terrance from Texas, and I’m actually made up as one of the contestants, so nobody spots it.  It’s quite a fascinating behavior to see them on the bus and that’s without my presence, unknown to them, of course.  It’s a really different way of setting it up.  Of course, the pressure is on this year more than any other before because of the sequence of events with my restaurant.  I’m taking it more seriously than ever before and the stakes are a lot higher.

SF: So basically they’re good chefs but they don’t know how to run restaurants.

GR: You know, running a restaurant is something you have to be working at each and every day; it’s not a foregone conclusion that you’re a success.  How many restaurants do we know across the world that customers visit once and once only?  The second visit is far more important.  It’s not just about the cooking, sadly, and that’s what they need to understand.  How many chefs do we know that prefer cooking for chefs than they do customers, yet ... customers that are returning repeatedly and it’s the level of support that determines the level of success that restaurant will have.  

It’s quite weird knocking that out of them and telling them to forget cooking for chefs; forget what chefs say about your food.  The level of jealousy and insecurity in this industry is far greater than ever before.  Focus on your customers and make that restaurant synonymous to where you are in terms of area.  Regionalize it from the ingredients to locally sourced, local … purveyors and make sure you stay in touch with what’s keeping in the area; not what’s going on in Barcelona, not what’s happening in the middle of Paris.  Stay with what’s happening locally.  It’s really important.

SF: Why did you tape a fourth and a fifth cycle of this show almost back-to-back?

GR: That’s a good question, really.  First of all, when you build a restaurant of that phenomenon—I really hate that word “set” and I hate the word “cast” —it is from the most amazing health and hygiene … properly air conditioned, properly irrigated with hot and cold running water, so the whole thing is built like a … Obviously, FOX is paying for it, so in terms of expenditure it’s far more economical and on the back of the draw were 22,500 cast.  Finding 30 chefs in that bunch wasn’t difficult.

SF: Are they going to air the fifth one this summer?  This is the first time you’re doing it in the spring, right?

GR: You’re right.  Do you know what, I cook for a living; I’m not a scheduler.  Obviously, I think on the back of the strike and … all the stations, I’m sure, it was their pickup and something I found a lot easier to do because you weren’t trying to revert back to last year.  It was almost okay, what happened three months ago?  We outsmarted ourselves and raised the bar even higher, I think.

SF: I know last year you invited Atlanta’s favorite waffle house chef, Julia Williams, back on the show.

GR: Yes.

SF: Will she be back in the fifth cycle?  I didn’t see her in the fourth.

GR: You’re absolutely right.  To be honest, I can’t say that because I did meet up with them and I had all the previous winners this year on season four back judging, which was just so nice to see them grow in stature and maturity.  Given that level of responsibility with your 25-year old or 35-year-old chef, it’s just quite nice to see how they handled that exposure.  Not every chef deals with it properly; they get slightly excited, a little bit overconfident and then they miss out on the most important part.

If you become a chef because you’re obsessed by becoming a celebrity, getting my ass kicked and working my nuts off the way I did in France and getting pushed around those kitchens wasn’t about becoming famous.  It’s learning your craft and understanding what it takes to survive in this industry.  On the back of exposure from TV to books to Rachel Ray to Martha Stewart, the customer’s integrity is far greater than every before.  As a nation, just like the U.K., we don’t complain enough.  The more we complain in this country the better our restaurants will be.

SF: Chef, what can you tell us about the London West Hollywood?  What kind of a chef are you looking for to be able to run this establishment?

GR: I have to say, opening up in New York taught me a lot about that level of attention to detail.  London’s a tough market, Paris is a tough market, but New York, well, that’s extraordinary.  Everything I learned and didn’t do in New York I would put into place here in the London West Hollywood.  It’s fascinating, when you look at the critics’ reviews, and we had a great one in the New York Observer … and all that, and then the New York Times came and it was a devastation; two stars out of four.  They said that I played safe because it wasn’t fireworks.  Then they judged the persona over the substance that was on the plate.  

Here, in L.A., trust me, there will be fireworks from the canapés right through to the desserts.  More importantly, I’ve been here for three years now.  I’ve been in New York for 15 months.  Winning two … stars in the Zagat number one best newcomer within ten months of opening in New York has taught me a big lesson.  Come out of the trap strong, explode from day one and more importantly, the ingredients there are phenomenal.  It’s not going to be sedated, heavy, rich French cuisine; it’s going to be a light and American, California-style with a bit of a Japanese influence.  Everything is healthy, fresh, but more importantly, if you think customers are impatient in New York, wait to you see how impatient they are here in L.A.

One thing I can’t afford to get sucked up in is the trend formation of restaurants here.  I’ve invested heavily.  We have a ten-year lease.  More importantly, the style, the feel and the décor of the dining room is vibrant.  It’s very L.A., very cool fabrics, lots of silver, lots of nickel, brushed stainless steel and lots of cream fabric.  It’s going to be fast, it’s going to be furious and more importantly, we have that level of intimacy, that level of fun without being long-winded.  That’s really important.

SF: Do you sometimes think when you see those first signature dishes and everybody knows you’re going to ask them to do that, have some of these people not watched the show?

GR: You know what, I get really frustrated and I share that level of frustration on Kitchen Nightmares because they know I’m coming.  So when a chef is that incompetent or stupid or lazy in terms of health and hygiene, when people say, “Oh, you’re doing that for the cameras,” no, I’m doing that because if you work in this industry and we’re going to spend 25 or 30 years in the kitchen trying to master our craft, how stupid do we have to be to put together a venison tartar with capers, shallots, parsley, lemon juice, egg yolk, and combine that with a scallop tartar with, again, ketchup, lime juice, ... white chocolate bound together with caviar?  What type of nut is going to actually come out and eat and pay top dollar for that level of stupidity? 

No, it does hurt.  You’d think they’d perfect it in a way that says right, keep it simple, focus on the ingredients and when we go out for lunch or dinner, let’s be honest, it is the flavor that holds the memory.  It’s not how things look.  The presentation is one thing, but the execution of flavor is what draws you back to a restaurant.  Remember that flavor?  The pistachio ice cream served with the chocolate sorbet served inside a soufflé, that’s what you go for.  It’s the flavor.  That’s what bugs me about that level of stupidity.  Listen, I’m not just saying it’s chefs here, we have it back in the U.K. and in France even.

SF: What celebrity would you absolutely love to cook for?

GR: What celebrity would I absolutely love to cook for?  I get excited cooking for anybody, to be honest.  I’m cooking for Nelson Mandela’s birthday party in Hyde Park this summer, which I’ve been invited to do.  I suppose if I wanted something really fun and sexy, it’d have to be Cameron Diaz.  She’s tall, she’s beautiful and she loves pink meat.  

SF: Which have you enjoyed making the most, the Hell’s Kitchen series, your BBC Kitchen Nightmares or the American version of Kitchen Nightmares?

GR: To be honest, all three of them, really.  Hell’s Kitchen is a competition.  We can’t forget that.  Of course, they’re not all going to win.  That’s pretty obvious.  The winner, anyone finishing in the top six is a tremendous effort.  Of course I’m going to go through the weak ones and then nurse the talent.  That’s the nature of the beast.  Hell’s Kitchen is a cooking competition and highly competitive and highly sought after.

The difference between Kitchen Nightmares U.K. and America, I enjoy them both.  They both have a level of different temperament.  A dirty kitchen in the U.K. is the same as a dirty kitchen in South Bend, in the middle of Manhattan.  Here’s the fascinating thing, that they both are exactly the same:  they know I’m coming.  If they’ve cleaned up and have had the steam cleaners in and the chefs have gone through the fridge a week before I arrive, they know I’m coming ahead of time.  When I discover something that’s really dirty and really badly practiced, it really frustrates me because that’s just laziness.  If they’re that lazy when they know I’m coming, what are they like when they know that I’m not coming?  That scares me.

Peter Oberth
Interview by Peter Oberth
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