Alex was out of his depth, and more intent on playing golf than putting in the hours of food preparation. There was also a distinct lack of culinary know-how.
On one occasion, Ramsay prepared three pasta dishes, to test which one a blindfolded Gavin (the Maitre d’) and Alex thought would best complement grilled swordfish. “They both went for the third one as being the most textured and best to go with Swordfish. They took the blindfolds off, and they’d chosen the Curry Pot Noodle.”
One more surprise awaited the astonished Ramsay; Alex’s luxury new car with the number plate reading A1 CHEF. “I came out of the kitchen and saw it and was absolutely gobsmacked. If I saw a car like that outside Claridges, I’d stone it with eggs,” he says, showing a healthy disregard for the need for stones to be involved in a stoning.
“He was so carried away with the cosmetic and glamour side of cooking. And there’s nothing glamorous when you’re busting your nuts off.”
It will surprise nobody to hear that Ramsay is unimpressed by such an approach to cooking, and had no qualms about conveying his disdain in a more than forthright manner. But he refutes claims that he is an unpleasant man to work for. “Everyone thinks you’re an arsehole to work for because you get straight to the point. I’ve the most amazing relationship with my guys, and yeah, if things go wrong, they have to take it.
But I expect just as much from myself as I do from them.” The fact that he’s still got 85 per cent of his staff from 1993 working with him in some capacity seems to indicate a degree of loyalty that few would expect from employees of such a reputed tyrant.
The truth behind the headlines, as is so often the case, is somewhat different. In truth, Ramsay comes across as something of a softy. He talks tenderly about his family, from his social worker mother who runs a refuge in Taunton to his brother, who is recovering from drug dependence. There is real pride in his voice when he announces: “On June 1st this year, my little brother is clean for a year”.
But the real centre of his moral compass is his own young family. Unlike in the kitchen, here his wife is in charge of discipline. “Tanya’s a schoolteacher, so I’m very lucky there. They sit on the naughty rug. I think I spend more time on there than they do… I leave that side to her – I’m quite chauvinistic about that, because she’s better at it than I am. The one thing I don’t do is bring any problems home. I lived with that throughout my childhood, and I saw how much humiliation and pain my mum suffered because my dad brought all his problems home.”
He doesn’t smack his kids, and rarely raises his voice to them. He doesn’t see them as much as he’d like during the week, but insists “weekends are special. Saturday mornings is Jack and football on Wandsworth Common, and the girls go to ballet. A few months ago, Jack wanted to go to ballet too, and I said: ‘Mate, no! I loved Billy Elliott, but you’re not going to ballet!’”
This is said in jest, but you wonder if Ramsay has invested some of his own (failed) football ambition into his son. He was released by Glasgow Rangers Football Club at the age of 18, in 1981, shattering his dreams of a career as a professional. He says he was “mortified for ten years. So,” he continues, “I hid myself in food”. He studied for years, learning his trade under chefs including Marco Pierre White, Albert Roux, Guy Savoy and Joel Robuchon, and a culinary star was born.
Just as well, then, that he didn’t take the advice of his school careers officer, who suggested he become a police officer. “I’d have been the most bent copper in London,” he roars. He would also have had to re-sit O Levels. It seems unfeasible, given his articulacy, entrepreneurial ability, hard working nature and fluent command of French, but he only passed two O Levels, English and Maths.
Ramsay’s kids are not allowed to watch dad’s programmes, largely on account of the agricultural nature of his language. The eldest, Megan, who is approaching six, is dimly aware that her dad is famous, thanks to questions from friends at school. Indeed, Ramsay’s reputation seems to precede him here; when he takes Megan to school “all the mothers bolt back into their 4x4s in their tracksuits”.
On the subject of school, Ramsay is hugely supportive of Jamie Oliver’s recent campaign to improve the food we give our children there. “The guy opened a can of worms… and I think he helped create a level of guilt in every parent in Britain, and rightly so, in the sense that they had taken for granted what their children were being fed was adequate, and he shone the light on inadequacy beyond belief. A tremendous campaign, absolutely brilliant.”
At the other end of the scale from Oliver’s popular campaign is chef Heston Blumenthal’s own, rather more exclusive food revolution. What does Ramsay make of The Fat Duck, Blumenthal’s unconventional restaurant that some consider to be the world’s best? “He is definitely the Willy Wonka of cookery. We’re mates. I always say to my customers: ‘Go, but don’t go to eat, go and have fun. Go and watch an egg-white being poached in liquid nitrogen – just stand back if the wheel falls off the trolley, because your fingers will fall off with it.’
It’s very clever and diverse. The smoked bacon and egg ice cream sounds revolting, but it tastes phenomenal. And there’s a chocolate fondant that’s like Space Dust – you put it in your mouth and there’s a snap, crackle and pop taking place on your tongue. It’s hilarious.”
The Fat Duck is a far cry from the restaurants Ramsay visited for the filming of Kitchen Nightmares. If anything, things became even more desperate after the first programme. In a restaurant called D Place, Ramsay arrived on Valentine’s night, the trade’s busiest evening of the year, to find six bookings for the evening. “I took a picture of the wife with me, and sat it opposite me at the table. I sat there like Nobby Nomates talking to her all night.”
The dining experience offered little relief. “I asked for the watercress soup, and the waitress came back saying the chef had only made three portions.” The main course was, he says, awful, while the Crème Brulee was liquid. The chef, Philippe, later admitted: ‘I was in trouble today, so I went to Tescos and bought them, but I forgot to cook them’.”
That, though, was nothing to a later incident, which we shall call Potatogate. Potatogate erupted when Ramsay gave instructions about preparing a potato salad for a wake. The next day, he enquired of Philippe how he’d cooked the potatoes, and was told they’d been roasted. Ramsay suggested they’d been deep fat fried. “He argued that he hadn’t deep fat fried them, so I flipped my lid. He was clearly lying. From a cook’s point of view, working with a liar is worse than working with a guy who can’t cook, because you’ve got no form of trust.”
“I punched a hotplate and said ‘You’re going to tell me the truth’,” says Ramsay. Eventually, another member of the kitchen staff was questioned about how the potatoes had been cooked. “There was an air of silence for about five minutes, then he turned around and said ‘Philippe deep fat fried them’. And then it all kicked off.” Just verbally? “I don’t know about that! That’s not for me to say. I’m going to get into trouble here!”
He could be forgiven for just playing at Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares; he’s busy enough as it is. He runs three top restaurants, has interests in a further four, with two more opening. He’s published six books, writes newspaper columns, runs a scholarship for trainee chefs, and has several different food ranges on sale commercially. But to hear Ramsay speak, or to watch him tearing strips off Philippe in a kitchen, it becomes apparent this is far from playtime. He means it. All of it.
Indeed, he says that the programme he filmed in Brighton for this series was an extraordinarily emotional experience for him. The restaurant was run by a woman who had a heart as big as the kitchen at Claridges. “This woman’s amazing! She reminds me of my mum. She fostered 35 children. She’s an absolute sweetheart.” Too nice to tell her staff off, she was being taken for a ride by her employees, who left her to do all the work. Enter Gordon Ramsay, exit niceness.
It would spoil the series to give away the endings of any of the programmes, but suffice to say, there are plenty of fireworks along the way. In the end, it is up to the individuals themselves to stick to the regime introduced by Ramsay. “They’re given a database of information and recipes. It’s like a passport, like a bible that they get given with everything in there. So we’re not setting them up with something they can’t maintain after we’ve gone. So much work goes into it. It’s far more normal for me to do that than stand in a kitchen with Edwina Currie [as he did in the series Hell’s Kitchen].”
After what seems like a few minutes, but turns out to be an hour, our time is up. Ramsay is already late for about 312 appointments. He is quickly bustled out, and the austere dining room seems much quieter and emptier without his presence. In the background, his highly-trained staff are working diligently, as the occasional gentle hiss of an iron confirms.
Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares starts on Tuesday 24th May at 9pm on Channel 4
Tagged in Gordon Ramsay