Hell's Kitchen's Gordon Ramsay: the full interview
By April MacIntyre Jan 30, 2009, 3:40 GMT
If you can\'t stand the heat...Hot-tempered chef Gordon Ramsay is ready to torture another batch of culinary hopefuls on the third season of Fox\'s Hell\'s Kitchen. Contestants will work their way through various cooking challenges and each week one chef will be asked to turn in their knives and sporks. The competition is heating up; who will be able to keep their cool in Hell\'s Kitchen? ...more
Scottish-born chef Gordon Ramsay has had a whirlwind life in the last few years. His mettle has been tested; first with a brother arrested overseas on drug charges, and then an alleged mistress surfacing in England; despite this, Ramsay has not slowed down nor buckled from the heat of his personal life.
Ramsay is full bore on FOX once again, his runaway hit "Hell's Kitchen" airs the premiere episode of the new season tonight, and promises to be a compelling watch, given he has separated the boys from the girls in competing teams.
Ramsay is a top chef, savvy businessman and a profane wordsmith who has less of a tether on him in the UK versions of his show, which allow the colorful banter to flow. His first career break came while playing football for Oxford United, where he was spotted by a Glasgow Rangers scout in an F.A. youth club match. He was signed by the Scottish champions at the age of 15. Three years later he had given up professional football and gone back to college to complete a course in hotel management.
His culinary career was established in London, where he joined Marco Pierre White in the early days of Harvey's in Wandsworth. After a couple of years, Ramsay moved to Le Gavroche to work alongside Albert Roux.
This was followed by three years of working in France in the kitchens of Guy Savoy and JoŽl Robuchon, where he enhanced his expertise in classic French cooking.
In 1998 at the age of 31, Gordon set up his first door: Gordon Ramsay, on the former site of La Tante Claire in Chelsea. A year later he opened Pťtrus with his protťgť Marcus Wareing as Chef Patron, in St. James's. Within seven months it had won a Michelin star.
In 2000, this led to Ramsay taking the Chef of the Year Award at the Cateys. His restaurant Gordon Ramsay was voted the Top Restaurant in the UK in the 2001 London Zagat Survey and was also named as the best Fine Dining Restaurant in the 2001 Harden's Guide. These ratings continued in 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2005.
On Jan. 19, 2001, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay gained its third Michelin star in the Michelin Red Guide Great Britain & Ireland.
In October 2001, Ramsay opened Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's, which gained a Michelin star in 2003.
May 2004 saw Ramsay star in ďRamsayís Kitchen Nightmares,Ē a series of four one-hour programs later awarded a BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) Award.
Ramsay was then given two weeks to direct a group of celebrities toward Michelin-standard cooking in the ITV series ďHellís Kitchen.Ē
2005 confirmed Ramsay as one of the UK's major television talents. A second season of ďRamsay's Kitchen NightmaresĒ was followed by the very successful U.S. version of Hell's Kitchen for FOX.
November brought the debut of ďThe F Word,Ē which shows cooking, food campaigns and celebrity guests.
In November Ramsay made his U.S. restaurant debut with the opening of Gordon Ramsay at The London, in The London NYC Hotel in New York. Formal dining takes cues from Restaurant Gordon Ramsay on Royal Hospital Road in Chelsea, whereas The London Bar offers a more casual dining and bar experience, modeled on the small-plates concept of Ramsayís latest British restaurant, Maze.
In March 2007, Ramsay opened his first pub, The Narrow in Londonís Limehouse. Located in a historic building on the banks of the River Thames, The Narrow serves classic British dishes in a relaxed environment.
Gordonís second pub, The Warrington, will open in Maida Vale later this year, following a major restoration and renovation.
2008 will see many more exciting projects, including the launch of Gordon Ramsay at The London, West Hollywood, and the opening of a restaurant at the newly built Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport, London.
Hellís Kitchen airs January 29th at 9:00 p.m. on Fox.
Monsters and Critics joined a select group of online journalists and asked Hellís Kitchen Gordon Ramsay all about cooking, food and his new season.
Chef. Now in your estimation, in the classic Escoffier kitchen where you have the 12 stations, 12 different chefs, other than the head chef, who is the most skilled and most difficult station that they man? Who do you have the most respect for?
G. Ramsay Good question. Cooking, searing meats is a lot easier than cooking fish. With meat you have a different scale of temperature Ė different meats with different sort of levels of fat, whether itís a Örender the fat down or whether youíre cooking or searing Ö
For the sort of mainstream technical touching beef and understanding with your eyes closed when somethingís rare to medium to medium well. And I always look at a young chef and ask him to overcook me a steak, and I donít want it black and charcoaled on the outside and dry on the inside, so doing your steak well done really shows how Öchef is, really, by coloring it, searing it, and more importantly, keeping it moist in the center.
The real skill is in cooking fish. When you cook fish, a) 95% of the cooking temperature must take place in the skin so the fish doesnít dry out; and more importantly, thereís no such thing as a medium, mid-rare, mid-well. Itís one temperature and one temperature only.
Gordon, if any chef in the world could prepare you a meal, who would it be? Who would you select in your group of peers?
G. Ramsay: Iíve been following John George for the last ten years. Iíve always drawn a huge source of inspiration coming out of New York. I think Thomas Keller has been legendary.
But I have to say, I had one dinner three months ago at an amazing restaurant downtown in Santa Monica, Melisse, a young California chef,Ö I think this guy could be the next big hit here in California.
It was extraordinary. Heíd done his signature dishes, etc., and he just went off the menu. And I said, ďLook, youíve gone familiar and youíve gone crazy. Put that back on the menu and have the confidence to just show off. Because what you just finished cooking me is some of the best food Iíve ever eaten.Ē
Have you seen a change in the caliber of people who are trying to be on the show?
G. Ramsay: I think for me, more than anything, the sort of terms of reality TVÖI run a restaurant, so of course we lock horns. By the end of the day, I have to be honest, season five for me is: a) the most competitive; b) I will stick my neck out on this one and the top four contestants this year could have quite easily won in any of the previous years.
So thatís what Iím faced with in terms of talent. Very exciting because itís just raising the game and the prime time thing, you know, thatís not relevant to me because thatís not what Iím about.
But of course itís of great importance, but more importantly I focus on the talent. And I go through that shit fight for the first six or seven weeks and then I get rid of the sort of donkeys and I focus on the talent.
So I take it on an equal patter, but I have to say youíre absolutely right: itís just getting more and more pressurized because the talent is becoming far greater, which really puts me in the scrutiny, but more importantly, helps to make my job, truthfully, ten times more exciting.
Why is a properly cooked Beef Wellington such a Herculean task for the chefs on your show?
G. Ramsay: Donít. Iím taking it off now. Iíve thrown the towel in. Iím so frustrated. That dish cooks itself. The battle of that dish, 90% of the organization is done sort of for you.
So itís a dish that is down to pure timing. You donít even tough it in a way that itís cooked in a convection oven Öand then you slice the end, trim it and serve it.
Itís a joy and something that Iím going to admit the seat on that front and take off the Beef Wellington. And I suppose thatís the one dish that helps to make me feel less homesick when Iím spending as much time as I am over here. ÖI know how to do it perfectly. And even my children know how to do it perfectly. So when I see these muppets messing around, and all they have to do is prep it perfectly and it cooks itself. You donít touch it, you donít sear it, you donít season it, itís just done. Put it in the oven, let it go. So yes, hands down, no more Wellington.
Fox gave you a blind commitment for a third series and also itís a deal that youíll be hosting a live cooking special. Any update you can give us on them?
G. Ramsay: Yes, of course. First of all, I have to say, cooking in Hellís Kitchen is like a live scenario anyway. The producers are constantly chasing my butt saying, ďWe would like to see this.Ē Iím saying, ďWhat would you like to see?Ē
Iím not interested. All I want to see is food on a plate. I canít script a service. I donít know how early or late the customerís going to turn up, so everything is very natural. So in that sense we cook live.
The live cook along, yes, it has been picked up and itís going to be a huge excitement. I canít wait to go live. I suppose the frustration is the sort of cooking shows on air currently that donít cook.
Itís one that was prepped earlier by some home economist behind the scenes and thatís not cooking. Cooking is a passion and itís live and itís really nice to show that journey from a raw ingredient to an hour later something finished. And for me the confidence levels go up tenfold, a 1000%, because youíre following it and itís changing its texture and the flavorís getting better and you get more and more confident as you start with a raw ingredient. So, Iím really excited that Fox is excited about the live show and itís something I canít wait for.
No cursing, thatís the deal. So Iím fucked.
What about the reported feud with Mario Batali. Has he really banned you from all of his restaurants?
G. Ramsay: Itís really sad, Iíve never met Mario Batali. Obviously the manís a very talented chef. There was a statement last year about me cooking 1980s dated food.
Well, Iím really sorry, I had dinner with Bill Berfus from The New Yorker and for an interview a couple of years ago and the food was embarrassing. So, Bill got upset and sent the food back, it was sea bass, because it was off.
So, I wouldnít send any chef an off sea bass, but today I respect him, heís an amazing chef, but as far as Iím concerned I havenít been banned from his restaurants. But listen, at the end of the day weíre all in this looking for the same customer. So, Christ, if we canít get on, whatís the big deal? But I donít have any problem with Mario Batali.
How much time, if any, do you get to spend actually coaching some of the really good, talented chefs that you get on the show?
G. Ramsay: There is a downtime period as the stakes get higher. Season five prior to this was incredibly significant in terms of where they go and how much we coach them.
I canít afford to look stupid on the back of announcing a winner, so here in LA itís a lot easier for me now that weíve got the ÖWest Hollywood. Weíre very lucky to win that Öwithin three months of opening.
We had a difficult opening because itís adapting to the climate, which is not like cooking in Europe. So New York was difficult as well, but weíre getting there. So Iíve got the backdrop of having a professional kitchen and giving them access to my set-up over here, whether theyíre on the East Coast in New York or here in LA. So, yes, they get a considerable amount of coaching.
What can you tell us about this yearís grand prize, the Borgata?
G. Ramsay: Theyíre going to take up a head chef position at the Borgata Hotel, fantastic resorts. Itís going to be a fine dining, unique new build, great interior, intimate setting.
And more importantly, a perfect platform. Iím very excited about this. One of the best prizes youíve ever had so far. But having been there on an occasion, the place is sort of, I suppose, Öanswer to Vegas just out of New York. So, exciting, fun and very them being part of sort of the design of the restaurant. So more importantly, Ö. Great.
Can you mention some of the new chef contestants?
G. Ramsay God, yes, Iíd love to talk about the individuals.
Ben, extraordinary. Again, tenacious - very, very flamboyant. As you know, I love Chicago; always have in terms of eating out. I always get frustrated when they donít get the spotlight as much as New York does. But when you look at Ö and Ö in New York, and even going back to the days of Blackbird, Öwhat Blackbirdís done in terms of setting the trend.
So, Ben is like having a rhinoceros in the kitchen. Heís non-stop. Heís energetic, a powerhouse. The fascinating thing is when you discipline a young chef, itís the response that tells you how long theyíve got in this industry and Benís attitude was 100% professional in terms of, yes, he got knocked down, but he came back to be twice as strong, which is what I want to see.
Will, on the other hand, cooking is an internal thing; itís something that comes from the heart. Heís very clever, very articulate; very, very calm in terms of putting it together. I enjoyed working with both of them.
Compare your level of competition to Top Chef.
G. Ramsay: Itís really funny, because thereís always, I get told by ÖI had one that didnít get Hellís Kitchen and ended up on Top Chef. So thereís obviously a huge competitive streak there.
Top Chef has done phenomenally well and is doing brilliantly on Bravo. Where I find my frustration with Top Chef is a challenge is a challenge. I put my contestants, my chefs under real scrutiny, that theyíre running a restaurant because Iím giving the restaurant away. So the jeopardy is not because theyíre a lot more important, but I put them through the paces and understand that itís more of an entrepreneurial skill as well, not just dealing with the kitchen, the management, the delegations, the level of professionalism, but the overall aspect of it.
Chefs today have got to be better than just cooks. They have to be more applicable to the ever changing climate.
So weíve seen a downturn globally in terms of the recession, so everyoneís tightening their belts and even Iím tightening my belt. So chefs, I hate that word businessman, but itís, first of all, a culinary palate, a character, a level of assertiveness, an entrepreneurial skill in terms of man management. And more importantly, across all that itís a business.
So very few programs hold that level of integrity and I like to think that we try each and every season to really give them a rounded experience.
With everything that youíve accomplished in your career, are you still primarily a chef?
G. Ramsay: Iím always learning. I spent two weeks before Christmas down in Kyoto where I went to some amazing regional proper historic Japanese cuisine.
I found out thereís a huge source of integration. I suppose what Iíve always been scared of is being in a situation with any ingredient anywhere in the world and not known what to do with them. So I have a huge excitement this May on visiting India for the first time in my career and Iím going on a journey, because Iím going to the region, Iím backpacking and I suppose I want to come down two or three divisions and sort of get to the heart of the food of the people.
And itís called Gordon Ramsayís Great Escape and Iím really excited about it because itís being left in a situation along with sort of Ö, but going a little bit deeper into the sort of cult social following and where it started, and looking at the beginning, the heartbeat of how that dish was formulated. And to whatís happened, to how many people have abused it along the way to where we are now. So yes, always learning; constantly.
How do the contestants teams, separated by gender, stack up?
G. Ramsay: Well, I have to be honest, thereís a level of competitiveness that theyíre equally matched in both teams, clearly, but thereís quite a surprising, refreshing attitude to the girls. They seem to learn quicker.
Where they may sort of bitch and sort of get upset with each other internally, itís nothing to do with me. I donít want to have problems down in my kitchen.
Where the men become more sort of aggressive and far more bonded in a way with less barriers, but they learn slower. So I donít know why this year and more than ever before, but being in that pressurized environment and youíve got eight to ten individuals that are incredibly talented, theyíre going to offload and explode. So yes, the ladies this season have been phenomenal. The guys are being sort of grumpy, arrogant and they take longer to learn. So, I can deal with that crap, trust me.
Are there certain characteristics youíre looking for in contestants that you may have not been before?
G. Ramsay: To be honest, I said earlier, I was under immense pressure this year because of the standards of cooks in the signature dishes, which was refreshing. I had one thing I never managed to achieve was to complete a first night dinner service. So even as Iím talking to you now, the ambition next time Öto complete our first nights dinner service. So thatís crucial.
But thereís always a level of change in terms of attitude, because the stakes are getting bigger. Something to do with Öprime time. Thatís all out of my box. It has nothing to do with me. But what I do do, the better the chef, the more intense and more importantly the more difficult I can make the scenario, because I know whatís at stake in terms of the out, the competition, prize and whatís at stake at the end of it. And I want these guys to shine, I want them to go on and use this as a platform to evolve and develop and not get caught up in the TV world.
One serious piece of advice I give them, Iím very lucky at the age of 42, Iíve got the foundation of my cooking career, 21 years Ö, still cooking, still learning. But more importantly, yeah, the TV is there and itís important, but my Öare just as important and I make that clear to them each and every day.
After all of these years of seeing you on this show, do you find that the contestants are getting somewhat desensitized to your personality to some degree and that you have to be bigger in order to get their attention, that they know what to expect from you?
G. Ramsay: No. I mean, to be honest, I would say Iíd have to put myself in a more awkward manner to become tougher on them. I scream for talent. I want to challenge everyone, because thatís where Iím at home. I have that level of perfection thatís been inside for a long time. Passing on that knowledge of making them better individuals is part of the enjoyment, I suppose Ė the payback for me.
But youíre always going to be confronted and youíre always going to get sort of on the spot scenarios, and itís quite interesting when you look at their individual characters. And of course it gets a little bit busy for the first couple of weeks because thereís so many of them and youíre trying to focus on the good ones and understand the weak points, and I came to help the weak ones, throw them some form of life line and if they donít respond, then theyíve got to go.
But even in Kitchen Nightmares I had a situation in my own restaurant last week in New York where one of the line cooks got upset when he overcooked the New York Strip and his response was, he just put his head down. I said, ďListen, your response stinks. Youíre standing there like a petulant teenager.
Youíre 29 years of age. You earn $70,000 a year and youíre talking to me like youíre a baby. Get a grip. You canít just sort of Öand bow your head. What about the customers, how theyíre with these guests and his guest is not eating because the foodís been sent back to the kitchen. Come on, get a grip.Ē So, that kind of stuff, unfortunately, goes on in every kitchen, whether itís on TV or off TV.
But itís really weird, isnít it, when you look at the broad sector of characters that enter this industry, the biggest frustrating thing for me is that there are so many divisions of teaching how to cook properly. Thatís the reason why I bought my first Ölast year, so I could standardize the practice for a talented chef.
But the sad thing about it, thereís also so many that slip into the industry that donít have qualifications and cooking is one of the very few jobs anywhere in the world that you donít need a qualification to become a great chef. So thatís an issue.