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The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Gordon Ramsay (“Hell’s Kitchen”)

Given the number of restaurants in his empire (as it were), Gordon Ramsay would be a very busy man even if he didn’t have a TV series. As it happens, however, he actually has four of them: “Hell’s Kitchen,” “Kitchen Nightmares,” “Masterchef,” and, most recently, “Hotel Hell.” With less than a 10-minute window available for a chat after his appearance at the Television Critics Association press tour last month, Chef Ramsay and I didn’t have a chance to get terribly in-depth about any topic for Bullz-Eye, but I was able to get a little bit of insight into how he transitioned from the soccer field to the kitchen, how he handles himself behind the camera, and how long his “Hell’s Kitchen” winners tend to stick around his restaurants.

Bullz-Eye: The first thing I must tell you is that I have a seven-year-old daughter who says she’s pretty sure that she can cook scallops better than some of your contestants on this go-round of “Hell’s Kitchen.”

Gordon Ramsay: So has my daughter. [Laughs.] I have three daughters – 10, 11, and 13 – and Megan, the oldest, said, “Daddy, I can cook scallops better than any of your sous-chefs on ‘Hell’s Kitchen.’” So it gets a little bit embarrassing. But, you know, it’s not the one portion, it’s cooking for an entire restaurant that gets them, because it’s down to the timing. No one can prepare you better for that service than experience. You can’t just walk into it. You’ve got to be prepped big-time. So I suppose the big frustration at home, with everyone saying, “I can do better than that,” is because they’re looking at one portion. Yet the most important thing is cooking the scallops perfectly across the entire night.

BE: To start at the very beginning, I understand you were actually on your way to a career in football – by which I mean soccer, of course – at one point.

GR: Yeah, wow, a long time ago now. Yeah, you’re right, but, I mean, what do you do? Do you sit there and get bitter and think ‘it could’ve been’ or ‘it may have been’ or ‘what happens if,’ or do you get on with it? So I picked myself up. Mom and Dad were going through a real shitty divorce at the time, so it was sort of getting out of one big negativity spot and following your second dream. I think everybody deserves a second chance in life, and nobody’s perfect, so with head down…

I thought the food thing was the escape, really, because there’s the travel, there was the confluence of being taught a second language, and then I knew early on that…I never grew up with that dependency, clinging on to my mom and dad, so I wanted to become an individual, and living in France taught me huge amounts. Not just the love and the technique and the flair, but just how to survive.

BE: When you decided to go the culinary route, had you already had an established history in cooking, or was it just a spontaneous decision?

GR: I’d had a huge excitement with eating. [Laughs.] And Mom was always cooking. She worked as a cook in a local restaurant. I’d sort of hang out with her on a few occasions and wait until I was being picked up for soccer training, dropped back there after the soccer match. So I was always in there by her side, but I wasn’t obsessed by it. My first love was football. After that happened, I thought that was it: “I’m gonna be an amazing professional footballer!” And I was there for two years, then sadly injured and released. And the rest was history. So I was always excited by food, always keen to dissect and learn. “What’s in there? How’s that go?” Always smelling different things.

BE: Was there ever a point when you got frustrated and thought you might not be able to hack it, or did you just gradually work your way up the ranks?

GR: No, I just…every time I learned something, I wanted to get back in and take more shit. [Laughs.] So I got told very early on that the only way you can become a great chef is by making so many mistakes and not becoming comfortable. Working with one chef for 10 years is nowhere near as exciting as working for ten chefs, one year each. And I worked with six big chefs for six years. Every 12 months, I was like a butterfly. [Laughs.] I’d jump from the next one to the next one to the next one. And every time I went to a new chef’s kitchen, I forgot everything else I’d learned. They stripped out of me what I’d been taught previously, so I went back to the drawing board again. I also learned to cook without having the dependency on a salary. I just needed to survive, because the knowledge and the creativity of what I was being taught was so much more valuable than what I was actually earning.

BE: Do you still remember what your first signature dish was?

GR: My very first signature dish? Yes! My God, I did the most amazing ravioli of lobster. There was this extraordinary lobster bound with some fresh Scotch salmon and a puree of basil, and it was done in between these layers of saffron pasta, and it was served on fresh tomato coulis, served with a little bisque, like a vinaigrette of crushed shells, and fragrant with lemongrass. We sort of sprayed the plate with lemongrass first, so it had that perfume on there. It’s still on our menu today.

BE: Your first time in front of the camera was on the UK series “Boiling Point.”

GR: Well, I didn’t even realize I was being filmed at the time, hence the reason why I was so fucking mad. [Laughs.]

BE: So what was the transition like to go from being in the kitchen to in front of the camera?

GR: I still… [Hesitates.] Honestly, I do it in a way that I do my job and never think of anything in front of the camera. Because if I’m giving an instruction out for a challenge on “Masterchef” or running a service on “Hell’s Kitchen” or walking into one of my own restaurants that had problems and wanted to turn things upside down, I tend to forget the cameras are there. I made that promise myself every day. I never ask to play back, “Show me this, show me that.” I don’t want to get that precise with how I walk, talk, sound, so… I’m not saying that’s natural, but that’s me. So I never go in and set it up and play it as if I’m standing in front of a camera. The first thing I do every time… [Snaps his fingers.] I forget the cameras are there.

BE: Your new series, “Hotel Hell,” would seem to be a natural extension of “Kitchen Nightmares.” Was that indeed how it came about?

GR: Yeah, it’s a natural extension. I mentioned it earlier, but if I hadn’t have done it, someone else would’ve picked up on it. We’ve seen how many different variations of “Kitchen Nightmares” there are. And on cable shows as well. You think of that salon show with that lady Tabatha (Coffey), she does bars now as well. From hairdressing salons to bars…? I’m from restaurants to hotels, so there’s at least some synergy there. [Laughs.] I own restaurants inside of hotels, and I own a small boutique hotel. So I’m not saying I’m equipped 100%, but I’ve certainly got a lot of knowledge in terms of hotels.

BE: I have to say that passing out black lights to all of the critics after your panel was one of the scariest gifts you possibly could’ve given us.

GR: Yeah, and I meant it, too. [Laughs.] I’d love to give you a souvenir – a menu or some stuff like that – but fuck the foo-foo. I’ve got to be more of a realist with you. Because I was horrified, I was shocked, I was disgusted in what was being done in these places. I wasn’t impressed. And when you see the prices these people are charging… It was just embarrassing. Embarrassing.

BE: So how do you find time to cook, given all of the shows you’ve got going on?

GR: Yeah, that’s a very good question. [Laughs.] I’m in charge of my diary now, so everything’s planned a year in advance. This morning I was at the Farmer’s Market at The Grove, and I bought a long rib, and it’s in brine tonight. It’s going to be in brine for two days, and then with cardamom, smoked paprika, bay leaf, and some black pepper…this long rib is then going to be roasted with this beautiful pepper crust. It’s a new idea for my menu at The Fat Cow, opening up at the end of September at The Grove. So, no, I do still cook. [Laughs.] Also, I don’t think we’d be maintaining three Michelin stars if we didn’t continue that kind of excitement. And that’s exactly what we’re doing.

BE: Lastly, as far as the winners of “Hell’s Kitchen” from the various seasons, how long do they tend to stay with your restaurants? What’s the turnover rate?

GR: That’s a good question as well. I mean, the winner this year, as you know, goes to Steak. I always look at the winners of “Hell’s Kitchen” like the winners of “(American) Idol”: every two or three seasons, there’ll be someone that’s made it massively, and then there’s another one that disappears off the radar because they didn’t hit a #1. It’s exactly the same with cooking. So I leave them all the tools and there’s a substantial package – to the tune of a quarter of a million dollars – so if you can’t turn that into any form of success and use the platform, then… [Trails off.] I think our work succession rate, we have 2/3 of them that are still out there and pitching well. I think of Nona (Sivley, Season 8 winner), she’s extraordinary. And Paul (Niedermann), last season’s winner, he’s at BLT Steak, and he’s pretty phenomenal as well.

  

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