Gordon Ramsay talks Dubai, Vegans and the newest Hell's Kitchen
I first met Gordon Ramsay ten years ago.
He was in Dubai on one of his regular media tours, attempting to encourage a few more bums on seats at Verre, then his new restaurant on Dubai Creek, and also to promote the fifth season of his British television show.
Ever the professional, he walked through the doors on time, shook a few hands, told someone to “f**k off” and then taught us how to cook (in this case, a seared duck breast with confit duck wantons). Afterwards, he judged the plates, and the winner won a signed copy of his most recent cookbook. He said my duck was cooked well, but said the number of fingerprints smudged on the plate was akin to Paris Hilton’s pants. I didn’t win the cookbook.
Fast forward a decade and here he is again, standing in front of an assembled crowd of journalists, shaking hands. This time, instead of being in Dubai to promote the ill-fated Verre restaurant (which closed its doors on Ramsay back in 2011) he’s drumming up excitement for Hell’s Kitchen—a dining concept lifted straight from his hit American television show.
In front of the media, he’s more or less the same Gordon Ramsay the world knows from his many television appearances. He’s taller than you’d expect but has the same energy, the same no-nonsense attitude and, of course, the swearing. But there’s an ever-so-subtle difference to him this time around.
He’s a little older, a little wiser and a little less—shock, horror—stereotypical Gordon Ramsay. He’s mellowed, like someone who is comfortable letting the thin veil of celebrity slip every now and again.
“Have I mellowed over the years? That’s a good question”, says Ramsay when we sit down to chat a bit later. In fairness, it isn’t a good question, but the old ‘that’s a good question’ trope is often rolled out by those who spend lots of time in front of the press. It’s media training 101 and often used to buy time when asked a tricky question. “I think any chef will mellow over time. I think everyone does, that comes down to having more experience.”
“I have become a lot more focused, actually. I work smarter than I did before, and I think that finding that juxtaposition between hard and smart work is how you find balance. And let me tell you, there is a fine line between overindulgence and burning out, and finding a balance”.
We are sat near the main dining room at Hell’s Kitchen Dubai, the latest addition to his vast globe-spanning food empire. The new restaurant—at Caesars Palace Bluewaters Dubai—apes the name of Ramsay’s American television show (which has just aired its 18th season on Fox) but is staffed with veteran chefs, instead of terrified amateurs.
“Hell’s Kitchen Dubai is an exciting, high octane place. When we built it, we wanted all the same touches as the show, so you have all these logos, a red side of the kitchen and a blue side. The difference, here we have a highly skilled team that is not getting f**king risotto sent back every two minutes or hand-dived scallops that might as well be used as doorstops because they’re so overcooked they’re like f**king rubber”.
It’s fair to say that most people are familiar with Ramsay, either through his food or as a media personality.
He currently has more television shows than Michelin stars, but that’s not to take away from his many culinary accolades, which are vast.
Over his career, his restaurants have been awarded 16 Michelin stars (currently, they hold seven). His namesake, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London’s Chelsea area, has held three of those highly-coveted little stars since 2001. Indeed, today his name is listed on 36 individual locations across Europe, the U.S., the Middle East and Asia (and that’s not counting his recent Bread Street Kitchen pop-up restaurant in the Maldives).
If that sounds like a lot, it’s because it is a lot by restaurant standards, but it’s nothing when compared to the man’s television presence. He has hosted 11 television shows (not counting his many talk shows and guest appearances) and personally has starred in more than 800 hour-long episodes. If you were to count the number of shows his production house—Studio Ramsay—has had a hand in, that number would almost double.
Sitting across from him in his pristine chef’s jacket it’s still easy to see why as a talented, loud-mouthed, young chef, TV producers were happy to keep giving him air time. Today, Ramsay doesn’t need a second invitation to speak his mind, but off-camera he’s far more thoughtful. Less crass, more considerate—although, the swearing still permeates through.
“The Gordon on TV and the Ramsay in real life are two different guys. We’ve just finished the next season of 24-hours To Hell and Back, which is filmed over that period—well, a lot more actually—and then condensed down to 48-minutes. That means your persona is amplified a thousand times.
The thing about me is, when things are good, they’re great. When they’re s**t, they’re intolerable. “Of course fiery head chefs with big opinions have become a stereotype all their own. It’s something that Ramsay has built his empire on, but now he’s the first to admit that it’s not always a good thing, and it can have grave consequences.
“Cooking at any high level means you have to become a highly focused control freak,” says Ramsay, “and if you don’t eventually let that go, you’ll kill yourself. We’ve all seen the burnouts, the heart attacks and, more importantly, the suicides. There’s no business or passion that is worth that.”
So how does Ramsay do it? Effectively run more than three dozen restaurants and a television career, alongside the nuts and bolts of being a father and a husband? “I like to have a finger in each pie, but not be responsible for every part of it. I have so much more freedom now that I have let go, and that’s something that has changed over the past ten years.”
“However, there is a sacrifice. You see much less of your family. The time you have seems to be cut in half. I have worked f**king hard to get where I am, and to maintain it is even more difficult. So I say ‘no’ more than I say ‘yes’”.
Earlier in the day, Ramsay hosted the Hell’s Kitchen Blind Taste Test for the UAE’s media. It mimicked a part of his TV show where contestants are blindfolded and have to guess food processed ingredients without knowing what they are eating. Journalists are cynical beasts—at best—and don’t enjoy being corralled with gimmicks but, here, Ramsay has them eating out of his hand. Literally. As he spoon-feeds minced carrot and turkey breast into the mouths of smiling journalists, he jokes about feeding them dog food. There is an eruption of laughter. They can’t get enough of him.
Outside of the Gulf, Ramsay’s outspokenness has been a favourite target of media outlets looking for a quick sensationalist headline. The UK tabloids in particular cover both his personal and public lives with relentless gusto, which creates a dilemma for Ramsay, who on the one hand needs to be fiercely protective over what he does and says, and on the other needs to more or less ‘perform’ in front of the media at events like this.
“It can be frustrating. I get very flippant and a little bit heavy when I joke, and too often those joke gets misconstrued by journalists. For some reason with me, the jokes tend to stick,” he says. An example of how his humour is often taken to heart is his occasional digs at vegetarians and vegans.
He is quick to clear up that he has no actual issues with what people want to eat, saying it is all supposed to be a bit of fun.“We’ve had vegan and vegetarian tasting menus in most of my restaurants since they opened. It’s just that I have been funny, and witty, and have taken the p*** from time to time. So when I make a beetroot Wellington, things go absolutely f***ing mental.”
By mental, I assume he is alluding to the time members of PETA [the animal rights organisation] dumped fifty tonnes of manure outside his restaurant at the London hotel, Claridge’s. He then explains how once someone called in a bomb threat to the hotel they were in, causing huge disruption. “They were filming Ocean’s Eleven there at the time, so all the actors had to be evacuated. And why? Oh, because ‘Gordon hates vegetarians’. I mean, really?!”
Ramsay will be the first to tell you that what you see on television is just that: television. But it has been his career’s biggest shot in the arm. The irony that we are sat in a restaurant based around his television show isn’t lost on him.
“Look, I’m a real chef who works on TV. If there was no TV tomorrow morning, that wouldn’t change anything in terms of where I’m going or what I want to do.”
“It’s a tough industry, and people think I was lucky. I meet chefs these days who want to be like me but don’t put in the time to get there. They’re easily distracted. I had no distractions. I had no f***ing choice. I mean, it was s**t or bust and-”.
He’s cut-off, mid-flow by a troop of Roman Centurions marching past the restaurant. Literally. It is the hotel’s opening night, and true to its Las Vegas reputation Caesars Palace Bluewaters Dubai isn’t holding back. I manage to wangle one last question past his minders, about where he shops for shoes after the Esquire team doing the photo shoot found out that he has gargantuan size 15 feet. “I once asked my people to find out where Shaq buys his shoes. But he has size 20 feet.
So, unfortunately, I have to get mine specially f***ing made”. “Now f**k off, I’ve got work to do,” he says with a smile. I guess even after ten years some things never change.