Chef must turn his back on TV and devote himself to restaurants again, critics say.
Helen Pidd : Saturday September 15, 2007 :The Guardian
For a long time he seemed as invincible as his muse, Action Man. Millions tuned in to see him lose his temper on TV, his restaurant conglomerate notched up 10 Michelin stars and his many books were constantly reprinting. But just as even the best recipes occasionally go wrong, it seems Gordon Ramsay’s hitherto unbeatable formula has failed him, as a string of setbacks and bad decisions look to threaten his empire. “To use Ramsay’s parlance, he’s had a nasty little knee in the bollocks,” said the publicist Mark Borkowski yesterday.
The latest knock came on Wednesday with the announcement that one of Ramsay’s most popular London restaurants, Angela Hartnett at the Connaught, is to shut when the hotel reopens in December after a £60m refurbishment.
The official word from his spokeswoman is that the refit “was the perfect time for both parties to evaluate and explore future plans and they have mutually decided this was the right time for a change”. Unofficially, Ramsay was said to be cross that the hotel expected Angela Hartnett’s team to provide room service, just like any normal hotel kitchen. Hartnett is to open a new place later this year, but it is not known whether this will be under the Gordon Ramsay umbrella.
And that’s not the only bad news this week has brought.
His brother, Ronald Ramsay, was sent to an Indonesian jail for possessing heroin. For the first time in seven years, Ramsay’s flagship restaurant, the three-Michelin-star 68 Royal Hospital Road, was not voted best restaurant by the reviewers of the Zagat guidebook.
This followed Ramsay’s kicking in another guide, Harden’s London Restaurants 2008, in which he failed to pick up the top three accolades of “top gastronomic experience”, “highest food rating” and “highest overall rating” for the first time in, again, seven years.
Richard Harden, co-editor of the guide, said: “Failing some major redirection of Ramsay’s energies back to his London restaurants – and away from America, TV studios and pubs – this is beginning to look like the end of the era of Ramsay’s unchallenged dominance of the high-end culinary scene.”
Matthew Norman, the Guardian’s restaurant critic, said he was unsurprised by this fall from grace: “Someone as arrogant and narcissistic as Gordon would write this off as tall poppy syndrome. But it is inevitable and obvious that it is impossible for him to maintain standards when he is spending time shuttling between a restaurant in New York and I don’t know how many in London – and is, I hear, planning to open in Paris as well.
“Everyone agrees that his flagship restaurant, 68 Royal Hospital Road, is stunningly good – to achieve two Michelin stars you have to be perfect, and to get three you have to achieve a level of perfection that is almost preposterous. But I’ve not been impressed with some of the recent ventures he has lent his name to. I thought the Boxwood Cafe was extremely average and although I liked his gastropub, The Narrow, it was derivative and not that adventurous. La Noisette was appalling.”
Eyebrows have also been raised about Ramsay’s ubiquity in advertising campaigns. “I think that Gordon Ramsay is a fantastic chef who has very high standards in the kitchen. Unfortunately the same high standards don’t always seem to apply to his choice of Ramsay-endorsed products and companies,” wine writer Tim Atkin said.
“Think Walker’s Crisps. Think Asda. Think BT. On the drink side, I don’t know what he is doing promoting Gordon’s, a mediocre, mass market gin, and I don’t think he should have appeared in the window of Threshers off-licences puffing their wines. He gives the impression of being prepared to do almost anything for money.”
Mr Borkowski said Ramsay was in danger of doing “what we in the trade call ‘a Linda Barker’ – she started off being quite an interesting style expert, but then very quickly after appearing on Changing Rooms seemed to be in everyone’s face all of the time, sitting on sofas and making a fortune but getting on everyone’s nerves.” However, Will Smith, co-owner of the Michelin-starred Arbutus and Wild Honey restaurants in London, said that the sneers may be fuelled by envy.
“I am sure there are many people jealous of Gordon Ramsay’s success. When you have been at the top for so long you are always open to criticism. With multiple outlets you are always going to be exposed to doomsayers. Is it realistic to expect his flagship restaurant to always be voted number one?” he said.
It was in New York that Ramsay had his first real taste of failure, when his much-hyped eponymous restaurant at the London hotel was given a lukewarm reception by US critics. Frank Bruni from the New York Times said the venture lacked excitement and relied on “familiar French ideas and techniques that have been executed with more flair, more consistency and better judgment in restaurants with less vaunted pedigrees”.
Even his legendary prowess was called into question earlier this year, when it emerged he hadn’t actually caught the sea bass he was shown apparently spearing on his Channel 4 show The F-Word. After the fisherman who actually made the catch blew the whistle, the broadcaster was forced to admit that the item, in which Ramsay said he felt “like a fucking action man”, before he appeared to catch and cook the food, had “let down” viewers.
Of course, the work isn’t exactly drying up for Ramsay. There’s the rumoured Paris opening, plus another in Ireland, and he has two new books out next month alone. Not to mention a cameo on The Simpsons, in which he teaches Homer Simpson how to cook.
Talking about the show, at least, it seemed to be business as usual: “I hope they keep the swearing in,” he said.
Kitchen empire Ramsay’s restaurant recipe
· Given the frequency of his four-letter outbursts, it seems appropriate that Gordon Ramsay began his professional life as a goalkeeper for Rangers. Born in Scotland, he was raised in England but moved back to play for the club until an injury led to an HND in hotel management.
· Ramsay spent his kitchen apprenticeship at the apron strings of illustrious – and Michelin-starred – chefs, including three years with Guy Savoy and Joël Robuchon in Paris. His first headline role came with Aubergine, owned by Marco Pierre White. Awards and book deals rolled in, though he left Aubergine after a bitter falling out that still rumbles on.
· In 1998 Ramsay opened the first outpost of his own empire – the eponymous Gordon Ramsay. His next restaurant, Petrus, took a whole seven months to win a Michelin star. Since then the empire has expanded by the year, including the Connaught hotel (now closing).
· 2004 saw the beginning of his TV career, with Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares striking fear into the hearts of small business owners everywhere. Other series followed, and even his wife had a column in Grazia.
· Global ambitions were perhaps inevitable, but even the thick-skinned Ramsay must have been shocked at the mauling his new American outpost received. But with rumoured expansions into Prague, Amsterdam and Paris, he’s unlikely to brood.