Time Out talks to the superstar chef about moving to the UAE, the pursuit of excellence and why Dubai isn't growing quickly enough.
This year, for the first time since Time Out Dubai launched its restaurant awards, Gordon Ramsay’s Verre failed to scoop the top title.
What’s he going to do about it? Something extremely drastic, apparently. Becky Lucas braved the sharp-tongued Scotsman to find out more.
‘I’m flying around the tallest tower in the world, looking at these phenomenal apartments and thinking, “There’s really no stopping Dubai now.”’ We’re sitting in the 12th-floor lounge of Hilton Dubai Creek and Gordon Ramsay is sizzling with energy. In fact, he’s bordering on delirious. Having just stepped off a 14-hour flight from New York, following a 10-day working tour that spanned Tokyo, London, Toronto, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and now Dubai, he’s already sped round the city in a helicopter – and it’s not even lunchtime yet.
‘The Palm Jumeirah looks amazing,’ he raves, his blue eyes piercingly awake. ‘We dropped down over it to get a good look at The Atlantis’ dolphinarium – astonishing. I was amazed at Sports City, Dubailand and all the other stuff being built out in the desert. You just want it to get done more quickly.’ Only Gordon Ramsay could demand Dubai shoot up at an even more ridiculously rapid rate. For here is a man who has hauled himself up from the impoverished depths (‘I come from a council estate,’ he mumbles within two minutes of his arrival – as seems to be his habit in interviews) to become the most famous chef in the world.
Millions recognise him from award-winning cooking shows Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, Hell’s Kitchen and The F-Word, as well as his autobiographies and the numerous cookbooks that rarely slip from the bestseller lists. (‘The first part of [autobiography] Humble Pie has just been bought by Touchstone Pictures,’ he says in wonder. ‘Heaven knows who’s going to play me.’) But alongside celebrity success of gastronomic proportions, Ramsay is, of course, a high-flying restaurateur and darling of the Michelin mafia, with (at today’s count) 18 gaffs straddling London, Dubai, Tokyo, Prague, New York, Paris and soon LA, boasting 12 of the coveted stars between them.
What could possibly be next for the man whose craggy face and extraordinary cooking is everywhere? Dubai, it seems. ‘By the time I’m 45, my plan is to score three stars in Paris, three in New York and three in London – and then I’m going to move to Dubai fulltime,’ he bombshells. ‘I’m looking at a plot on one of the Palm’s branches. It’s a beautiful five-bedroom apartment. Mum’s in her early 60s and she loves it out here as do the kids – they’re currently sitting at home sulking in their Wild Wadi T-shirts,’ he grins.
It’s not just Wild Wadi that’s enticing the kitchen king. After sharing his flight over with French chef Jean-Georges (one of Ramsay’s gourmet heroes, who is in the city on his own business research), hearing Parisian pro Alain Ducasse mention plans to launch a Dubai venue and a sneaky tip that Michelin is planning to launch in Dubai by 2012, it’s our booming restaurant scene that Ramsay wants a bigger bite of. ‘Imagine the Michelin coming to Dubai? Fantastic,’ he superlatives. ‘By the time they get here – I want 20.’
The vision for his second Dubai venue is already percolating. ‘We went to look at a plot on the Palm today. It’s not signed yet, but we’re talking about launching something like [London, New York and Prague restaurant] Maze there, and a cooking academy.’ Evidently, Time Out’s restaurant awards are an intrinsic part of Ramsay’s Dubai masterplan. ‘Verre’s won restaurant of the year three years on the trot – which is exceptional,’ he says with gusto. I’m not sure if I’ve heard him right. ‘But if we lose it next year – it’ll look like we’re failing.’ An F-word Gordon categorically isn’t a fan of. ‘So we’re going to tweak the room for the first time in seven years, add maybe a private dining room and chef’s table.’ In the meantime, will he be accepting Raffles’ invite to dine over at The Noble House? ‘Absolutely,’ he nods emphatically. ‘What did they win?’ Best restaurant, I inform him, hesitantly. ‘But I thought we won best restaurant?’
Holy Mackerel, as Ramsay might say. The penny’s only just dropped that Verre missed out on top ribbon – and I’m directly in the firing line. Could this be the moment this thus far bouncy Labrador mutates into the better-known snarling Ramsay Rottweiler? ‘What do they do then?’ he enquires, his expression slightly stuck. ‘Chinese? I love Chinese. Well, there’s enough room for everyone out here.’ Sidestepping the bad news, he adopts a 180° about-turn, coupled with an extra large side of denial.
The motormouth judders to a halt again when I wonder how he feels about being a pin-up – a chest-beating, stag-slaying foil to today’s facial-booking metrosexuals? ‘Urgh, I, erm –.’ Gordon Ramsay seems to be lost temporarily for words. ‘I stay fit, I guess,’ he concedes. ‘I had my ninth London marathon last week and I’ve got my first Ironman in November.’ Like an overachiever with Tourette’s, he defaults to talk of his aspirations again.
It’s often been intimated, not least by Gordon himself, that his gritty, council estate roots and violent, unsupportive father (who believed cooking was a female pastime) ultimately fuel his formidable drive. Does he think he’d be enjoying such success now, had he had a different upbringing? ‘I’m glad I got the grounding I did. I was trying to work it out on the plane,’ he ponders, revealing how much his late-father still lingers in his thoughts.
‘When I was 22, my dad was 42. I’m 41 now. I thought – what would my son Jack, who’s eight, make of me taking him down to the dole queue, like my dad did?’ I probe whether his lowly beginnings – during which ‘fine dining’ most likely entailed cornbeef and spam – ever generate any resentment in him towards his well-heeled clientele. ‘I never eat in my restaurants. I think it’s a very pompous thing to do – to sit and overindulge,’ Ramsay, ever the chef and never the customer, states. ‘I don’t mind going into my pubs for a pie and a pint though.’ He’s referring to his latest London ventures, the first in a planned series of gastropubs. ‘It won’t be long before I open a pub in Dubai,’ he divulges. ‘Not with the huge number of expats out here.’
Is there no end to this adrenaline addict’s ambitions? ‘I’ve just been asked to climb Everest next year,’ he says. ‘I’m tempted.’ It appears not. Dubai – you have met your unstoppable match.
Ramsay on… Gary Rhodes ‘Ah, bless him. May his “sick-pack” come on strong. I have 18 restaurants now with 1,500 staff, so no disrespect to him but we’re an ocean liner – poor Gary’s still rowing in his canoe. If he wants to go around saying “Gordon says this, Gary says that” – I don’t give a fig. I’m too busy for that s*** now. And unlike Gary, I don’t flit around the world consulting restaurants – we own them. I put my money where my mouth is. I may pop in to see “Mr Sick-pack” while I’m here though.’
Pierre Gagnaire ‘I’m slightly smitten with him. He’s had an amazing comeback for a man who went bust in the mid-90s. I’ve eaten in his restaurant in Paris twice – it was absolutely brilliant. Last time part of it was slightly undercooked and he came out, apologised and insisted on cooking it again. I was mortified – he didn’t need to apologise to me. Having him here is great.’
Food critics ‘Fay Maschler from London’s Evening Standard newspaper reviewed my Paris restaurant last week and absolutely pummelled it. What was bizarre was that the opening paragraph read, “The poached chicken with foie gras resembled and tasted like a tumour.” Of course, she wasn’t to know that a young family friend of ours died last week of a tumour. I picked up the phone and told her that I could never, ever, ever attempt to take her seriously anymore. She may not have known what had happened to us, but she was scraping the barrel like a rat scuppering around for some witty comment. I’m fed up of being judged by sarcastic individuals who know less about food than I do. That’s it for me, game over.’
Chef à chef Evans, commis chef at Nineteen What is your favourite season in the food calendar? ‘Autumn. Coming out of the summer into autumnal transition is beautiful. Everything becomes slow braising, slow roasting. The mushroom season is phenomenal. Then we’re onto the white truffle, black truffle season which is fantastic.’
Anuj K Snr, chef de partie at Nineteen Do you plan to open a restaurant in India? ‘Some of my favourite cuisine is Indian. The number of Indian Michelin-starred chefs in Britain alone is phenomenal. If I were to do something with an Indian influence I’d do something like Jean George did with Spice Market in New York.’
Peter Frost, Head chef at Nineteen What’s your top pastime away from the kitchen? ‘Diving. No blackberry, no emails, no chefs, no menu, no food critics – just me and the sound of my heartbeat.’