The Master talks to Time Out about his new restaurant in Dubai, Bread Street Kitchen at Atlantis The Palm
Gordon Ramsay has no plans to retire. No matter how much he seems to think we’re asking him to. “I’m only 48, not 78!” he exclaims, with an expletive (or two) in between. “And you’re trying to write me off!”
Ten minutes later, with the thought clearly still bugging him, he mutters, as much to himself as to anyone: “At 48…? What on earth would I do at 48?”
Woody Allen once admitted, when asked why he was still making movies in the fifth decade of his lauded career, “It’s because I’m afraid that if I stop making them I’ll die.” And this is where our current confusion has come in. What is it, we had wondered out loud, that keeps driving creative people back to a job they frankly no longer need to do? When you’ve earned all the awards, all the respect and all the money you ever need from an industry, why don’t you just pack it all in and go live on a yacht?
Ramsay digests this, comforted by the clarification. “Because I’m always desperate to learn new things,” he says simply. “That’s what I’m here for. I don’t have my own fragrance. I’m not here to be famous.”
We’re in London, behind-the-scenes at Ramsay’s Heddon Street Kitchen, the venue he has suggested for this shoot and interview. (He’s also brought his own clothes; he doesn’t really do the whole stylist thing.) Soon, though, he will be back in Dubai, for the Friday October 23, Atlantis The Palm launch of Bread Street Kitchen, his casual brasserie from London’s St. Paul’s that is set to wow diners across the emirate with its laid-back but top-class charms.
By opening at Atlantis The Palm, Ramsay is heading up a long line of prestigious chefs to have launched at the underwater-inspired resort. Next door to Bread Street Kitchen is Ronda Locatelli, the Dubai restaurant of TV’s most charismatic Italian, and Michelin-awarded, chef Giorgio Locatelli. Also inside is the Dubai outpost of Nobu, the eponymous brand created by the master of Latin-Asian fusion, and Japan’s most famous chef, Nobu Matsuhisa. As for Ramsay, he is in fact taking over the space that previously operated as Rostang, the restaurant of the highly respected, Michelin-awarded French chef Michel Rostang. Amid all this Michelin-starred repertoire, Bread Street Kitchen will add an urban brasserie version of Ramsay’s signature modern British-European cooking.
In London, Bread Street Kitchen sits in the heart of the UK’s financial district, next to Jamie Oliver’s Barbecoa restaurant. Due to its location as well as its food it has become a favourite for neighbouring bankers on business meetings with expense accounts. Inside Atlantis The Palm, however, Ramsay suggests that the restaurant will absorb the resort’s relaxed family vibe.
The UK restaurant was designed by Russell Sage Studios, an agency credited by our friends at Time Out London as being “responsible for many of our city’s best-looking restaurants”. Bread Street Kitchen in London, and in Singapore, are lively and engaging, with a design that combines modern and industrial edges (using reclaimed materials and exposed concrete), with a vintage and cool New York brasserie ambience.
The menus at these venues are vast and varied, filled with culinary references from around the world. Ramsay’s tamarind-spiced chicken wings, for example, are something of a signature, appearing on menus in London and in Hong Kong. Also on the London menu are dishes as varied as steaks prepared on a Josper grill, a short rib beef burger with sriracha mayo, snow crab California rolls, and salads ranging from Asian crispy duck with mouli, ginger, sesame and soy, to Middle Eastern feta with watermelon, mint and zaatar.
He may have been absent from Dubai since 2008, but Ramsay’s legacy in the city has arguably never been stronger. When he opened his restaurant, Verre, at Hilton Dubai Creek in 2001, he didn’t just bring fine dining to Dubai, he pretty much started a food revolution – and he built an army.
“Back then the [restaurant] scene was strong in pockets,” Jason Atherton told us ahead of his Marina Social opening earlier this month. “You had one or two decent Italians, you didn’t really have any Japanese cuisine and you had a few little local Filipino restaurants. Gordon was a trailblazer coming and opening that restaurant. It changed a lot for Dubai. You look around today and, oh my goodness, Dubai is one of the hotspots across the world for restaurants. It’s really that powerful.”
Atherton, of course, was the chef brought in by Ramsay to run Verre, and now, here he is up against him. “You know, I was one of the first here in Dubai?” Ramsay says with a smile. “It’s a big issue for chefs to let go of talent. My only hope is that they [his old teams] do exactly to their teams as I did to them. If that continues then it’s sort of a magical tree. I have been the most unselfish chef anywhere in the world. I’m talking about the unselfishness that means you don’t cap people’s growth. You don’t stifle their positions. You give them the freedom to spread their wings, whether they come back or compete in amongst you. If our kitchen is Manchester United then Jason’s is Chelsea. If those guys continue giving that level of generosity and knowledge to their brigade, as I did with them, then they have consolidation going forward and they expand. It’s not done on a deck of cards. It’s done with talent.” Verre saw a succession of great chefs come and go in its kitchen, including Angela Hartnett and local heroes Scott Price and Nick Alvis. It also saw a whole host of accolades laid at its door, including at Time Out Dubai’s annual restaurant awards, and was such a favourite among the readers of this magazine that Ramsay still puts much of its success down to you.
No-one expected it to close, but such was the fallout of the global financial collapse of seven years ago that it forced chefs such as Tom Aikens to declare bankruptcy and Gordon Ramsay to reign in his foreign outposts in a bid to save his business, Gordon Ramsay Group, from tailspin. “But look at the number of restaurants that have opened in the past five years in Dubai,” Ramsay says. “All these businesses have come back from the dead since 2008. You know how horrific it was. I’m not just saying that of Dubai, it was the same in London. The recession hit everybody and it [closing Verre] was about propagating a way out of that and standing strong.”
Now, Ramsay is returning to Dubai because he “hand on heart” missed it too much. That and the fact that the food business here has matured so excitingly. He cites La Petite Maison, with its packed dining room, night on night, as “groundbreaking” and Qbara as a key indicator of Dubai’s maturity as a restaurant scene. “It’s exciting news that Qbara is frantically looking for a site in London,” Ramsay says. “Who would have thought that ten years ago? Chefs are now launching restaurants in Dubai, hatching them in Dubai and then taking them to major cities like London. That’s unheard of.”
As for Bread Street Kitchen, Ramsay can’t wait to bring its vibrant and casual charms to the Palm. “It’s not about fine dining or three and a half hours at the table,” he says. “Because it’s family orientated it fits brilliantly with Atlantis The Palm. And I wanted to establish the Bread Street Kitchen model in Dubai first. We are also talking to two or three individuals about a 60 to 70 seater fine dining restaurant. If I bring a Restaurant Gordon Ramsay to Dubai, it will be a Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. Expectations are going to be high. So, Bread Street first, and then, I think, in 2016/2017, a potential Restaurant Gordon Ramsay opening as well. One thing at a time, right?”
T here was a moment, you may be shocked to learn, when Gordon Ramsay lost his temper. It was back in November 2011, when he was being interviewed by a South African magazine, which was keen to learn if he’d been spreading himself a little thin of late.
“Do you think Wolfgang Puck has spread himself too thin with Puck Express and a US$400million company?” Ramsay shot back.
The interviewer pressed ahead. “Do you think that customers paying a lot of money for a meal ‘by Gordon Ramsay’ are entitled to a meal by Gordon Ramsay?”
Ramsay erupted. “I’ve been listening to that nonsense for the past 30 years,” he screamed. “If you buy an Armani suit, you don’t ask if Giorgio stitched it himself. Did Hugo Boss personally make that T-shirt? When I bought my Ferrari 458, I didn’t ask Enzo to put the wheels on. Give me a break.”
Today, in person, that passion is there, even if the anger isn’t. “First of all, you are going to have to change that,” he says when we suggest he is the most famous chef on the planet. “Not ‘most famous’, busiest. That makes me a lot happier.” That he requests the clarification is indicative of the man beneath the myth. His is a world view that will not be compromised. “I am,” he admits, “a bit of a control freak.”
In the flesh, Gordon Ramsay is charming and relaxed, and is also in tip-top physical condition thanks to his current obsession with triathlons (his next is in Hawaii just before he arrives here to launch Bread Street Kitchen), which he sees principally as a discipline in “maximising time”. Principally because he generally finds he doesn’t have any. But he also makes a point of choosing his words carefully, especially when the subject drifts away from food. And in particular when it drifts towards the thing he is second most known for: shouting at people on the telly and being very famous for it. (The last time we encountered him was in Soho House in Los Angeles. We were at the bar. He was in a booth with David and Victoria Beckham, and Eva Longoria.)
TOD: It has helped make you very successful, but do you tire of the shouty, sweary persona you are so often portrayed with?
GR: “I don’t watch damn television so I wouldn’t know! But I am always going to be totally honest. I would not just get upset for the sake of it. I think that it reflects the passion I stand for. It is an industry language. It is no different in sport. There aren’t two Gordon Ramsays. It’s me, that’s it. I think customers respect that. I am going to call it as I see it.”
TOD: Has the TV stuff had any significant downsides?
GR: “Not really. Everyone thinks, because of the TV, you’re a TV chef. But it’s absolute rubbish. The problem with TV is, I own the production company. So I’ll shoot in advance, and I’ve got about three seasons on the shelf already that will go out across 2016-2017. That’s already done. I think, what I’m trying to say is, I manage my time better now than I did ten years ago. So I haven’t stopped being a restaurateur. I still enjoy working seven days a week.”
TOD: Where are you based now, London, Los Angeles?
GR: [Laughing] “KATHMANDU!”
TOD: It’s a beautiful city…
GR: “Yes, it is very beautiful. Okay, seriously… Everyone thinks because you are successful in America, you live there. I love America, but I don’t want to live there. So the children live and go to school in the UK, and I slip in between, here, there and everywhere when necessary.”
TOD: Your daughter, Tilly, recently launched her own cooking show on TV, Matilda and the Ramsay Bunch. What advice have you given to her?
GR: “Don’t date a damn chef! Here’s the thing, all this stuff about her being daddy’s girl… She is a talented young girl. I would say to any young teenager that cooking is a life skill. One day, your parents aren’t going to be there, you are going to go to university, or have your own kitchen. Even if she never follows it as a career long term, it is a massive life skill.”
TOD: How about yourself? Do you see yourself working in kitchens until you’re old and grey?
GR: “It’s a tough, hard, driven environment. Am I in the kitchen 16 hours, like I was when I was 30? Nowhere near it. Am I still creating unique dishes and helping to maintain standards? Yes, of course I am. I think I’ve tempered my energy, in conjunction to where the business is. Could I stop tomorrow? Yeah, of course I could. Do I want to? Not really, no. So, I get a little bit more motivation by increasing the amount of travel, and seeing new things. It’s all about learning new things. When that stops and I haven’t got that urge to continue pushing the boundaries, yes, I’ll stop. But I can’t see that happening in the near future.”
TOD: How would you describe your ethos as a chef?
GR: “I take stock. I review. I don’t put my neck in a noose, where it is unmanageable. I set the tone early, so that I was able to control it and polish the jewel in the crown [Restaurant Gordon Ramsay], and then have several offshoots from that. So to answer the question in a nutshell, I pace myself. I think you can see quite clearly that I have never stopped still. Yes, we’ve come across some hurdles, but there is more to learn out of failure than from success. That is the difficult one when you’re seriously successful, because you stop learning. It is only when you have made a couple of big mistakes that you start to learn.”
In an article from Forbes’ restaurant guide in July, Peter Harden is quoted on Ramsay’s work at Aubergine restaurant in London, where he became head chef at 26, along the lines of: “The joke back in the early ’90s was that all the worst cooks on Earth were British. But Aubergine quickly became the kind of place that had a six-week waiting list.”
Scott Price, Ramsay’s last head chef at Verre, sees it straightforwardly. “Gordon is the leading chef of his generation. He has trained and inspired many people to better themselves, to spread their wings and develop their own ideas.” He then goes on to reveal the depth of his personal debt to Ramsay. “I started having issues with my knee and had to take some time off work. I really thought I wouldn’t be able to carry on cooking, let alone stay working with Gordon. When he found out, he sent me to his personal doctor and physiotherapist. He helped me get back on track. Then offered me the executive chef job here in Dubai. So I owe him a lot. Gordon was always very firm and fair; he always took the time to explain what you were doing wrong, or suggest a better way to do things. There’s a perception about him berating his staff unnecessarily that isn’t really true. Working in a busy restaurant kitchen, where guests are paying a lot of money for the food, the environment is pressured and there’s just no time for any minced words.”
Ramsay’s relationship with his team is also very clearly based on two-way traffic. Throughout our conversation he makes continued reference to the chefs who have grown under him. He speaks of being proud of what Jason Atherton and Angela Hartnett have achieved. He speaks with great warmth about chef Clare Smyth’s difficult start in life (she ran away from home at 16) turning into a dazzling career as “the hottest female chef in Europe”. He then goes on to list at least four more of his well-known protégés in a careful bid to not “single out just one individual”. He talks of his plans from the outset for Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London to become “a hub to propel talent”. His place, as he sees it, is to provide growth. To the chefs who work for him, and therefore to the future industry they will go on to build, dish by dish, masterpiece by masterpiece.
As for himself, Ramsay’s plans are simple. “I couldn’t be more excited about bringing Bread Street Kitchen here next month,” he says with a smile.
“I’ve missed Dubai. And now I’m back. With a bang.” Gordon Ramsay’s Bread Street Kitchen will open at Atlantis The Palm, Friday October 23. Atlantis The Palm, Palm Jumeirah (04 426 2626).