Gordon Ramsay Doesn't Know Whether To Laugh Or Cry
“I badly gashed my hand opening scallops, once,” explains Gordon Ramsay, leaning-in across the table at his Dubai restaurant Bread Street Kitchen & Bar.
“The first thing that Marco [Pierre White] did was grab my wrist and bury my hand in salt to stop the bleeding. He wrapped it in Clingfilm and told me, in no uncertain terms, that I was ‘going nowhere’. Three hours later I went to hospital for stitches. ‘Get your a** back here as soon as possible,’ he shouted at me on the way out. I went, got the stiches, came back and finished the service in absolute agony.”
This is just one of any number of horror stories that Ramsay can reel off at the drop of the hat when talking about his early life in the kitchen. In fact, at times, it’s difficult to stop him. “Steve Terry got a slap for coming back late from his grandfather’s funeral,” he continues. “Marco went f****** bananas. We laugh about it now, but at the time it was like, oh s***.”
And the thing is, he does laugh about it – and you laugh along with him. These stories, packed full of psychological – and occasionally physical – abuse have become anecdotes. Tales from a survivor who not only lived through them but has almost turned them into part of his appeal. However, more than speaking of Ramsay and how they shaped him, they reveal a time and place.
There can’t have been many more dangerous spots to find yourself in during the 1980s and ’90s than a professional kitchen. A bastion of toxic masculinity, it was endurance in homage to a dinner service, and the rage of a head chef served either as motivation or madness.
“I was only 19 when I first started working for Marco,” explains Ramsay. “I was just grateful for the education. I didn’t really question the stress. What I did question was how good I was becoming. When you climb the ladder, that pressure is the price you pay. It became healthy for me and the more I learned, the better I wanted to become. I never sat and worried about what Marco did or how he spoke to me. On the contrary, every time I made a mistake I felt that I’d let him down, I was under that influence. You’re naked and afraid and desperate not to upset him.
“I’m not making excuses for the lack of man-management here – not from Marco, or later from Albert [Roux] or Pierre [Koffman] – because I did the same thing. I think that any chef who gets that first big job is so eager to be perfect, and under so much of their own pressure, that they rule through fear and panic. They have no real idea of how to effectively manage people.”
Earlier this year, Ramsay came under Twitter fire from the British food critic Jay Rayner who, after watching a 2014 clip from Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares USA, alleged him as glamorising violence in the kitchen under the guise of character building. And while Twitter was quick to defend Ramsay – some labelling him the most passionate and encouraging chef they had ever worked for – there’s certainly a grain of truth in the fact that he, and others, wear their kitchen survival as a badge of pride. British chef Daniel Clifford, who worked as a demi-chef de partie under Pierre White at Box Tree in the early ’90s, once said that being able to handle the abuse became ‘like a drug’ to him. Ramsay gained power from it.
“In the early days, six to eight new staff would start each week,” he explains. “And six to eight would pretty much disappear at the end of it. Every time somebody left, it made you feel stronger. I just felt like I had nothing to lose at that point in my life. Coming out of football and sitting on my backside without a pot to p*** in. Feeling, not angry… just upset. I knew that whatever it was I did second time around I would have to take every bite of the cherry. But I don’t think everybody is willing to pay the price. I was desperate to learn. When things got tough in the kitchen, there was no big sit down for a chat. It was this simple: take the s***, get the job done or f*** off. If I hadn’t been so desperate to reach the top I would have jumped ship years ago.”
The pressure doesn’t get any easier post-success. Clifford freely admits that the two Michelin Stars he was awarded in 2005 turned him ‘into a monster’ and Ramsay, well he had other issues.
“The ’90s, in particular, were brutal,” he says. “I remember when AA Gill would come in to review one of restaurants – the humiliation was often horrendous. He described one dish as being like ‘toxic scum on a stagnant pool’, while another review labelled me as a ‘failed footballer who’d had a shotgun wedding’. I was kind of stunned… we had actually lost a baby in that situation – and how’s that relevant to judging somebody’s food, anyway? But that’s just how it was in those days. You put your head down, you took the blows and you got on with it.”
While Ramsay’s desire is admirable, it does beg the question of whether a willingness to take a beating on the way to something better is an inadvertent act of complicity in the cycle, but more than that, just what is the toll on self? Surely a career spent absorbing pressure in all its forms eventually requires a release, and that’s not something that men traditionally handle well.
“Men think that talking is a sign of weakness,” says Ramsay. “They feel embarrassed… they feel a loss of manhood in front of their family or colleagues, but that stigma should really be long forgotten. I freely admit that competing in triathlons probably saved my life. The downtime I get during training just gives me time away from pressure. It gives me time to think.
“I still think about the tragic loss of Tony Bourdain. Only last year we were laughing and joking together at the Emmys. If you’d have told me then that he would take his own life because he was mentally suffering I would never have believed you. There’s a responsibility, we all have, to ensure that there are areas of support for when people stumble and struggle – and that includes in the workplace… and that includes me.”
You know what you’re getting with Gordon Ramsay. A big, brash, swear-y force of a man whose outstanding culinary prowess occasionally gets overlooked in favour of the laddish TV persona. The former has made him one of the most successful chefs of all-time, the latter compulsive viewing. The reality, however is far removed from the in-your-face tactics of Kitchen Nightmares.
“Look, I’ve made plenty of mistakes in my career, perhaps I even played up to the whole thing, too. But I’m closer to my team now than I ever have been. Every day, the first thing we talk about is what’s upsetting us. Just airing any problems we have – both professional and personal. All it takes is one person to speak up and it has this domino effect. All of a sudden, everybody’s talking. It’s amazing.
“What annoys me?” he asks. “Going on a diet.”
Fairly ironic as he’s in town to promote his new Fit Food menu. “Let me tell you, this menu isn’t about going on a diet,” he says. “Not a chance. Eating healthy is like life – it’s all about balance. There should be good and bad, light and dark. You can’t always take the punishment. Let’s be honest, nobody deserves a f****** quail salad six times a week.”
Gordon Ramsay’s Fit Food menu is now available at Bread Street Kitchen & Bar on Atlantis The Palm