The chef from hell
In the opening episode of "Hell's Kitchen," Ramsay asks each contestant to prepare the dish he or she is most proud of and then proceeds to judge the food.
A psychologist would have a field day with this material. In his autobiography, "Humble Pie," published last year, British chef Gordon Ramsay relates that his violent, alcoholic father used to rail at him that "only faggots cook." Perhaps this is why he is so verbally abusive toward the workers at his restaurants and the participants in his cooking shows, sometimes reducing his apprentices to tears.
In an interview Ramsay chose to conduct via e-mail, he responded forthrightly, in a tone that does not show the creative and short-tempered personality seen on his reality show, "Hell's Kitchen," where he teaches young cooks and spares no criticism. Still, even in writing he sometimes disregards the rules of etiquette: He simply ignored the questions about the chilly reception his New York restaurant received when it first opened, or about the Israeli version of "Hell's Kitchen," which will soon be aired on Channel 2, starring chef Ezra Kedem (see box).
Even so, he was quite willing to recount how it all began.
"My career came pretty much by mistake if I'm honest. Cooking certainly wasn't a childhood hobby, but when I left school my options were limited. I looked at the Navy and the police but didn't have enough O levels [the U.K.'s General Certificate of Education] for either so I enrolled on a foundation year in catering at a local college - it all went from there."
Now he has eight successful restaurants in Britain and four in the United States, stars in three hit TV series, has published 13 cookbooks and has four children, including twins. He has accomplished all this with a little help from his friends and very little involvement in housework.
"[I have] a lot of absolutely phenomenal support," he writes in the e-mail. One such supporter is his father-in-law, who is also the CEO of Ramsay Gordon Ltd. "I have an amazingly dedicated team working with me on every project, from the chefs in the kitchen to the front of house staff."
In the American version of "Hell's Kitchen" (broadcast in Israel on Yes Star 1 on Thursdays at 9:15 P.M.), Ramsay criticizes cooking contestants. On "Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares" (whose second season will be broadcast starting next month), Ramsay visits restaurants in an effort to improve them. His other TV show, "The F Word," is not aired in Israel.
Naturally, his TV series are filmed when he is not cooking (or actually "just tasting," as he puts it) in his own restaurants in Britain and overseas. Ramsay is one of the two chefs with the greatest number of Michelin stars (and one of the three chefs in Britain to be awarded such a rating), after his New York restaurant was awarded two stars in its first year. All in all, Ramsay's restaurants have received 12 stars, the same number as French chef Alain Ducasse.
In the opening episode of "Hell's Kitchen," Ramsay asks each contestant to prepare the dish he or she is most proud of and then proceeds to judge the food. His evaluations are usually negative, and he uses no euphemisms when voicing his criticism, particularly when someone dares to serve him a portion of frozen gnocchi. On one of his "Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares" shows, he went to a restaurant and was shocked to discover that the chef was serving diners instant soup.
Is frozen gnocchi or soup from a can the biggest culinary sin, or are there worse?
"I don't see the point in just heating up a soup from a can. Soup is one of the easiest dishes to whip up quickly. It's the same with ready meals. In the time it takes to microwave something ready-made you can create a simple fresh pasta dish that is guaranteed to taste 10 times better."
Ramsay, 40 (although he claims he feels older), grew up in a poor home. When he was 16, he moved into a public housing apartment with his older sister Diane. His talent for football was discovered at the age of 12, and five years later he joined the Scottish team Rangers. After suffering a knee injury, he began to look for a different career at age 19.
Needless to say, he has found one. But he did not give up physical activity. He loves race cars and runs marathons. His achievements and the cooking awards he has accumulated are listed on his Web site (www.gordonramsay.com) in a manner that somewhat resembles newspaper sports statistics. When asked about the similarities between football and cooking, Ramsay replied: "To get to the top in either profession you need drive, ambition, dedication and a high level of skill."
In an interview for Marie Claire magazine, written by Janet Street-Porter, his partner in "The F Word," he was more forthcoming. "Out of 30 in the kitchen, you want to be number one," he said, explaining that chefs "are the most selfish bastards in the world. Stubborn, selfish and self-obsessed."
Ramsay also admitted that he hates fat chefs because he himself was one of them for three years, until he lost all the excess weight. In fact, the purpose of his athletic activity is to keep the weight off, so he won't reach the physical dimensions of his former boss, London restaurateur Marco Pierre White, his known rival. In comparison to White's hot-headedness, Ramsay seems almost mild-mannered. Or as Ramsay put it, "You know you don't get a pan of sauce thrown at you because he's upset that a customer didn't like his cheeseboard; it's because he's having a mood swing."
In "Hell's Kitchen," Ramsay seems very impatient with the all-female teams, but in his e-mail he claims to have noticed no difference between the sexes. Street-Porter contends that Ramsay is a macho, to which Ramsay replies that his three-Michelin-star restaurant is being run by a 27-year-old woman. His dream, he says, is to have "an all-female brigade" in his kitchen.
It seems as though he simply has to be hurtful on "Hell's Kitchen," while his real self comes through on "Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares."
"Both shows are exhausting to make," he admits, "but are satisfying in different ways. In 'Hell's Kitchen' it's fantastic seeing young chefs with massive ambition being given the chance to use it. With Nightmares, the most satisfying programs to make are those where the chef already knows about ingredients and has real talent but has somehow lost the way."
The restaurants he advises in the series look like a parody of the British kitchen, with sponge cakes dipped in pink icing, and over-fried, over-browned foods.
Has British cuisine changed radically for the better or did it mostly suffer from bad PR?
"Britain is sitting up and taking notice of food more than ever before. People are starting to question what's on their plate and where it has come from - which is fantastic. With this we're seeing many fantastic young chefs coming up through the ranks. It's tremendously exciting."
Ramsay is certainly someone who is continuing to climb the ladder of success. In addition to all his restaurants, he recently opened a pub, The Devonshire, in West London. "Next year we've also got restaurants opening in Versailles and L.A.," he promises.
When asked if he is ever caught munching a greasy bag of fish and chips, or eating cookies as he watches TV, this indefatigable chef, who is meticulous about proper nutrition, says: "After a hard week, we will sometimes order take-out. At home I suppose a guilty pleasure would be something like a hot chocolate fondant with milk icecream - delicious!"
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