"There's nothing more off-putting than a chef on a diet," says Gordon Ramsay, a chef who, as far as I can tell, is on a diet. He must be. At 51, he looks fantastic. There is scarcely an ounce of fat on him and you could slice through an overcooked steak with one of those cheekbones.
But he assures me that this is simply down to “a healthy lifestyle” and that it really isn’t necessary to swap burgers for beetroot all of the time. “I love cooking and I love eating,” he says. “It just has to be done in moderation.” Hmm, it sounds a bit like a diet to me, but this being Gordon Ramsay, I decide not to argue.
'I don't want my taste buds to get bored'
Anyway, how to eat healthily without compromising on flavour – that is the conundrum he has tried to solve in his latest cookbook, Ultimate Fit Food: Mouth-Watering Recipes to Fuel You for Life, which was published earlier this year.
It is filled with recipes – courgette and fennel carpaccio; panzanella with poached chicken; shaved asparagus and hazelnut salad – which challenge the idea that "healthy" has to mean "dull". "I don't want my taste buds to get bored by eating the same things over and over again," he writes in the introduction to Ultimate Fit Food. "And I don't ever want to feel deprived."
Ramsay puts it in slightly more bald terms to me. “I’m not putting you on a lentil diet for 18 months,” he says. “This is about balance. It’s about [using different] cooking techniques, whether that’s steaming, slow-cooking, braising or poaching. And it’s about scrutinising the level of dairy you’re cooking with. It’s not about scaring yourself into going on a diet, which is bloody unpleasant.”
The chef believes that the recipes in his latest cookbook are “restaurant quality” and has backed up that claim by permanently including a selection of them on the menu at Bread Street Kitchen & Bar Dubai, the restaurant he opened at Atlantis, The Palm, in 2015, and which is headed up by chef de cuisine Cesar Bartolini.
So alongside the beef burger, lamb chops and fish and chips, you will now also find a watermelon and cucumber salad, roasted bass with curried mussels and spicy tuna tartare with avocado and wonton crisps – these Fit Food dishes are highlighted on the Dubai restaurant’s menu by a little running man.
'Dubai is like a mini Vegas'
Serving these sorts of dishes is a risk. Do people want such healthy food when treating themselves? "I never want to replace the pleasure of eating out," the chef explains. But he also knows that he must continue to innovate if he wants to keep up with the rapid pace of change taking place within the UAE's restaurant scene. "It's very cosmopolitan. The young chefs at the cutting-edge of cooking are all coming to Dubai to set up shop," he says. "Dubai is like a mini Vegas, every top chef in the world wants to have a restaurant here."
Nevertheless, this is not the food for which Ramsay is best-known. It is all a far cry from the indulgent, fine-dining dishes that defined Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London, the chef’s first restaurant (he now has 38 worldwide), which has held three Michelin stars since 2001. What prompted this change of direction?
“It started about 10 years ago when I hit 40,” says Ramsay, who has four children with his wife Tana. “All of a sudden, your life is consumed, you’re saying ‘yes’ to everybody, and there’s no time for yourself. That’s when I started putting weight on, getting cranky and feeling lethargic.”
He began running and competing in triathlons. The healthier food – the fuel he needed to perform – soon followed. “This book gives people an insight into how I have conducted my life over the past three or four years, in order to maintain that level of fitness,” Ramsay explains. “It’s advice from a chef based on what I cook and eat at home, using the ingredients stocked in my fridge.
“My little secret is to make sure I can still cook a sumptuous, rich dish with lots of calories but only take a mouthful, as opposed to eating the whole dish. That’s how I get the best of both worlds.”
'Everyone should have goals in life'
The chef's diet is not the only thing that has changed. That notorious temper of his seems to have mellowed, too. He can still turn it on for the cameras, of course – and there are few more entertaining things to watch on television than a good, old-fashioned Ramsay rollicking on his long-running series, The F Word and Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares – but this is no longer how he conducts himself in real life.
“Kitchens are run differently now than they were in the 1990s,” he says. “It’s much less aggressive, which is a sign of the times. I wouldn’t say fear is the essence of perfection.”
Never one to stick entirely to the script, though, Ramsay can’t help adding: “If you want to become something, if you want that knowledge, there’s a price to pay for that. It’s just like sport – if you don’t like the manager [or the head chef] then [expletive] off and play for another team.”
At last, a bit of that famous Ramsay spice. When you hear him speak like this, it’s clear that he retains an insatiable desire to continue improving and growing, even now when he has, surely, achieved more than even he thought possible. His latest obsession is becoming the first British chef to be awarded three Michelin stars in France (Le Pressoir d’Argent Gordon Ramsay in Bordeaux currently holds two).
“Everyone should have goals in life, whether they’re a chef or not,” he says. “Waking up with ambition is a healthy position to be in, and long may it continue.
“[But] I don’t work 16 hours a day the way I used to, because I don’t want to any more,” he continues. “I conduct and develop and I’m still as excited by that now as I ever was.”
Gordon Ramsay’s Ultimate Fit Food (Hodder & Stoughton) is out now. For reservations at Bread Street Kitchen & Bar Dubai, call 04 426 1110 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Cook a dish from the new Bread Street Kitchen Dubai menu at home
Roasted stone bass with curried mussels and charred cauliflower
Ingredients: 1kg Stone bass fillet, cleaned and portioned 250g fresh mussels, cleaned 1/2kg red onion, small diced 1/2kg local tomato, small diced 200g baby onions, whole 50g garlic chopped 50g ginger chopped 5g mustard seeds, 5g fenugreek seed 100ml coconut oil salt, according to taste 3g Kashmiri powder 3g turmeric powder 6 curry leaves chopped 50g Tamarind paste (diluted in 300ml hot water) 500ml fish stock 1 head of cauliflower, roasted
In big pot, heat the oil until it reaches 160°C, then add the mustard and fenugreek seeds and cook for about two minutes.
Put in the garlic and ginger, and cook for seven minutes on medium heat, stirring occasionally. Add baby onions and cook for a further five minutes. The onions will look translucent and loose.
Mix in chopped red onion, salt and cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the Kashmiri and turmeric powders and cook for five minutes.
Put in the tomatoes and cook for 5 minutes. Then pour in the diluted tamarind stock using a strainer to avoid the seeds. Also add fish stock and curry leaves, and cook for 25 minutes on low heat.
In a hot pan with a little oil, sear the fish starting from the skin, until golden brown. Flip it over and finish cooking.
While cooking the fish, add the mussels and roasted cauliflower to the sauce. Cover the pot with a lid until the mussels open and serve straight away.