As far as on-screen villains go, a chef probably shouldn’t feature on anyone’s Top 10 list. But there he is, a seemingly permanent fixture on everyone’s chart of celebrities they wouldn’t want to cross swords with: Gordon Ramsay.
To the uninitiated, Ramsay no doubt comes across as Machiavellian, a schemer who has blunderbussed his way to the top by taking no prisoners, and doing an awful lot of shouting and swearing. The reality, though, as with many figures that reside in the darkest depths of our imaginations, is so different, that it’s almost comical. Well-spoken, friendly, talkative and disarmingly open, Ramsay in real life (no doubt dependent on what side of the kitchen door you happen to be on) is almost disappointingly pleasant.
Talking with him is like having a coffee with Boris Karloff backstage – there’s no horror, only joviality. And, to be fair, Ramsay has much to be joyful about. He’s a living legend, and has created one of the world’s most recognisable and successful brands. And then there’s the fact that his Dubai eatery, Bread Street Kitchen at Atlantis, The Palm, is celebrating its second anniversary, for which Ramsay is heading to the UAE.
In an exclusive chat with The National, he says this is nothing short of a duty for him – not that it feels like one. "Loyalty must be repaid," he remarks. "And I don't get to do it very often, but hosting these nights, where people can come and meet-and-greet, is a really important way of doing that. There's no getting around the fact that famous chefs have their fans – ignoring them just isn't on."
What he’s referring to is the special events he’ll be hosting at Bread Street Kitchen this weekend, as part of November’s Culinary Month at the Atlantis. For as little as Dh150, foodies can partake of a special menu Ramsay’s had a hand in creating, during the Thursday Trivia Night and the Friday Family Brunch, where he will be around to meet guests, and roll up his sleeves – literally.
Ramsay’s mentoring of Bread Street Kitchen’s chef de cuisine, Cesar Bartolini, and his team, has resulted in a venue that perfectly captures the atmosphere of the London original. This isn’t some overpriced and out-of-reach restaurant where it takes months to reserve a table – it’s a family-oriented establishment that offers liveliness, exceptional food and prices that won’t break the bank for most patrons.
“I’m a family man,” Ramsay chirps. “When I opened my first restaurant in Dubai [Verre at Hilton Dubai Creek in 2001], I was a different kind of person, and it was a different kind of city compared to where we’re at today. So when the lease expired after 10 successful years, I decided it was time for a change of venue and approach. Bread Street Kitchen is, first and foremost, an all-day brasserie – a fun place for families to kick back, unwind and not have to exclude the kids. I’m a father of four, I know how important that is – to have somewhere to go that combines a lively atmosphere with accessibility and utmost quality.”
Ramsay is an exceedingly busy man, in charge of an empire that has made him one of the world’s highest paid television stars (just don’t refer to him as a “celebrity chef”; he hates that). So the extent of his “hands-on” involvement in any of his restaurants is, understandably, limited. “To be a success in this game,” he explains, “you need to have complete trust in your staff. I’m always there for guidance and advice, though.”
He operates 10 restaurants in London alone, with a further 13 across North America, Europe and Asia. Combine that with his television duties and his work as a publisher, and you might wonder how the man has time to even sleep.
Bread Street Kitchen, he explains, was a way of bringing “some of the London magic to Dubai”. Totally different in concept to Verre, it has been a remarkable success – but Ramsay says it’s not as simple as putting his name above the door for it to remain relevant in a city that’s not short on world-class restaurants.
“Some people say that running a place at Atlantis must be like shooting fish in a barrel,” he remarks. “But there are loads of great places to eat in Dubai, even just at the Atlantis, so it’s vital to keep reinventing, evolving, being different and fresh. As a location, Atlantis has been absolutely perfect for Bread Street Kitchen for many reasons, not least the fact that it’s a destination that is family-oriented.”
He does say, though, that he still harbours a desire to open another restaurant in Dubai, one more in keeping with the Michelin-starred history makers he made his name with in the British capital. “I’ll be in Abu Dhabi for the grand prix in a couple of weeks, and I intend to hunt around for a good location there, too. The UAE’s restaurant scene is incredible, and Abu Dhabi is rapidly becoming a very cosmopolitan destination.” It’s a case of “watch this space”, then.
How about the shifting trends in human habits and consumption, though? Is he a man who moves with the times or does he still profess to be “allergic” to vegans?
“Vegans make me come out in a rash if they’re within a few feet of me,” Ramsay jests. “Look, I get that it’s important to cater to a wide range of preferences, but, for me, dining out is a big deal – it’s supposed to be something fun that we get excited about doing. Getting worked up about the chairs you’re sitting on being upholstered in leather shouldn’t come into it.”
He does, however, admit that sourcing ingredients responsibly is extremely important. “We’re serving a thousand customers a day in Dubai,” Ramsay explains, “and that gives us enormous clout when it comes to buying the very best quality ingredients. And that means buying responsibly from sustainable and ethical sources – I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
He does maintain, however, an absolute disdain for food critics (he once famously turfed A A Gill out of his restaurant while the writer was entertaining Joan Collins). When asked which one’s worse – food critics or bloggers – he laughs and thinks about it for all of a nanosecond. “Critics, every single time. They’re history, bloggers are the now.”
Never far from controversial headlines, Ramsay has come in for plenty of criticism – even in the past few days – from his peers, who claim he has made working in kitchens extremely stressful. When asked about how he keeps his staff motivated, however, he paints a very different story to the one we’re used to seeing on our television screens and social media memes.
“There’s no point denying that what we do is stressful,” he admits. “It’s a high-pressure industry. But it’s my responsibility and of everyone else in charge of businesses to monitor staff properly. Pressure and stress are two very different things, and you can manage stress if you know what you’re looking at in your staff, looking for the telltale signs.”
One thing he’s particularly vocal about is training. “We have apprentices now, who are graduating and entering the workforce with the proper skills and attitudes. We never stop learning, and it’s vital to train people properly and allow them the access to education they crave. The pressure will always be there in a restaurant, it’s what we deal with all day every day. How we deal with it will affect how stressed we are, and it’s no use expecting someone in their teens or early 20s to be able to run a kitchen – people need to develop naturally to that point.”
You want to meet him, don’t you? He’s like that – a magnetic, almost mythical personality; a powerhouse who doesn’t really care what you think of him. And no doubt he will be on fine form if you pay a visit to Bread Street Kitchen while he’s in Dubai. Either way, the food will be exquisite. Ramsay’s name is over the door, after all.