Fire Over England
Finally, there’s England’s greatest chef, or England’s biggest bully, depending on which paper you’re reading at the time – the fearsome and prodigiously talented Gordon Ramsay. I’d been hearing about this guy for years. Ex-footballer. Formerly with Robuchon, Ducasse, Guy Savoy, Marco Pierre White. A legendary wordsmith in the kitchen – famed for excoriating his crew, ejecting food critics, speaking his mind bluntly and undiplomatically. Awhile back, I was told about the cinema verité Boiling Point series, in which the beleaguered Ramsay was said to behave monstrously to his staff. Intrigued, I managed to track down a copy of the videotape series. To my mind, Ramsay was sympathetic from beginning to end. I rooted for him as he sweated out the beginning of a service period for a massive banquet at Versailles, ill-equipped, with only a rent-a-staff of indolent bucket heads to help him. I cheered when he summarily dismissed a waiter for guzzling water in full view of the dining room. Pour décourager les autres, I’m guessing. I suffered as he suffered the interminable wait for his much-hoped-for third Michelin star and was heartbroken when he didn’t get it. (He since has.) Those who can’t understand why a chef operating at Ramsay’s level gets a little cranky, or who appears to be operating at a higher and more self-important pitch than their boss, simply don’t understand what it’s like to work in a professional kitchen. They certainly don’t understand what it takes to be the best in that world. It is not how well you can cook alone that makes a great chef, but your ability to cook brilliantly, day in and day out – in an environment where a thousand things can go wrong, with a crew that oftentimes would just as happily be sticking up convenience stores, in a fickle, cost-conscious, capricious world where everybody is hoping that you fail.
Is he really such a complete bastard? Let’s put it this way: On a recent visit to his restaurant in Chelsea, I recognized large numbers of staff – both front and back of the house – from Boiling Point. Years later and they’re still there. When Ramsay walked out of Aubergine, the entire staff, service staff included – an incredible forty-five people – chose to go with him. That’s really the most telling statistic. Does he still enjoy the loyalty of his crew? He does. No cook shows up every day in Gordon Ramsay’s kitchen, works those kind of hours, offers themselves up daily to the rigors of a three-star service period, toiling in a small, hot space where at any moment they could get a painful and humiliating ass reaming because Gordon Ramsay is the biggest bastard or the biggest bully in England. They show up every day and work like Trojans because he’s the best. Because when they finally walk out that door to seek their own fortunes, they won’t even have to write up a résumé. Say you worked for three years with Gordon Ramsay, and that’s all any chef or owner should need to know.
There’s another factor overlooked in the rush to brand Ramsay as rude, crude, brutish, and cruel. In the professional kitchen, if you look someone in the eye and call them a ‘fat, worthless, syphilitic puddle of badger crap’ it doesn’t mean you don’t like them. It can be – and often is – a term of endearment.
Bottom line is, his food’s good. After all, it is about the food, isn’t it?
I had two meals at his restaurant in Chelsea, and both were absolutely world-class. A great chef at the top of his game. There’s yet another overlooked dimension to Ramsay that doesn’t fit with the depiction of an uppity, lower-class lout overlyjacked on testosterone. Ramsay was trained as a pâtissier. This is significant – like discovering that a right-wing politician was a Bolshevik in his youth. Few chefs can really and truly bake. Most chefs, like me, harbor deep suspicions of the precise, overly fussy, somehow feminine, presentation-obsessed counterparts in the pastry section. All that sweet, sticky, messy, goopy, delicate stuff. Pastry, where everything must be carefully measured in exact increments – and made the same way every single time – is diametrically opposed to what most chefs live and breathe, the freedom to improvise, to throw a little of this and a little of that any damn place they want. Ramsay’s food resonates with his training in pastry. It is precise, colorful, artfully sculpted or teased into shape (though not too teased). It is the product of that end point in a chef’s development – the perfect balance of masculine and feminine, the yin and the yang, if you will.
What do I mean? Look at Roberto, my grill man. He’s got a metal rod rammed through his eyebrow, a tattoo of a burning skull on his chest, muscles on his muscles. Rob Zombie and Metallica are his idea of easy listening. He’s done jail time for assault. Not a guy you’d invite to an evening at the opera. But watch Roberto cook. He leans over that plate and delicately, carefully drizzles sauce from a favorite spoon, gently applies an outer ring of sauce, then sensuously drags a toothpick through it. He tastes everything. Looks at his plates with a decorator’s eye for color and texture. Treats a filet of fish as tenderly and as lovingly as a woman’s erect nipple. Piles cute, girly-little garnishes into high, cloudlike piles of gossamer-thin crunchiness. He’s doing what everyone told him growing up that only women should do. (Ramsay’s own father told him cooking was basically for poofs and that chefs were all ponces.) We work in aprons, for fuck’s sake! You better have balls the size of jackfruits if you want to cook at a high level, where an acute sense for flavor and design, as much as brutality and vigilance, is a virtue. And be fully prepared to bulldoze any miserable cocksucker who gets in your way.
Both times I visited his restaurant, Ramsay was in the kitchen, supervising every dish that came out, riding his crew like rented mules. He wasn’t gliding through the dining room, sucking up to his public. He’s a cook in twenty-first-century England; that means he’s an obsessive, paranoid, conspiratorial control freak. A hustler, media-manipulator, artist, craftsman, bully, and glory hound – in short, a chef’s chef. That I found him polite, charming, witty, and gracious and am saying so here will probably be an embarrassment to him. For that, I apologize. His detractors should be so lucky as to taste the absolutely stunning braised beef and foie gras I ate at his restaurant – a dish so sumptuous that I am forced to use that word. A ham hock terrine of really extraordinary subtlety and flavor, a lobster ravioli with fresh green pea puree that revealed – as all food reveals its creator’s true nature – a level of perception and sensitivity that can be a liability in the mosh-pit subculture of professional kitchens. Here’s a guy who risked everything in his career, many times over. He walked away from a career in football when it was made clear he’d never play in the bigs. He endured a procession of stages in some very tough French kitchens. He bolted from his first restaurant, entangling himself in potentially enormous liabilities just when he was in sight of the mountaintop. He loudly announced he was going for three Michelin stars and then stayed on course until he got them. Rather than kiss the asses of all those people who might – under ordinary circumstances – be expected to be helpful to him, he has consistently kicked them in the teeth or even viciously sucker punched them. It’s very hard for me not to like a guy like that. And every day those stars are sitting on him like six-ton flagstones, defying any who might choose to try knocking them off.
England’s worst boss? I don’t think so. England’s worst boss is the boss who doesn’t give a fuck, someone who’s wasting his employees’ time, challenging them to do nothing more ambitious than show up. Understand that in no-name pit stops and casual dining establishments, it’s just a mistake when a cook forgets a single unpeeled fava bean or a tiny smudge of grease, but in a three-star restaurant, it’s treason. In the cruel mathematics of two- and three-star dining establishments, a customer who has a good meal will tell two or three people about it. A person who has an unsatisfactory meal will tell ten or twenty. It makes for a much more compelling anecdote. That one unpeeled fava bean is the end of the world. Or it could be.
As most really good cooks or commis working in similar circumstances will readily tell you: Mess with the chef at your peril. It’s his name on the door.
Excerpted from A COOK'S TOUR © Copyright 2001 by Anthony Bourdain. Reprinted with permission by Bloomsbury. All rights reserved.