When you actually meet chef Gordon Ramsay in person, it’s hard to reconcile the blustery and bullying persona of the small screen with the giant of a man before you in full frame and real life.
And you expect to be greeted in a foul-mouthed tirade as any of those contestants who cross him on his highly successful Hell’s Kitchen network series. A step wrong or an awkward question and you expect the 46-year-old multi-Michelin-starred chef to verbally unleash on you and turn you into a quivering blob of jelly.
Not so. Not on the surface at least. But beneath his muscular frame and wrinkled face capped with a stylishly ruffled coif of blond hair, there’s intensity, passion, drive — a determination to succeed in bringing you the best food you’ve ever experienced.
Ramsay can swear — and Ramsay can cook.
The setting is a modern and intimate dining room of his signature restaurant here in the St Regis Hotel Doha, probably the best five-star hotel in Qatar and one that’s making no bones about bringing the best to the gas-rich Gulf State. And Ramsay is the best.
“This is an amazing property and it’s a perfect fit,” Ramsay says as he’s about to prepare lunch. “You’re in for quite a treat. Not the sort of Sunday lunch you’d expect.”
And he’s right, based solely on the magical plates that appear in course after course.
Poached quail egg in a froth of mushroom, European lobster and pear salad with a brunoise of truffled celeriac, perfectly roasted spiced lamb with winter vegetables and finished off with a soft meringue of vanilla mascarpone, fresh berries and a blueberry sorbet.
Yep, he can cook as well as he talks.
He has two restaurants here at the St Regis. This namesake is for the type of cuisine that made his reputation on the lines and in the kitchens before fame came. He also operates Opal, a bistro-style restaurant where the menu is casual — burgers and pizzas, but not like you’ve ever had, each with that Ramsay touch, pure ingredients prepared just right.
He’s also a soccer fanatic — and he wasn’t half-bad either in his younger days. He has a couple of reserve team games with Glasgow Rangers a quarter of a century ago, wasn’t quite up to snuff. But he’s still passionate.
“One of the nice things about having two restaurants here at the St Regis is that I’ll be able to get a room during the World Cup” — if Scotland qualifies.
Sure, he’s had another restaurant here in Doha before, on the Pearl, Doha’s mad-made chain that imitates Dubai’s Palm Jumairah — just a different shape, of course. But that restaurant closed in August.
“With the alcohol laws in Qatar, it is hard to run a commercially viable operation,” Ramsay offers. Too many restrictions. For him, the lack of smoking regulations in Qatar are more of a concern that the strict controls over the sale of alcohol.
The Scot is no stranger to the the Gulf and he hints of a return to Dubai.
“Dubai is a fantastic city,” he says. “We are looking at two locations now and it’s only a matter of time.”
You get the impression it’s only a matter of months.
“We had nine fantastic years in Dubai and we introduced the concept of really high-end dining there,” he says, referring to a previous restaurant he operated at the Hilton.
“In many ways, we were ahead of our time,” he says.
When pressed, there’s that first glimpse of the passion and drive that’s always ready to bubble instantly to his surface — an explosion of intensity.
Is it anger? Hardly. More like a personality trait that he uses to deflect, a protection mechanism.
Yes, he will be returning regularly to Doha to look after the two restaurants, but the day-to-day operations are being carefully managed by one of his trusted underlings, Gilles Bosquet, who has a Michelin star too.
He’s a charmer too, working the dining room, commenting on a female diner’s eyes and how beautiful they are. She loves the attention. He doesn’t mind it either.
Has he gotten a fair shake from the British press? There were, after all, reports of infidelity and women at the wrong place and time.
A flash of anger this time. Sure, the media has it’s job to do and he owes his success to media and he’s become famous so there’s a price to pay. But it goes too far in intruding into private lives.
He has also been public in aiding those who need a hand up. Last year, he organised prisoners in a work programme to change their lives, cooking, running a commercial kitchen making treats that are available at coffee shops across the UK.
On Christmas Day, he spoke with one, keeping in touch, letting them know he was there for them if needed. One, on release, landed a job in one of Ramsay’s London kitchens. The pull of drugs was too strong, and a relapse followed. It’s all matter of fact — Ramsay the celebrity knows that pain of addiction too well. His brother has a troubled life, substance abuse and jail — and Ramsay knows the pain caused too well and too often for families.
But for caring, and trying to make a difference, you have to admire Ramsay. He does have a caring personality hidden somewhere under that carefully crafted and maintained gruff exterior. Push too much, ask an awkward question, make him uncomfortable, and the self-defence mechanism kicks in — the reality show Ramsay.
And if he wasn’t doing what he’s doing now — bringing food to customers, raising awareness of standards, helping struggling restauranteurs and hoteliers turn their businesses around, what would he be doing?
“Probably [be] on the line with our troops in Afghanistan,” he says.
Yes, you could imagine him in combat fatigues as readily as his chef’s whites, barking commands over a field radio as a Sergeant-Major. He has that quality of leadership — he commands respect, those under his command listen to him, dare not question or challenge. A natural leader of men, be it in a kitchen or in a trench. That is his intensity.
So what’s next for the Gordon Ramsay brand?
“God I hate that word, ‘brand’.”
But he is a brand. He is a one-man production crew turning out series after series, Hell’s Kitchen in Los Angeles, the next Master Chef, Kitchen Nightmares, Hotel Hell, some books.
That intensity creates energy, keeping him going, working, providing a very comfortable living for his wife and children.
But there have been failures along the way — having to start all over again, moving too quickly at the start of his career. Now, it’s a firm footing, one with which he’s content. When he looks in the mirror each morning, apart from the wrinkles, he’s happy with what he sees.
“It’s been quite a ride so far,” he says, adding a expletive quote that’s thrown in to shock — or at least gain a second to think of an answer.
And that’s part of his charm. It’s not all about his cooking — he sure does know how to rattle pots and pans — but he also knows how to rattle those with whom he comes in contact with. He is in complete control of his persona and his kitchen. No wonder those ingredients he comes in contact with subject so readily to his culinary genius.
You can forgive his sharp persona. It has helped him forge the Gordon Ramsay brand into the most potent in the culinary world.
He may not not have made it as a footballer. And there are platoons of British soldiers who can breathe a sigh of relief their tough-nosed Sergeant-Major isn’t as bad — or good — as Ramsay yelling at them over the parade square in some red-bricked Scottish barracks.
But he sure can cook. And he excuses himself — he’s off to do just that. A dinner for 150 at Opal, needs looking after. Those pots and pans need to be rattled. And there are ingredients that he needs to whip into shape.
THOUGHTS ON CHILDREN’S DIET
And the diet of children today? Do they eat too much junk food.
Sure, he says, there’s too much sugar in diets and too much prepared and frozen foods eaten in homes, parents are busy and children suffer.
He has four children of his own, his wife’s a teacher and they live very comfortably in south London.
“Travelling and being away from home is all part of our life,” he says. “They are used to it and work means being away.”
But fame has brought them comfort — and he and his wife are making sure that it doesn’t go to their heads.
“They get one big gift each at Christmas,” he offers. “We try and keep it all in proportion.”
But does his family life suffer from his being away all the time, travelling the world, maintaining restaurants in New York, Las Vegas, London and Doha — with others to come.
That flash of intensity again.
“Suffer?” he glares. “No. They have everything that they want.”
Those piercing blue eyes are saying that he wants to reach out, slice, dice into a fine julienne the questioner.
THE FOIS GRAS FRUSTRATION
Fois gras, that wonderful French delight, where young geese are force-fed corn so their livers expand, has been the target of protests from Peta, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
“We dealt with Peta three years ago when they voiced their concerns over the production of fois gras,” he answers, a hint of frustration in his voice, perhaps disdain — certainly dislike — for that group who do not appreciate the delicacy when properly prepared in the hands of those who create in the kitchens of Europe’s best restaurants and hotels.
“The fois gras we use is Hungarian,” he says, adding a rider that it’s humanely sourced.