In the three weeks I spent at the Fat Duck, I only saw Heston Blumenthal once, and it got me thinking about the whole celebrity chef phenomenon. I knew it was him because of the gleaming BMW M5 parked among the sorry-looking collection of clapped-out cars and rusty bicycles his chefs used to travel back and forth from their endless, sweat and strain shifts.
But any hopes of the culinary genius coming in to shake our hands and thank us for working for free in his restaurant were soon dashed. The closest he got to the prep room was talking on his mobile on the stairs as he took a quick break from filming in the lab.
His human resources manager had explained to me when I started that Heston wouldn’t actually be doing any kitchen work. He had a bad back. I wondered how many of his chefs suffered the same ailment, given the long hours and daily gruel, and I wondered whether he felt guilty knowing his old comrades were working in the cramped inferno, churning out meals in his absence, as he swanned round in five-star hotels on the rubber chicken circuit.
It reminded me of that scene in the Life of Brian when the hapless terrorists - led by John Cleese’s Reg (I’ll call him Heston) - plan a raid on Pilate’s palace...
VOICE-OVER: Heston, our glorious leader and founder of the FD, will be co-ordinating consultant, though he himself will not be taking part in any cheffing action, as he has a bad back.
BRIAN: Aren't you going to come with us?
HESTON: Solidarity, brother.
BRIAN: Oh, yes. Solidarity, Heston.
And it also got me thinking about celebrity chef absenteeism syndrome (CCAS) – a pandemic sweeping the restaurant scene, and probably best illustrated by Gordon Ramsay’s flagship restaurant dropping out of the list of the world's top 100 restaurants having been in 13th place the year before.
I have heard the arguments and listened to the musings, but it still sits uneasily with me. In my view, there is something fake and plastic about a celebrity chef who trades off his name, but is never behind the stove. I got a whiff of it when I did my week at Rick Stein’s Seafood Restaurant – but at least Stein had done his time, and was too old to absorb the stresses and strains of daily kitchen toil.
I know the arguments from the ‘so what?’ brigade and the poison peddled by celebrity chefs’ PRs. Their client has trained a skilled, loyal team who can execute his famed dishes in his absence so allowing him to ensconce himself on breakfast TV sofas, promoting his image, and ensuring a steady stream of bums on seats. And besides that, the money’s good – much better than running a restaurant anyway.
I have heard the incredulity from chest-puffing, pompous food critics (are there any other kinds?) levelled at anyone who has the temerity to question why the great chef is not actually cooking their meal himself. You wouldn’t expect Colonel Sanders to fry your chicken, or Ronald McDonald to flip your burger, would you? And Gordon Ramsay, Rick Stein, Jamie Oliver, Heston Blumenthal et al are just brand names after all...
But I have never quite understood this argument. Sure, Leonardo da Vinci might have had an army of skilled painters doing his canvases, but he still turned up to add the last few brush-strokes, or at least sign his name.
I believe that in any art form or creative process, there are a handful of supernaturally-talented people who possess a level of skill that can’t be taught, and a talent that we mortals will never attain. It is a gift that allowed chefs like Ramsay and Blumenthal to rise above the rank and file, and make their names in food history. It is this talent and creativity that propelled their restaurants to fame, and although it is possible to train up brilliant chefs to cover in their absence, it does not mimic their talent entirely.
Motivation alone is a strong factor, especially given the ludicrously long hours and crap pay. In short, a ghost writer does not put the same level of soul and love into a piece as a writer publishing under his own byline. And it is the same for Ramsay’s chefs. Why do you think his former protégé Marcus Wareing, whose Berkeley Hotel restaurant won a ‘breakthrough’ award and was placed 52nd in the top 100 list, was so keen to leave the fold and emerge blinking in the spotlight from his master’s shadow?
“I’m now knocking on the door and it’s a great privilege,” he said after ousting his old boss. “I hope it’s because people are now seeing me as an individual chef. The restaurant is starting to feel like one with a patron in the kitchen. It has got a sense of place and I believe every great restaurant has to have a heartbeat and a soul.”
And what about creativity? Faithfully churning out the same dishes year after year is surely a killer for any restaurant. Where do the new dishes come from?
Talking of which, Blumenthal’s Fat Duck once again managed to hold on to the number two slot despite being shut for weeks over a suspected norovirus outbreak (at the awards dinner, compere Mark Durden-Smith suggested a way for Blumenthal to topple El Bulli from the top spot, joking: “Perhaps taking some of his mysterious bugs to Spain is the only way to knock the No 1 off its perch.”)
But despite rarely cooking in his cramped kitchen, I think Blumenthal’s continued success rests largely on the fact he has not overstretched himself. He has a team who have been with him for years, and only has the Fat Duck and the Hind’s Head gastropub next door to worry about – although I have heard he is planning to open his first London restaurant, possibly at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park. Silly boy. Doesn’t he read the papers?
The same goes for Rick Stein – who I only saw once during my week at his Seafood Restaurant – and then he only popped in to taste a few trial dishes (he didn’t like his executive chef’s Marco-esque pig’s trotters stuffed with lemon sole mousse. But who could blame him? It was far too cheffy, and hardly in keeping with Stein’s brand of home-spun simplicity.)
But again, the famous seafood cook might have his Padstein empire - which has just been added to with a pub in St Merryn (Stein Merryn perhaps in a couple of years?) - but it’s all contained in a small area of Cornwall and therefore far more easily run.
Yet it’s the complete opposite with Ramsay. He has been so busy trying to conquer the world, cloning himself in Hollywood, Dubai and Paris, among other places, that like Alexander the Great, he has failed to see his empire crumbling behind him.
And that is why his flagship Chelsea restaurant no longer makes even the top 100 - and why he has dropped out of the top 2,000 in this weekend’s Sunday Times Rich List after last year being valued at £50m in 1,446 position.
It is, say his many rivals and enemies, because the great chef is no longer behind the stove. Wareing was quick to put the knife in, suggesting that Ramsay's focus on forging an international television career and business empire had cost him his place in the 2009 San Pellegrino world restaurant rankings.
“In today's world a chef is only going to be successful if he's in the kitchen. People want more than a name,” he said.
But he stressed it was bums on seats that mattered, and Ramsay’s restaurants were still well supported. His former mentor, he confidently predicted, would be back. “I can guarantee that – I know that more than anyone,” he said. Was that the glint of a fearful look in his eye?
Indeed initial reports of explosions and seismic tremors in London this week were put down to Ramsay being spotted in his chef's whites visiting staff at Claridge's (which has reportedly suffered from a mouse and cockroach problem – since rectified) and his restaurant in Royal Hospital Road. Was he giving staff his own nose-clamped, glugging dose of Kitchen Nightmares medicine?
Given his expulsion from the Rich List, and how his company was last month forced to renegotiate a multi-million-pound loan after breaching banking covenants, he could perhaps start with the costs.
Clare Smyth, head chef at his flagship restaurant, caused consternation this week when she appeared on Great British Menu (hang on, another chef away from the stove?) She was given the task of frying monkfish at her fellow contestant Danny Millar’s gastropub in Northern Ireland, but soon got into trouble when she had to scrape the fish off the bottom of the pan.
“It’s not what I’m used to,” she bleated afterwards. “I’ve got brand spanking new non-stick frying pans...which we throw away each week.”
Chucking away pans after only a week? Not sure they were the only things being thrown around this week. Oh to have been a (now rectified) cockroach on the wall...
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