Monday, February 15, 2010

Old Cheffing Wounds Never Heal

My favourite anecdote about Gordon Ramsay (no, not the one about him being cautioned for gross indecency in a Tube station toilet) was when he was working at Michel Roux Snr’s The Waterside Inn in Bray.

Ramsay was on soufflé duty. And Roux told him to keep the oven door shut, and never to take a peak. But nerves got the better of him, and with a quick scan of the kitchen, he looked in. His soufflés were happily rising and golden. Then an hour later he was strolling past the pass thinking he’d got away with it, when he was kicked by a furious Roux.

“It was so well-timed and accurate, the toe of his shoe actually went up my arse,” remembers Ramsay, still wincing at the memory.

Now the venerated three-Michelin-starred French chef has given him another arse-kicking 20 years on, saying Ramsay’s “not better than anyone else” and people were “mad” to rate him.

“When you've got 5,000 or 10,000 people paying to see him do a demo, I'm thinking the world is mad,” he said. “I find [his behaviour] appalling; totally unacceptable. He never behaved like that when he was with us. He was about 22 or 24 and a docile young man.

“I think it's the media world that made him like that, to use the F-word every minute. Now he is enjoying it, it's bad news.”

And to twist the knife further, the 69-year-old heaped praise on Ramsay’s bitter rival Marco Pierre White.

He added: “Marco was one of ours as well...he is a very good cook, one of the best I've seen. He's got palate, flair — another scale to Ramsay.”

Friends of Ramsay, 43, immediately dismissed the comments as “sour grapes”.

But there are clearly a lot of tart gripes out there. It may have been going on for some time - his fall from grace perhaps finally confirmed by the ‘lesbian pig’ bust-up Down Under (or was it a badly-managed PR stunt as rumoured in the more cynical corners of the Australian media?) – but there appears to be no shortage of people ready to give Ramsay a good drubbing, however long the queue.

The latest is Shaun Hill, who recently won a Michelin star at The Walnut Tree, a Welsh restaurant that was once a favourite among food writers, but went through a distinctly shabby phase, and eventually went bust in 2007 after being featured on Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares.

In a recent interview, he slammed Ramsay for thinking he “could come in for five minutes” and turn the place around, and attacked his new TV series - which features Ramsay getting away from it all by stomping around India with only a film crew for company - as mainly consisting of footage of “him taking his top off”.

Hill moaned about the way the then owner Francesco Mattoli was made to look on the show. He claims Mattoli came across as a “crook and an idiot”, and had no idea the programme was going to be called Kitchen Nightmares. For some reason, Mattoli was expecting some kind of “Alan Titchmarsh, Ground Force-style ” show. (You can’t really see Ramsay presenting a gardening programme can you? Hopping up and down with his hand round his chin shouting at the flowers, and calling the radishes “lazy fuckers”.)

He might be doing his best to laugh it off. But attacks like these from well-respected chefs couldn’t come at a worse time for Ramsay, whose fortunes are sinking faster than an over-egged soufflé, culminating in him losing a Michelin star at Claridges. Insiders say the bosses are furious, and have demanded Ramsay spend as much “face time” in the kitchen as possible to regain the Precious.

But Ramsay’s clearly not going to go mental. He’s done his time – 20 years at the stove and all that. "With Gordon's other restaurant commitments and TV work,” his spokesman sniffed, “it's impossible for him to be there every night."

Every night?

In fact, perhaps it’s time for Ramsay to forget about the 2011 Michelin guide to Great Britain and Ireland and Cape Town and Melbourne and West Hollywood et al and just concentrate on cashing in on his name while he still has one. Rather than arrogantly pointing out how busy he is all the time, and how many restaurants he’s got, and how Posh likes her sprouts, every time someone asks tiresome questions about why he’s not behind the stove of an expensive restaurant with his name above the door, he should take a leaf out of Pierre White’s book.

There’s a lot to ridicule the stock cube-botherer for, not least his ludicrous fondness for speaking like Yoda. Wearing a tea towel round his head like some strange, demented Rambo. But at least he’s upfront about it.

In an interview with a local paper for the launch of his new restaurant, The Swan in Aughton, Lancashire, he said: “I’ll never cook there, I don’t cook anymore – I’ve retired.

“I’ll be going up around six times a year for a couple of days at a time.”

Defending his decision not to be more hands-on, he waved one hand and added: “Forget let us not, I’m not charging £150 to £200 per head just because my name’s above the door.

“My ambition is to take good eating to the nation at affordable prices. I wouldn’t go up north and start charging £150 per head and not be there – that’s the flaw in that model.

“When you’re paying that amount of money, you would expect the man to be behind the stove.”

He possibly be referring to who could, hmm?

But to be fair to Ramsay, this whole celebrity chef phenomenon has become a complete farce. They’re all on the jus train. Using mind-bending Jedi logic, Pierre White argues that by not charging three Michelin star prices, he’s not cashing in on his stars and legendary cooking skills, and it’s just a humble £30 a head gastro pub, sorry ‘restaurant that serves pints’, selling British classics like shepherd’s pie and fish and chips.

And yet the very first line on The Swan’s classy-looking website says: “As the first British Chef to be awarded 3 Michelin Stars and the youngest Chef in the world to receive them, Marco Pierre White is a name synonymous with quality and a great dining experience.”

I know what you’re thinking. There’s nothing worse than false modesty.

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