“If I’d tried to open this restaurant 15 years ago, I’d have been shot, hung upside-down and had my bollocks put in that thing over there, the pressoir d’testicle.”
Finally, I thought. So measured – serene even – was the Gordon Ramsay sitting opposite me, I’d started to wonder if his famously filthy lyricism had disappeared altogether. Ramsay was gesturing towards the rare Christofle lobster press after which his Bordeaux restaurant, Le Pressoir d’Argent, is named. He’s sitting at a table by the window, trams clanging past outside, telling me how he’s “putting Bordeaux back on the fine dining map.”
When you’re the third richest chef in the world – after Alan Wong and Jamie Oliver – with over 30 restaurants and seven Michelin stars, it’s a stretch to say a single venture represents a comeback, but Le Pressoir does seem to signal a new chapter for Ramsay.
A rotten few years have seen him fire-fight financial woes and high-profile legal battles, his response being to retrench, cutting back on TV appearances and distancing himself from the fiery persona that made him a household name on both sides of the Atlantic.
He says Le Pressoir, at InterContinental’s Le Grand Hôtel, is something special. It’s the first top-tier restaurant the Ramsay empire has opened since a string of his high-end places were forced to close in the early 2010s, including his eponymous venues in New York and Tokyo (the same period has seen the opening of a commensurable number of his “diffusion-line” restaurants including new Bread Street Kitchens in Hong Kong, Singapore and Dubai).
The reason his latest project, which recently celebrated its first anniversary, would once have landed him in the pressoir d’testicle is for the sheer front of a Scotsman daring to open a restaurant in the home of haute cuisine. “Dining in Bordeaux is religious,” he says. “It’s part of their heritage.”
But times change: “French cuisine sat on its laurels and we overtook them. Not in an arrogant way but in a hard-grafting, deserving way. British cuisine wasn’t even in the top ten in the 90s but now the French are off their pedestal a bit, more open to ideas, happy to sit on the seesaw and not be king of the hill anymore.”
Ramsay’s mark on the Bordeaux dining scene was swift and decisive, with his restaurant picking up a Michelin star just six weeks after opening. Along with its sister restaurant Brasserie Le Bordeaux, which opened in the same hotel this summer, Le Pressoir represents the latest episode in Ramsay’s decades-long relationship with the French.
He says he “fell in love” with the country, “in a romantic way,” when he moved there upon finishing his training with Marco Pierre White and Michel Roux Snr. “I disappeared and became French,” he says. “People used to ask which region I came from, I was that fluent.”
Such a committed Francophile must have been gutted about Brexit? Not so, he says. “Brexit is going to give every country the freedom to become a little powerhouse, individually. It will make countries reinvest locally. It may seem tempestuous to begin with, the jeopardy of not being part of the European safety-net. But it will be an advantage; that’s as a chef, as a businessman and as a customer.”
He says his goal now is to win three Michelin stars in France, adding that he “almost got there” with his au Trianon restaurant in Paris, which earned two stars, only to subsequently lose one, “due to all kinds of confusions.” Such as? “When we started, everyone was working 80 hours a week, now it’s all unionised with people working 35 hours. I do that in two days.”
When you have a restaurant empire as vast and successful as Ramsay’s, do Michelin stars still really matter? “Very much,” he says without missing a beat. “Chefs are delicate, insecure little fuckers who need a certain amount of glitter from time to time to prove we’re on top of our plates.”
He’s less enthusiastic about other awards, though: “There are guides out today where the editors are attending parties and are on first-name terms with chefs. They’re having debates on social media. In the AA guide the editors and chefs are having exchanges, and it’s like: ‘seriously?’ Michelin is the one we’ve always respected.”
It’s 23 years since Ramsay opened his first restaurant, Aubergine in Chelsea. He earned his first two Michelin stars within three years of opening and became the first Scot to win (and maintain to the present day) three stars with Royal Hospital Road’s Restaurant Gordon Ramsay.
But Michelin giveth and Michelin taketh away – his New York restaurant lost both of its stars in 2013, with the food being described as “very erratic”, while his Claridges restaurant lost a star in 2010 (both have since closed). How would he cope if Royal Hospital Road lost its three-star rating? “I’m a determined guy, I’d get back in there with the team and make sure we won it back.”
He’s less diplomatic when it comes to newspaper critics, with whom he has always had an ambivalent relationship (he famously ejected AA Gill from Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, with Joan Collins in tow, in 1998). “There’s a percentage of critics who got their noses put out of joint in recent years because they go into a new restaurant and the place is full. They like to have the power, so they can think: it’s off the back of my article that this little fucker is successful. But it’s not – it’s what goes on the plates.”
And don’t get him started on the armchair critics who post reviews on sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor… “Most of them don’t have anywhere near the sort of refined palate to judge you. We’ve had Yelp reviews from customers who haven’t even been to the restaurant – they’d read a shit review and decided to write one themselves. How much time do these people have on their hands?”
This sounds more like the Gordon Ramsay of old: pugnacious, self-assured, fostering a backs-against-the-wall, us-against-them mentality. This approach, picked up from his own mentors Guy Savoy and Marco Pierre White, has inspired both fierce loyalty and spectacular blow-ups. A generation of chefs have come through the ranks in his kitchens – Jason Atherton, Angela Hartnett, Marcus Wareing – and while some would defend him to the hilt, others harbour a lifetime’s resentment.
What’s it like seeing these protégés become some of the biggest names in the business? “When you find a chef who’s on the journey from two to three stars there’s nothing more magical. But the journey starts 10 years prior to that. It’s like medicine, there’s no fast-track, no book you can read that will make it happen overnight.
“The ones that get successful early are the ones with the natural ability, the instinct and the discipline to know where to draw the line, to know when not to add a puree or a golden caviar – to know when ‘that’s it’. But if you’re not careful, that level of perfectionism can be your undoing, because everything around you needs to function. Eventually you need to let go.”
This is something he’s learned gradually, he says, along with developing a thicker skin. “Ten years ago I was daintier and more delicate. I’m a lot more relaxed now. Chefs need a kick in the bollocks every now and again to stop them becoming complacent.”
Does that mean he’s tamed his famous temper? That’s always been over-played, he says, something that happened on TV rather than in his restaurants. “I don’t have that shit-fight in my day-to-day life because I wouldn’t employ those muppets.”
He tells me there are three sides to him: public, professional and personal: “There’s the TV side, where someone has asked me into their business and I’m under pressure. There’s the serious chef side, where I have my jacket on and I’m in the zone. And I’m a dad of four who tries to instil passion in his kids.”
His food has changed over the years, too, mellowing along with his personality. “It’s got simpler and more confident. A little bit more honest. It’s quite naked – I hate the intrusion of leaves or flowers.” He insists his chefs must be able to identify every ingredient on a plate. “That’s. So. Important,” he says, banging the table with each word. “After the 7th or 8th ingredient, alarm-bells start to ring.”
But he’s still blown away by chefs doing things in new ways, finding innovative uses for ingredients. He praises the Scandinavian influence that’s become ubiquitous over the last five years, as well as the innovations going on in North America.
“I’m like a little magpie, going around looking for glitter. It’s lazy to copy but I’ll put things into the wheelhouse, dissect them and come up with something better.” He points to Saison in San Francisco, a three Michelin star restaurant that cooks on an open-fire grill. “I tell my chefs: stop worrying about the tailor-made stove from Molteni and the fine china and thick linen. Go and see this place with no airs and graces, where the chefs cook over a wood-burning pit.”
He also raves about José Andrés’ Bazaar Meat at the SLS in Las Vegas, where he was served black pudding with sea urchins and Iberico ham topped with caviar and gold-leaf. “We’d get fucked if we served that,” he sighs. “But it was amazing.”
Ramsay’s publicist frantically taps her watch to signal he’s late for our photoshoot. One last question: what does this reformed, mellower, Gordon Ramsay really regret? What’s his biggest professional mistake? For the first time, he’s a little lost for words.
“Erm… Letting cameras into my kitchen? No, just kidding. My temper… Actually that’s not true, I stand by it. And if I didn’t I’d never tell anyone.” So there you have it, Gordon Ramsay: je ne regrette rien.
First published in City A.M.