Overcooking a Golden Goose

Our Mole says the celebrity chefs such as Gordon Ramsay are feeling the heat

The public perception of cookery has changed beyond recognition in the past 15 years. On TV, we don’t want Delia patiently teaching us how to boil an egg any more. We want some egomaniac telling us that vegetarians are vile bottom-feeders and if you can’t make an omelette in less than two minutes then you’re an (expletive deleted) disgrace. Throughout the first decade of this century, the cult of the celebrity chef made eating out cool: chefs were the rock stars and people came to see their sell-out culinary concerts.

The superchef’s brand was enough to draw crowds of dinner guests into their restaurants, the quality of the food of only secondary importance. Opening new restaurants was easy, with property a secure financial investment and the banks willing to hand out huge business loans. Indeed, Gordon Ramsay reportedly borrowed more than £1 million in cash and bank loans to open his flagship Royal Hospital Road restaurant in Chelsea in 1998, which is remarkable when you consider he had never owned a restaurant before. “Television made our profession really international and sexy,” said US chef Wolfgang Puck, who began as a breakfast television cook and now owns more than 90 restaurants worldwide.

However, a combination of reckless overexpansion and the economic crisis has seen the celebrity chef bubble burst. TV favourite Antony Worrall Thompson has closed four of his six restaurants and made more than 60 people redundant. John Burton Race’s restaurant had to be closed down while he was appearing on I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! and he declared himself bankrupt last year.

But it is the über-celeb chef who has suffered the most in his voracious attempt to cash in on haute cuisine’s vertiginous social status. Ramsay was the archetypal success story of the culinary boom years. The finest British chef of his generation, Ramsay cultivated an impressive stable of talented young cooks and with them ran some of the world’s best restaurants. The popularity of his restaurants and his lucrative television deals meant that he was able swiftly to expand the Ramsay brand. He opened 10 restaurants in 10 months in 2007 and 2008. But Ramsay has overcooked his golden goose; his restaurant empire has come close to collapse. The latest accounts for his business show net debt of nearly £10 million as well as an unpaid tax bill nearing £8 million. Over the past 18 months, Ramsay has closed four London restaurants and one each in Prague and Los Angeles, handed over control of his Michelin-starred ventures in Paris and New York to hotels and had to pump £5 million of his own cash into the company to avoid going into administration.

The Ramsay brand itself is a farce. He rarely cooks a service in any of his restaurants. A chef who was part of the brigade de cuisine at Ramsay’s restaurant at Claridge’s said the great man visited the restaurant about once a month and the only “shifts” he would work were those where he would hobnob with his celeb mates (the Beckhams, George Michael) at the chef’s table. At the time of writing, Ramsay was in the US filming yet another TV reality show. It is his father-in-law Chris Hutcheson — a businessman whose expertise is not in catering but printing — who runs Gordon Ramsay International Holdings day to day while the chef attends to his numerous media commitments. That is not to say there aren’t capable people running his restaurants: Ramsay has some of the most talented executive chefs in world cuisine. But for him to claim that he is a 10-Michelin-star chef, or even that he has control over his restaurants and their menus, is laughable.

In the space of just two years Ramsay has lost his three most gifted — and previously loyal — chefs, who had won him five Michelin stars. 

The acrimonious split between Ramsay and his former right-hand man Marcus Wareing was the result of a dispute over the restaurant Pétrus. Wareing refused to expand its “brand” and wanted more recognition for the restaurant in which he had — as executive chef — worked 16-hour days for a decade to cement Pétrus’s place as one of the world’s best dining experiences. It is Wareing who earned its two Michelin stars, not Ramsay. It was Wareing who prepared those menus. In an act of puerile petulance, Ramsay (who was best man at Wareing’s wedding) threatened to take legal action to prevent Wareing using the Pétrus brand name, despite the fact that the Berkeley Hotel, where the restaurant was situated, decided to continue with Wareing as its onsite chef. 

Now we have the bizarre spectacle of Marcus Wareing’s restaurant, renamed Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley, on the site of the old Pétrus, while a stone’s throw away is Ramsay’s newest London venture called (you guessed it) Pétrus. Wareing has — rightly — retained his two Michelin stars (and is tipped for a third next January) while Gordon’s new incarnation was roundly panned by the critics.

Another of Ramsay’s former disciples, Jason Atherton, probably had even greater creative control as executive chef of the innovative restaurant Maze. On the back of the restaurant’s popularity, Ramsay intended to create an international chain of Maze eateries. One suspects it was never Atherton’s intention to dilute the concept of Maze into a worldwide brand consisting of six restaurants on five continents. Last April he quit from the holding company.

Mark Sargeant fell out with Ramsay last year and resigned as executive chef of Ramsay’s one-star restaurant at Claridge’s — a star that was won by Sargeant; an inside source confirms that the menus “were all Sarge”. Last January, Claridge’s, under new kitchen stewardship, predictably lost its Michelin star.

Ramsay may be a fabulous talent scout and a great nurturer of young chefs but many of his lieutenants have long surpassed their master and his ruthless drive for worldwide domination risks alienating even more of his able pupils. Gordon the chef has been usurped by Ramsay the businessman and so young, talented chefs have moved elsewhere to serve their kitchen apprenticeships. 

The less prestigious restaurants in which Ramsay does have control over his menus are the ones that are overpriced and the food is distinctly average. These are the places where the infamous boil-in-the-bag coq-au-vin is served and the food is so standardised that most of it is prepared in a huge central kitchen in Clapham before being shipped off to each eatery. By the time they get to diners these dishes have a mark-up of around 500 per cent.

Despite ominous predictions, the restaurant industry has fared relatively well during the recession. However, customers increasingly want value for money and are more discerning about where they eat out. Uncertainty over the economy has meant the current average UK restaurant spend per head is just £16.02 and 39 per cent of diners are less likely to eat out now than they were six months ago. Customers don’t consider it value for money to be served expensive food when the chef who puts his name to the restaurant never cooks in it, and the food isn’t even prepared onsite. Marcus Wareing’s view is unequivocal: “In today’s world a chef is only going to be successful if he’s in the kitchen. People want more than a name.”

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