Stay cool in the kitchen

Macho head chefs have passed their sell-by date, says Dominic Midgley.

by
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Just look at the River Cafe.

It's 1.15pm in the kitchen of London's Michelin-starred River Cafe and the lunchtime service is in full swing. Anyone accustomed to the managerial style of the UK's most celebrated chef, Gordon Ramsay, would assume that the air would be thick with raised voices, foul oaths and flying cutlery, but at the River Cafe they do things differently.

'Another spoon please, darling,' co-proprietor Rose Gray says softly to a sous-chef. 'Thanks, Rose,' says a waitress as she picks up an order.

The floor manager may be called Dante, but this kitchen is no Inferno.

During the half-hour that MT observed the kitchen at work, the steeliest remark to be heard from Gray was: 'Can you get me some sliced parmesan please ... right now.' The fact that there are a hundred hungry diners to feed is clearly no excuse for letting manners go. Squid is scored, sea bass is flaked, sardines are fried in Prosecco, all in an atmosphere that is more library than barrack-room.

So if it is possible to apply a modern and enlightened approach to the management of one of Britain's busiest and most critically acclaimed restaurants, why do the likes of Ramsay persist with their antediluvian approach? One theory is that Ramsay's on-screen persona bears little relation to the character who runs his restaurants. This is certainly Gray's view. 'Gordon Ramsay on TV is not Gordon Ramsay in his own kitchen,' she says.

But that is not the experience of James Steen, who is ghosting Marco Pierre White's autobiography, under whom Ramsay served his apprenticeship.

Steen has had a number of encounters with Ramsay over the years. 'During one phone conversation,' he recalls, 'I heard the creak of a door and Ramsay said to someone who had just come in: "Excuse me, I'm on the fucking telephone. Every time, it's always fucking you. Why is that? And even when I'm not on the telephone, what about the fucking customers and the kitchen?"'

Steen sees in Ramsay the same passion and obsession that turned White into a chef who won three Michelin stars. 'You can't fake that level of intensity,' he says. 'The swearing and the volatility are just symptoms.' Indeed, if you put the words Gordon Ramsay and 'f***ing' into Google, you get 432 results. If you spell it out without the asterisks, you get 565.

Catering is a notoriously tough business with high stress levels. When bullying is stirred into the mix, disaster can be the result, even for those who consider themselves psychologically robust. One of the results of a military style of management in the kitchen is that catering is an industry riven by poor health and high levels of drug abuse and alcoholism.

In a world where a more emotionally intelligent approach might be expected, Ramsay's confrontational style has even affected the flow of candidates into the business, according to Tony Allen, the man who started the fish!

chain in the late '90s and still runs the hugely profitable fish! in London's Borough Market.

'Ramsay is an archetypal bully,' he says. 'In the kitchen, he's an ogre striving for perfection. At one time I employed 500 chefs and Ramsay's style put people off coming into the industry. He did a programme called Boiling Point in the late '90s in which you saw this 6ft 2in, fit, thirty-something chef verbally knocking people about in the kitchen. If I was 15 and thinking about becoming a chef, I'd have thought, fuck that, I want to be a carpenter or a builder.'

But Gray reckons that any negative effect Ramsay may have had has been eclipsed by a more user-friendly role model - her former pupil Jamie Oliver, who was discovered by a producer working on the River Cafe TV series when Oliver worked there in the '90s.

'I think Jamie has had more influence than Gordon Ramsay,' says Gray.

'He has done a huge amount to make being a chef attractive. We've had hundreds of letters from people who want to be the next Jamie Oliver.

The River Cafe is a place where chefs from all over the world want to come. We get letters from Iceland, Holland, Brazil, Argentina ...'

And it's not hard to see why. The restaurant Gray opened with her friend Ruth Rogers 18 years ago looks a pleasant place to work. Unlike many other establishments that operate a split-shift system whereby chefs work on both lunch and dinner, at the River Cafe they work only one double shift a week. The rest of the time they come in either at 8.45am and leave at 5.45pm, or work 3pm to 11pm.

And the civility on show when MT visited is clearly not a one-off. 'There's no effing and blinding,' says Alice Denyer, 21, a trainee chef in her fourth week, who joined the River Cafe after a three-month catering course.

Indeed, she appears faintly surprised at the gentility of her new working environment. 'No-one shouts at each other,' she says. 'On the whole, it's quite quiet There are moments when everyone is focused on their jobs, but there's no need to be horrible. Rose and Ruth set the example. They don't shout and swear, so the lead chefs do the same. It's quite a small kitchen so we have to be organised about things. Since I've been here, nothing's gone seriously wrong.'

Life's too short to stuff a mushroom, as Shirley Conran once memorably remarked. But at the River Cafe, life isn't too short to trim a girolle, and that is what Denyer is doing as the culinary action goes on around her.

'If someone hasn't finished a job on time, someone else helps them,' she says. 'There's no hierarchical attitude between the chefs and the waiters. Often, chefs look down on waiters, but here there's no hassle between the two groups. There's very much a team atmosphere. Waiters do prep. Everyone helps each other.' Perhaps as a result of this, half the chefs are women.

But the River Cafe is not typical of modern restaurants. Last December, the Observer reported that of the 110 Michelin-starred restaurants in the UK, only two had female head chefs. The other is the Connaught, part of Ramsay's empire and headed by Angela Hartnett - an interesting appointment given that only a few years ago Ramsay famously said that he avoided hiring women because the menstrual cycle meant they would work only 'three weeks out of every month'.

If Ramsay has overcome that prejudice, there are few signs that much else has changed since Phil Hodgson of Ashridge business school observed an award-winning restaurant kitchen at first hand.

'I remember 25 years ago as part of some research, I sat in the kitchen of a famous French restaurant in Glasgow,' he says, 'and it was a battlefield.

There were 50 sous-chefs in there, many of them actually Glaswegian, speaking kitchen French. It was one of the most terrifying things I've ever done.

The place was an inferno, there were flames whizzing about all over the place as they flambe'd things or whatever, and I thought I was in hell.'

Every single one of the chefs, he adds, was a man. He attributes the persistence of a macho culture to chefs passing on learned behaviour, noting that cooks don't have a reputation for seeking input from external sources such as books on leadership.

'I think what happens is this,' he argues. 'Leadership is transmitted through role models. You grow up with a leader and you either vow to be like that leader or not like that leader. If you are impressed by the outcome of what the people who impress you as leaders do in your early years, you tend to think that must be the way to do it. When you go on to become a chef in your own kitchen or a more senior chef in someone else's, you take with you the leadership style you saw working.'

And it is true that almost every reputable chef has a favourite anecdote about how they were bullied unmercifully as a trainee, and these are trotted out not with shame and revulsion but with pride.

Ramsay recalls the scalding plate of lobster ravioli tipped over his head by the 'great' Joel Robuchon. And in Kitchen Confidential, his memoirs of his early life as a chef in New York, Anthony Bourdain writes something of an elegy to Chef Bernard, a Frenchman 'who ruled his kitchen like President for Life Idi Amin'. As a student, Bourdain dreaded the prospect of working on the souffle station as it was inevitable that one day a souffle would fail to rise and the consequence of this would be a 10-minute barrage of invective from the boss.

According to Bourdain, it went like this: 'You are a shit chef. I make two cook like you in the toilette each morning! You are deezgusting! A shoemaker! You have destroyed my life! ... You will never be a chef! You are a disgrace! Look, look at this merde ... merde ... merde!' He would then stick his fingers into the offending item and throw bits of it on to the floor. The experience was so traumatic, according to Bourdain, that one trainee - a Vietnam vet - went AWOL to avoid his day of judgment.

Defenders of the aggressive approach argue that running a restaurant kitchen is similar to commanding a team of soldiers under fire at the front line: unquestioning obedience to barked orders is the only way to achieve results.

This is certainly Ramsay's view. He once said: 'Any chefs who say running a kitchen should be done in a gentle manner are homosexuals who run hairdressing salons or they stack shelves at Sainsbury's. I just want to cook and speak my mind.'

That is to reckon without the success of the River Cafe, however. Its combination of great food and an attractive Thames-side location means that Gray and Rogers can afford to charge prices that are firmly located on the upper slopes of steep. It was no surprise to hear that over two sunny weeks in June, its takings were £115,000 and £112,000 respectively.

HOW MARCO MELLOWED INTO AN ENTREPRENEUR

Gordon Ramsay may be the most high-profile restaurateur in the business, thanks to television series such as Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares and Hell's Kitchen, but the true father of the revolution in British cooking is Marco Pierre White, who once boasted that he ran 'the SAS of kitchens'.

The first British chef to earn three Michelin stars since the award was founded in 1911, White has fostered many chefs in his kitchens who have gone on to earn Michelin stars on their own account. These include, of course, Gordon Ramsay himself, who is a pussy cat compared with MPW in full flow during his prime.

White ran the hardest of hard kitchens. He scrapped not only with staff, but also with customers, ejecting several of them from his establishments if he did not approve of their behaviour.

Says one former employee: 'His trial by fire makes some people brilliant, but breaks others. You can break people who might otherwise have made it. But Marco was that 1980s vision of a Thatcherite, in a sense: he is brash, aggressive, strong and sometimes ugly.'

White also refused to employ women in the kitchen. His reasoning: 'Look, it has nothing to do with not wanting them there, it's just that my staff work six-and-a-half days a week and don't have girlfriends, and if there is a girl in the kitchen, it distracts them.'

White gave up cooking five years ago, and handed back the three Michelin stars he had been awarded at Mirabelle. He later said: 'As my business was expanding, I was spending less time in the kitchen. I felt I had three options: I could lie and pretend that I was in the kitchen; I could stay in the kitchen, work six days a week, have no life and not see my wife or children; or I could give Michelin their stars back.'

Today he describes himself as 'an entrepreneurial businessman' and his change of role has meant a change of management style. 'As a businessman, you have time to sit and think before you make your decisions or your statements,' he explains. 'But in a kitchen, everything's got to be done now.

'You say: I want four main courses on my path for table four in 30 seconds.

You can't say: when you've got time, please send me the fish for table four. When you've got time, please reel that piece of meat off. It's not about that. Everything's got to be synchronised.'

But asked about Ramsay's particularly aggressive approach, the former bad boy of the London restaurant scene says: 'I think it's quite uncouth.' Yet White refuses to say what Ramsay should do differently. 'It's not for me to tell him how to run his business,' he says. 'But, you know, his methods work and you can't knock him for it. Whether you approve is irrelevant.'

Apart from managing a restaurant group that includes Mirabelle, Drones, the Belvedere and Quo Vadis, White has entered into a partnership with jockey Frankie Dettori. They have already opened one 'Frankie's' eatery in Knightsbridge, and plan two more by the end of the year.

TIPS FROM THE KITCHEN

Shouting at individuals who don't perform tasks correctly is not good management. Fear may be a useful short-term motivator, but its effects diminish quickly over time. Instead, build relationships so you have motivational money in the bank to spend in times of crisis.

Good production planning and co-ordination help to minimise glitches both in the kitchen and in the car plant. Use right-first-time/just-in-time methods to keep the cogs turning smoothly in your organisation.

Smooth and efficient teamwork is the key to a success - both culinary and commercial. Make sure everyone knows what is expected of them and how they can deliver it. Don't micro-manage - give your people the space they need to do their jobs.

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