Ramsay's US adventure

In a long essay Bill Buford assesses Gordon Ramsay's foray into New York, one of the world's most discerning and fussy cities for dining out.

by The New Yorker
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Much of Buford's commentary is predictable, covering the by now well-known personality traits of the driven celebrity chef. He describes Ramsay's angry temperament in an interesting way, rather than revealing something new.

For instance: "But he does get angry, helplessly and uncontrollably angry - not an earthly anger but something darker - and has trouble knowing how to stop."

It is also interesting to discover that Ramsay works so hard on his TV programme, Hell's Kitchen, when there are plenty of his restaurants worldwide requiring his attention. The programme helps him to finance new ventures such as the Gordon Ramsay at the London, his first restaurant in the US.

Buford also has something to say about Ramsay's lined face: "You don't see lines like these on a man who has just turned 40. Ramsay doesn't smoke, and is a marathon runner. The lines betray something that exercise can't melt: Stress? Fear?" His face, Buford adds, is a "road map of punishment".

The article reveals what have become well known Ramsay attributes: almost superhuman energy and drive, a directness and willingness to deal with staff issues there and then, and the fact that for most of his employees, his presence helps to ignite some fire in their work and make them better at what they do.

All of this can be gathered from watching Ramsay on TV. What is perhaps most interesting is the less than glowing reaction for his restaurant in New York. Critics said he did not ‘wow' them. They had expected more 'fireworks'. This may be, Buford suggests, because Ramsay's approach looks for culinary harmonies not contrasts, when the current fad is for contrasts: "The gastro-pseudoscientific trend of the moment is built around improbable combinations and dissonant flavour statements." Ramsay, a man of "inner strife" finds "tranquillity on the plate".

One particularly bad food review from Frank Bruni of the New York Times, in which he seemed to be bored by the dining experience, left Ramsay's kitchen in a black mood and Ramsay himself feeling as if he had been "kicked in the nuts". Buford said: "He seemed subdued, vulnerable, confused."

One thing that many companies seem to get wrong when going into the US is underestimating the uniqueness of the market. They need to research the US, to fully understand the differences. This seems also to have been a mistake made by Ramsay and his staff in New York, many of whom come from England. Buford records a conversation between them that illustrates the point: "So tell me about Thanksgiving," Ramsay asked. "It's a big holiday, is it? The biggest of the year. 'Like Easter in Britain? Everyone takes four days off?' Maybe bigger. 'Bigger than Easter? And we opened the week before? Fucking clueless, aren't we?'"

Transplanting the Ramsay experience into US soil in itself is not enough. He also needed to know what would impress New Yorkers. To do this - barring hiring more locals - it might have been a good idea to have sent someone first to soak up the atmosphere.

The taming of the chef, Bill Buford, The New Yorker, 2 April 2007
Review by Morice Mendoza

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