He has the third-most Michelin stars of any chef in the world. He is infamous for his temper and notorious for his roving eye. But whatever you think of the enfant terrible chef, one thing is indisputable: He possesses a work ethic few can rival — and a wicked sense of humor.
“Come out for a run!” screams the blond, moppy-haired Gordon Ramsay outside my window at the Tuscan hotel Castel Monastero, a green sweep of olive groves unfurling like a 15th-century Italian-landscape painting behind him. “It’ll make you feel better!”
I’m barely awake after a long evening that involved far too many glasses of Chianti, and the last thing I want to do is throw on running shoes. Plus, I didn’t pack any. But for Ramsay, who manages a multimillion-dollar empire (Gordon Ramsay Holdings, Ltd.) together with his father-in-law, getting up at the crack of dawn for a 10-mile run through the vineyards is as vital to his being as cursing is to his reputation.
With a dizzying number of restaurant openings spanning from Australia to Japan, enough cookbooks to fill a walk-in closet and a full lineup of television shows, Ramsay demonstrates no signs of slowing down — and all in the face of a worldwide recession to boot.
Ramsay’s route to the helm of many of the world’s most notable kitchens was paved in part by fortune (choosing the right path) and in part because the man possesses more drive than a recalled Toyota. Scottish by birth and raised in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, from age 5, Ramsay suffered an injury that prematurely thwarted his hopes of a soccer career (he and his wife are close friends with David and Victoria Beckham). Ramsay fortuitously turned his attention to hospitality, entering a course in hotel management before going on to cut his culinary chops under the tutelage of luminaries Marco Pierre White and Albert Roux in London and Guy Savoy and Joël Robuchon in Paris — all infamous perfectionists in the kitchen.
As he enters the room to greet me, eyes sparkly topaz blue with a twinkle that whispers likable rogue and looming far taller (nearly 6-foot-2) than I expected, the 43-year-old Ramsay swiftly dispenses the Euro-style double kiss. It takes as long as him pecking my right cheek to realize this guy is not the terrifying Rain Man of expletives portrayed on his reality-television shows. Then again, I’m not wearing chef ’s whites.
IN THE PLATINUM KITCHENS of his youth, Ramsay learned more than how to dish out the finest French cuisine: He developed a style of mentoring that makes an army drill sergeant look like a newborn penguin. “He once grabbed me by my whites and threw me up against the wall,” recounts Mark Sargeant, the former head chef at London’s Claridge’s and onetime Ramsay right-hand man. “I think he might have broken — at least bruised — a few ribs. But I finished the service.”
With an obsessive passion for food and an unfiltered mouth, both of which make him a virtual Ramsay doppelganger, Sargeant is like many who’ve studied under the starry Michelin master: prepared to suffer. “That’s how you learn,” Sargeant insists, without a drop of resentment. “You’ve got to have passion. And you’ve got to withstand being put to the test.”
I affirm my commitment to never let Ramsay watch me so much as scramble an egg. And like me, there are plenty of chefs not cut out for Ramsay’s direct-deposit delivery. “There was an Irish chef at Aubergine in London,” Ramsay muses, soon after we sit down, “and the guy kept plating his vegetables and meat all wrong. I was like, ‘What the hell, man? Veg at 6 o’clock, meat at 2! What’s so [bleeping] hard about that?’ The guy looked up, popped out one of his eyes and said, ‘I’m trying, but I can’t see!’ And he was crying out his good one! [Bleeping] hilarious that was!”
One thing Ramsay is likely not laughing about is the current state of his company. With the 2010 loss of a Michelin star at Claridge’s in London and reported financial losses as Ramsay’s joint ventures penetrate new borders, not to mention a few lawsuits that claim unpaid bills and some fakery in his reality shows, the tough-as-stainless-steel chef may be sitting on a shakier perch than in the past. But if there’s one thing Ramsay likes, it’s a challenge.