It also makes for great television.
“I was under water for about 45 seconds,” recounts Ramsay, with a touch of shock in his voice. “I really thought that was it.” When he came to, Ramsay took off his shoes and finally bobbed to the top. “Can you imagine if Mario Batali had fallen in?” he laughs before riffing on Batali’s penchant for wearing sandals and shorts. “Those orange Crocs rising to the surface? We’ll miss you, Fanta Pants!”
Ramsay’s rivalry with Batali has gotten a lot of play in the press, so I ask how it all began. “I called up to get a reservation at one of his restaurants,” recounts Ramsay, “and the woman was like, ‘I’m so sorry, Mr. Ramsay, but … well …,’ I said, ‘Just tell me, for [bleep’s] sake. I can take it!’ ‘Well, it seems that Mr. Batali has banned you from his restaurants. Unless you call him directly.’ ” When I ask if the rivalry is serious, Ramsay quickly responds: “Oh, you know, it’s all in good fun. Mario Batali’s losing his Michelin star — oh, poor Fanta Pants!”
The irony, thick as roux, is that a few months later Ramsay lost a Michelin star at Claridge’s. Before this, it seemed all he could do was collect them, a portfolio that began at the ripe age of 31 when Ramsay did the nearly impossible: opened an eponymous restaurant in London’s Chelsea, which in just four years won its third Michelin star. That set the stage for Ramsay to scoop up the rest of the galaxy. But the nanosecond Ramsay lost his star this year, Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester snagged his third. In the upper echelons of the food world, losing a Michelin star can, for some, be devastating. It caused famed French chef Bernard Loiseau to take his own life. But unlike Loiseau, Ramsay is the sort to meet defeat with guns — and tongue — blazing.
PART OF WHAT MAKES RAMSAY so formidable is his total lack of tolerance for disingenuousness and mediocrity, plus a penchant for profanities that appears built straight into his DNA. All you have to do is search YouTube for the best of Gordon Ramsay from Hell’s Kitchen to get a distilled taste of what this man is verbally capable of: “This tastes like gnat’s [bleep]!; are you a dumb [bleeping] blonde?; stop being a stubborn little [bleep] and move your [bleep]!; if you just shut the [bleep] up for 30 seconds, you might learn something!”
In Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, which offers flailing restaurants a chance at a new lease on culinary life with a virtually all- inclusive Ramsay makeover, a pretentious co-owner is outed for using Canadian lobster while advertising it as Maine, and Ramsay’s diatribe makes you want to crawl straight into the crustacean’s shell. “Sometimes the people on the show really want to aggravate me,” Ramsay says. “They needle me, take me on. Take the knowledge, don’t take me on — I’m big and strong!” Basically, Ramsay is the guy you pray is on your side in a bar brawl.
“You can tell a tremendous amount about people from their refrigerators,” he says. “You open the door and say, right, there’s a chef, there’s a slob, and nine times out of 10 they’re just a lazy [bleep].” Ramsay’s inability to tolerate any kind of BS makes him a great critic but it also, many believe, requires that he be held to his own standards. And there is a sense in the foodie community that he is not acknowledging the facts: that he has long since hung up his apron to embrace the more lucrative forms of the culinary business, from launching a new line of cookware to an ever-expanding television presence to joint ventures that are as much (if not more) about marketing as cuisine.
My personal experience with Ramsay’s cooking was a perfect Hell’s Kitchen moment. First, I’ve still never really tried his cooking, since he wasn’t anywhere near the kitchen at Castel Monastero, where he was launching his joint venture. By mealtime, Ramsay was sectioned off in a separate dining room while the food was prepared by his protégé, head chef Alessandro Delfanti (all his joint ventures involve Ramsay and his people designing the menu and installing personally approved chefs). Despite Delfanti’s notable charm, what was served — a sour-apple risotto (which sounded interesting but fell a bit short on flavor) followed by seared Chianina beef that most diners felt the need to (gasp) season with salt — was the kind of food Ramsay would have been the first to spit out. Maybe he did.