Living the nightmare

27 May 2004 by
Living the nightmare

It's a spring bank holiday morning. I'm waiting in a queue at the local garage to pay for a newspaper and some Nurofen. While I'm doing so I'm reading a favourable preview of the next night's edition of Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares. Without warning, the guy behind me in the queue peers over my shoulder and jabs a finger at the page. "Did you see that the other night?" he splutters. "Bloody brilliant, best thing I've seen on the box for ages. That bit when…"

He's interrupted by the man in front of me, who has been moved to turn round and offer his own contribution. "Get off, it's all a f great con. My wife knows the cousin of the half-sister of the guy who used to deliver the f milk there [or something like that] and he told her it was all staged and they were f cheated into it. A f disgrace if you ask me. I'm telling you, anyone involved in that f programme should be f ashamed of themselves. And as for the f language, well… there's no f need for it."

I look at him and consider the wisdom of putting him straight. Something along the lines of: "As it happens, I was involved with that f programme, I'm not f ashamed of it, and I can vouch for the fact that the likes of Bonaparte's had enough f problems without having to go to the trouble of f inventing any." But then he doesn't know who I am, does he? And because he doesn't look like a man who's likely to change his views, and since I have a hangover, I need coffee and I have to get back because in just over half-an-hour I'm due to talk to Gordon Ramsay for this article, I keep my mouth shut.

But it's an incident that seems to neatly encapsulate the contrasting reactions the series has provoked. My task on the production, as well as helping to select the venues, was to look at what was going wrong at these restaurants and put some foundations for the programme in place by suggesting how they might move forward. To use a simple metaphor that would be much more effective if I had been working on Top Gear, I had to make sure the car was pointing in the right direction at the start of the journey and leave a roughly sketched map on the front seat. It was then Ramsay's job to drive it from A to B in just a week.

So, you see, I know a bit about the inside story of this programme, and I'm not telling. Well, all right then, but you may be disappointed. The truth is… yes, there was a real commitment to making these places work, yes, the problems shown on the programmes were real and not exaggerated, and while it's inevitable that the series focuses on the more extraordinary characters and incidents, having looked at the places involved, I'm not at all surprised that any of them occurred. Don't believe me? I can't help that. Still want to know more? Then there's really only one person to ask…

Gordon Ramsay…

On making the programme "I had no option but go into each establishment at a thousand miles an hour," says Ramsay. "I went in and grafted; they didn't get me for one hour a day, it wasn't ‘right, get changed now, we're going to film'. It wasn't that kind of makeover series."

Ramsay says making a genuine effort to turn these restaurants around "was always the objective" of the series, but admits that in some instances, the sheer scale of the task was a shock. "You felt you were on a one-man crusade to turn things around rapidly because what was unfolding was becoming a worst-case scenario."

On knowing your market "The biggest shock was just how far removed the chefs were from their customers - and surely it's even more important for chefs to be close to their customers in the countryside than it is in the city. What is it, maybe 44,000 people eating out every night in London? That's an obvious advantage. In the countryside I just expected the chefs to be more tuned into what was happening locally, because that's their bread and butter, Monday to Thursday."

On having to close Amaryllis halfway through filming "The closure of Amaryllis gave me a fundamental insight into what worked and what didn't. Before that everything I touched had worked, but Amaryllis became too destinational, too special-occasion and too intimidating. We were cooking beyond our station, and so if I got the chance to rectify that, I'd go in with a Boxwood Caf‚ scenario and nothing more. You can't sustain a viable business on two nights a week. So I took that one on the chin, halfway through production, with some of the individuals shortlisted for the series asking ‘who the hell are you to come in and fix our restaurant when you've just closed your own?' Well, I'd experienced the highs and lows and had reinforced to me the importance of where to pitch your product. It's really weird, but I can say it now, it helped me with the show."

On his own early struggles "Every time I went to these restaurants I got these flashbacks. I kept going back in my mind to 1993 and Aubergine with a £14 lunch menu and an £18 dinner menu. We had to get the dregs of the waiting list at the Canteen. You had Marco who'd just opened at the Hyde Park hotel, Jean-Christophe Novelli at the Four Seasons, Richard Neat was a massive success at Pied … Terre, Steve Terry and Tim Hughes were doing a phenomenal job and there was me in the back of beyond in Chelsea."

On the quest for stars Ramsay says he was "staggered by the number of restaurants fixated with getting from one award to another", both in the places featured and in other restaurants in which he ate during filming. Not unnaturally, he sensed there was often a feeling of "well, that's pretty rich coming from you with your Michelin stars". But he found himself constantly having to make the point that "without a viable restaurant you can kiss any hope of awards goodbye".

On the chefs he met during filming An article in the Guardian after the Bonaparte's episode suggested that the programme was "condescending" to the locals in that it suggested that their tastes stretched only to steak and ale pie and prawn cocktail. Far from it, says Ramsay, they ought instead to be congratulated on their common sense in preferring well cooked, simple food at reasonable prices to expensive, poorly executed and pretentious dishes. The real condescension, he believes, comes from those chefs who seem to think that serving up food that people want and doing the basics really well is somehow beneath them.

Ramsay says he "met a lot of talent in the series". As well as the likes of relatively experienced guys such as Spencer Ralph at the Walnut Tree and Andy Trowell at Moore Place - ones to watch, he says - who both came aboard during filming, he cites a number of junior, inexperienced chefs who he reckons had the right raw materials. "However," he says, "the talent isn't being pushed because of their own head chef's insecurities. They'd rather lie to them, wrap them up in cotton wool and keep an arm's length distance from them just to keep them from leaving."

On leadership, inspiration and perspiration Ramsay says a common problem he encountered was lack of leadership and the inability to inspire a sense of pride and dedication in a team. "In the countryside, it seemed that the majority of the chefs thought they could walk in at 10.30am. How the hell can you contemplate creating something special walking in at 10.30?"

Examples of the kind of listlessness Ramsay encountered were a morning ritual "of container lids just being lifted off, the ingredients sniffed and if it was slimy, well it, wash it in warm water, dip it in ice water and put it back in the fridge. Four hours off in the afternoon on the Playstation and drink energy drinks but then they serve you a fish stew with barnacle-encrusted mussels that has enough sand in it to fill an Olympic long-jump pit. There's no care and there's no passion."

On catering as a career Why is there no passion? Is it, I suggest, a product of a British cultural attitude towards food, the lack of any deep affection for good food in the home, in the family, in the blood? Why is it that catering is so often seen as a last resort? "It shouldn't be!" Ramsay retorts. "That's the reason why we lack so many female chefs in this country, because it isn't seen as a phenomenal, passionate, exciting, glamorous job and the second scenario is that it's too easy to get into.

"The problem is they want to leapfrog over their craft, without becoming the absorbent sponge that they need to be for a minimum of eight or nine years. Then they turn around and two months spent with, say, Gary Rhodes, three years down the line becomes 14 months on their CV and one week at Le Gavroche on a stage becomes six months."

On chefs and celebrity Ramsay believes the delusion that there must be an easy way to the top occurs because the prospect of fame is stronger than the love of food. "It's the fascination with TV and the fascination for becoming a celebrity chef," he says.

"I did a phone-in for Radio 5 and a caller came on and said ‘this man is not a celebrity chef, he's become successful on his craft. Never confuse the two', and I thought ‘Hallelujah, somebody is fully understanding why I'm not a celebrity chef'. When these celebrity chefs try and become serious chefs they fall short if they're without foundations, because while they're jumping around all over the country on television, they haven't learnt their craft."

So you want to cook for the cameras? If you're an aspiring television chef, here are a few tips (and warnings) to bear in mind.

  • Learn to cook and talk to a camera at the same time - try it, it's not as easy as it sounds. Be natural at all times.

  • Look out for auditions/news of new series being set up through trade publications such as Caterer, or media magazines and papers such as Radio Times.

  • Think of getting a demo tape recorded professionally so you can send copies to television production companies.

  • Expect to work long hours for little money. The introduction of cable, satellite and digital channels means more airtime for aspiring young celebrity chefs, but the fees are now much lower.

  • Be charming, helpful and willing with all the production staff (even the lowliest TV runners can become great producers one day).

  • TV producers are pretty ageist. They're normally looking for young talent but, that said, a lot of the best-known TV chefs are over 35.

  • Ready, Steady, Cook may look easy, but try thinking up dishes with a mix of odd ingredients in about one minute and you'll soon realise that you need a photographic memory of hundreds of recipes.

  • TV viewers get tired of seeing the same old faces, so your career on TV won't last forever. Don't give up the day job.

Thanks to (among others) Fiona Lindsay, managing director of Limelight Management, for giving us some insider tips. Limelight represents some of the best-known television chefs, such as Paul Rankin, Lesley Waters and James Martin.

Nightmares update What happened after Gordon Ramsay went home? The maker of Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, Optomen Television, gave us the latest news on the restaurants.

  • Bonaparte's (below right) in Silsden, West Yorkshire, is believed to be trading as a bar. Chef Tim Gray is currently employed in outside catering, and is hoping take up a media studies course in September.

  • Richard Collins is still head chef at the Glass House in Ambleside in the Lake District (below centre). Business is up by 40% and there's been a huge demand for the pomegranate risotto. Chef Claire Porter has joined Angela Hartnett at London's Connaught hotel.

  • The Walnut Tree Inn in Abergavenny (below left) has received hundreds of calls of congratulations since the programme. The new head chef, Spencer Ralph, has established his own menu and owner Francesco Mattioli is looking forward to a busy summer.

  • Business at Moore Place in Esher, Surrey (opposite page), is up by 20%. The building is still purple, but the owners are hoping to make changes soon.

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