Waking from the Nightmare

27 January 2005 by
Waking from the Nightmare

A year ago programme makers for Channel 4 stormed into the kitchens of four struggling restaurants scattered across Britain in an attempt to transform them. They sent in Gordon Ramsay, who was given just one week to convert the flagging businesses into raging successes.

One of those businesses was the Glass House in Ambleside, a 100-seat restaurant set in picturesque Cumbria. When Ramsay arrived, turnover was down, the menu was - according to Ramsay - "confusing and bizarre", staff morale was low and owner Neil Farrell was on the verge of selling up.

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Opposite: Ramsay's biggest roasting was directed at head chef Richard Collins (left). But 12 months on he's still there with a new team of four in the kitchen, and owner Neil Farrell (centre) is much more optimistic about the future
More than four million viewers tuned in to Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares to watch Ramsay liken the Glass House kitchen's hygiene levels to "a puppy's litter tray", tear a strip off a member of staff for having bad breath, slam the overpriced menu and, with tempers reaching boiling point, almost come to blows with Farrell in a now-legendary incident after he criticised Ramsay's Caesar salad for being too rich. Ramsay's biggest roasting, however, was reserved for head chef Richard Collins with his culinary novelties such as garlic popcorn, duck cakes with chilli jam and a much-derided pomegranate risotto, a dish Ramsay blasted as "revolting". So, 12 months on, it comes as something of a surprise to discover that head chef Collins is still here - in fact he's working away downstairs in the kitchen as we speak. And despite Ramsay's ridicule, the pomegranate risotto is on the menu. But then so is the Caesar salad, although in a lighter form. On the surface, it seems that nothing's changed. But Farrell disagrees. "Having Gordon here for a week made a huge difference to what we do and we've benefited without a doubt," he says. "Standards were slipping here and I was getting very complacent - Gordon gave me the kick I needed." The "kick" came in the form of a Ramsay-style, expletive-fuelled verbal pummelling - and Farrell admits he was "gutted" when he first saw the show. "But his main criticisms were correct," he says. "Richard wasn't leading the kitchen, and I wasn't managing things properly, so the content \[of the programme\] wasn't surprising, but it was upsetting." Farrell is, nevertheless, positive about his TV experience and remains faithful to Ramsay. "It's easy for people to say they wouldn't have gone on the programme, but to get somebody of his calibre here in my restaurant was an opportunity I couldn't turn down. He's the best chef in the country," he adds. Despite the upheaval and stress of filming and having a production crew in the kitchen - "you don't realise how nervous you are until you've got a camera shining at you down the pass," says head chef Collins - Ramsay's practical focus was evident. One of Ramsay's first innovations was the introduction of a £10 two-course lunch menu, but unfortunately this promotion didn't last. "It wasn't right for our customers," says Farrell, who has since reinstated his original range of main courses, soups and sandwiches. The early supper menu - although labelled unprofitable - is still a fixture, but the … la carte, previously far too complicated with nearly 90 dishes on offer, was trimmed down to a much more manageable six-choice starter, main and dessert format. There have been clear benefits to this new design. "Our standards are higher now because we're not stretching ourselves - and it's more cost-effective to do just six options. We have much more time to spend on the food," Farrell explains. Ah yes, the food. With the pomegranate you-know-what still very much in pride of place, what influences did the kitchen take from the three-Michelin-starred chef? "Well, at Gordon's suggestion, we replaced the duck cakes with a duck salad, which is selling well, and Richard has introduced a daily fish special. Gordon did give us very good tips. For instance, we now use shoulder of lamb, not shank, and once cooked it's left in its liquor for about two hours to draw in all the flavour. It's much tastier." And what about the menu wording "frozen but lovely", used to describe the chips, much criticised by Ramsay? "We've taken that off," confirms Farrell, though not without first pointing out that some customers appreciated the honesty. Farrell has since cut his menu prices across the board by 25% - an idea he admits was influenced by Ramsay. "He told me he used to charge £14 for a two-course lunch at Aubergine, to get people interested and in the door. Once you've won over customers you can then tweak prices." It's a strategy that seems to have worked. "We're making more money with bums on seats than we did last year with higher prices," Farrell confirms. In fact, business is good at the Glass House. Since the show was screened in May, the restaurant's turnover is up by 25%, an increase Farrell attributes to the publicity it generated. "Last Sunday we did 55 covers, and that's a lot for a wet November night in the Lake District. This time last year, it was more like 20," he says. "We're getting people in because they know us from the show." As 70% of the Glass House's trade is tourism-led, the restaurant has also seen numbers boosted from unexpected quarters. "People are now making a booking here, then trying to find a hotel locally, instead of the other way round," says Farrell. "We've had visitors from all over the world. It was shown in Australia, and we had calls from people saying they had family nearby, and asking if they could they book a table for a meal." Farrell is clearly surprised at the level of publicity the show brought. "During the screening, there were 20,000 people looking at our website. And in the three days following the programme, we'd had 183,000 hits." Other unexpected occurrences include customers sneaking downstairs unannounced to quiz the staff in the kitchen, endless photo and signed-menu requests, and people walking up to Farrell and Collins in the street greeting them by name. "It's strange - people think they know us now." Of the original brigade, only Collins remains at the Glass House. There's now a new team of four in the kitchen working under Collins, and things seem to be working out well. "Richard's now a lot more confident in the kitchen," says Farrell, who says he also has a new lease of life. "I used to spend hours working but not really achieving anything. Now I'm more in control. Gordon brought that out in me." Despite the past year's successes, Farrell admits he will find it hard to watch Ramsay's revisit when it's screened at Christmas. "I'm trying not to think about it," he confesses. But would he recommend the experience to other businesses? After a thoughtful pause, Farrell nods. "What we went through was nightmarish but worth it," he says. "It's been fantastic for business. And I'd do it again. At the end of the day, we've had Gordon Ramsay in our kitchen for a week. You can't beat that." n Kitchen Nightmares updated What happened to the other restaurants in the series? Optomen Television, maker of Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, gave us a brief insight. More will be revealed in the update, due to be screened at Christmas. - Moore Place, in Esher, Surrey - it's still purple, but business is on the up and up. - Bonapartes, in Silsden, West Yorkshire - still trading as a bar, but the restaurant is now closed. - The Walnut Tree Inn in Abergavenny, Monmouthshire - new chef Spencer Ralph is making great progress cooking some exciting food. More Nightmares Did you watch the last series of Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares - and still wish your restaurant could have benefited from Gordon's culinary and business expertise? Well, now's your chance. Ramsay is back with another series of the Channel 4 hit show. If you feel your business faces challenges you can't meet, if you'd like to give your staff a new lease of life in the hope of packing the customers in, then Optomen Television would like to hear from you. Maybe your restaurant has recently lost a Michelin star or an AA rosette or two? Have you been overlooked this year by the Good Food Guide? Have you recently taken over a once-famed premises and are finding it hard to keep up the standards of the past? Whatever your situation, contact the Ramsay team on 020 7967 1234, or e-mail . A family's fortunes When hotelier George Clark applied to appear on BBC2's I'll Show Them Who's Boss in March 2003, it was as much a genuine cry for help as a canny PR move, writes Tom Bill. Clark, 46, and his younger brother Michael owned 40% of the three-star, 23-bedroom Old Manor hotel in Fife, Scotland. But their 65-year-old father Alistair had a 51% stake and was reluctant to hand over the helm of the business they'd bought in 1992. "We recognised control was the core issue, but I suppose we were saving up our problems for a rainy day," says Clark. Presenter and ex-Granada chief Gerry Robinson made the brothers present their ideas for expansion, including a gastropub in Edinburgh, to their father. "Gerry was highly competent and gave us genuinely good tips. But it's too early to tell if it's made any difference," Clark adds. Robinson arrived in the blazing heat of August 2003. Over four weeks he got to know the business. The film crew captured more than 200 hours of footage over five three-day shoots - annoying some of the guests in the process. After what Clark calls "a few emotional and frothy-lipped moments", his father signed the business over to the two sons. "He moved things forward by allowing us to demonstrate to our father that we could do it." While Robinson defused a father-and-sons jostle for power, capturing it on film had no palpable impact on the business. Prime-time exposure to two and a half million viewers on 21 October 2004 didn't turn any more of them into guests. "I heard that in the 12 months after the documentary at the Adelphi in Liverpool, bookings went up by 117% - and that was bad publicity," says Clark. "Now general manager, he forecasts a 5% increase on the £1.5m the hotel took last year. "But we were growing anyway," he adds. Despite the lack of financial benefit, the family was briefly sprinkled with the fairy dust of celebrity. "In the 12 hours after the programme went out we had 1,000 hits on our website. Normally it's 5,000 in a month," says Clark. Two hundred e-mails were also waiting in his inbox the next morning. "More than 100 people came round to say they'd seen the show and my brother and father were recognised in a pub recently. And now you've rung up," he adds. "We knew that for them to get their story there would have to be some blood-letting. But we also knew the business wasn't crumbling and there'd be no screaming and shouting. We also made sure the footage wouldn't be used for other purposes. We didn't want to end up on Hotels from Hell. Watching the show was an uncomfortable experience. "Seeing it for the first time wasn't fun," Clark recalls. "I was with Mum and Dad and there was complete silence. Certain conversations were other than had been reported to each other. But my overwhelming feeling was relief that they hadn't sensationalised things." And getting misty-eyed on national television? "It was a concern," says Clark. "But the women in the office seemed to like it, and now half of them want to marry me!"
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