Gordon Ramsay has chosen to favour the Czech capital with its first taste of Michelin-starred cuisine with the arrival of Maze. He talks to Fiona Sims about the Prague opening, his imminent Versailles eaterie, and winning over New York
Ramsay: "We got panned in New York but getting two Michelin stars 10 months on - we feel vindicated. I was judged on my persona rather than what was being put on the plate"
The Hilton Prague Old Town is buzzing with activity. Gordon Ramsay is in town to open his third Maze restaurant, and the place is wall-to-wall photographers, journalists and TV crews. The first Maze opened in London in May 2005 in the Marriott hotel, Grosvenor Square the second a year later in New York, at the London NYC hotel, alongside Ramsay's fine-dining restaurant. Maze's co-creator, executive chef Jason Atherton, has been reeling in the good reviews for it ever since - its small, perfectly formed portions won a Michelin star and it's widely tipped to get another.
It's not just about the thrilling cooking in the restaurant, though. Where a Maze goes, the rest of the hotel's food and beverage goes, too. Atherton and Ramsay are responsible for breakfast through to in-room snacks - though it's not like they haven't been there before. Atherton headed up Verre at Hilton Dubai Creek, opened in 2002, which brought fine dining to the desert city and a better class of fridge nibbles to your room. But why Prague?
"Good question," replies Ramsay, looking a tad exhausted - it's his sixth interview of the day and he arrived only three hours earlier. He has already dealt with the likes of French publications such as restaurant guide Gault Millau, which seemed to be more interested in his imminent Paris opening (more about that in a minute).
"Well, you know I always like to put a stake in the ground first, don't you?" he grins. "We did ask all those questions, such as why Nobu or Ducasse hadn't opened in Prague, and we knew the issues about consistency, etc, but we went through the same things when we opened Dubai - and look at it now, the place is packed. Prague has become quite a destination for the weekend break - and why not eastern Europe? Have you any idea how many amazing Czech, Croatian and Bosnian chefs are working in our kitchens in London at the moment? I was first introduced to that when I opened Claridge's six years ago - it opened my eyes, I tell you. Though the last time I came here I was playing in a football tournament," he laughs.
Opening Maze in Prague has certainly caused a storm locally. The Czech press were queuing up to get their moment with him. Not that the wider general public know much about Ramsay yet (Jamie Oliver, yes - he's huge here) but they soon will. The first series of Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares is about to air on Czech television, two of his cookery books have been translated into Czech - on sale in a glass cabinet by the entrance to the restaurant - and the local papers are full of him this week.
I asked a well-known Czech chef, Zdenek Pohlreich of Prague's Café Imperial, what he thought the Ramsay opening would do for the city - and for the Czech Republic, which has yet to win any Michelin stars. "It's big news, actually," he says. "This is the first Michelin-starred chef to open a restaurant in this country. It's a kind of recognition. Famous as he is, he has chosen to open a restaurant here. And it's good for us to have an internationally recognised benchmark. A lot of people here - both public and chefs - don't know what Michelin-starred cooking is all about."
There are plans for several more Mazes around the world, reports Ramsay, who spent the morning berating the French press for calling it a concept restaurant. "We have an exciting possibility of doing a Maze in the centre of Paris, though I'm not going to say where just yet. Jason is one of the most underrated chefs in the country and when I look at Maze London now, with the Maze Grill soon to come, it's running like a two-star. He's really come into his own," he says.
And talking of Paris - which is what everyone is doing at the moment, particularly the French journalists, who have been pressing him for more details - when, where, how? "Just look at it," he says, eyes glinting, thrusting a bundle of lavish artist's impressions in front of me. The Trianon Palace in Versailles is due to open fully at the end of March, with the more informal brasserie opening shortly, in the grounds of the famous palace a short drive from the centre of the capital.
"When I say sumptuous, I mean absolutely stunning - look at the views just from the kitchen," he exclaims, excitedly. "This is serious, this is significant - the heat is on. Out of all the openings, even more than New York, Paris is personal," he declares, waving more drawings under my nose.
"There's not a day or a minute that goes by that I'm not thinking about it. Of course I'm nervous, but then I shit myself every fucking opening. I'm not so cocky that I take it for granted that it will be a success. There was lots of competition for this site. It was a tough bid, it was an exciting bid - and we got it. We had another option last year - to bid for the Eiffel Tower - but can you imagine the French handing that one over? Though when you look at the success of Raymond Blanc and Michel Roux over here, why can't we go over there and do that? Let's see if we can last a bit longer than Richard Neat, yes?"
Yes, indeed. And get this - he has had to stop taking bookings for the Trianon Palace as it's already full for the first four weeks. And he's really going for it, is Ramsay - we're talking three Michelin stars. Or I should say Simone Zanoni, the Trianon Palace's newly appointed head chef, who has worked with Ramsay for 10 years, is really going for it. "We know each other inside out," Ramsay says. "What he needs at this stage in his career at the age of 30 is jeopardy and he's going to get that here. The ambition is three stars.
"We've had the most amazing support - from Guy Savoy to Joël Robuchon and Yannick at Le Meurice. Though some of the French press have already been up in arms - they say we're bringing mad cow disease to Versailles. So we're bringing great British beef to Paris, but it's no different to the langoustines and scallops Robuchon and co buy from the west coast of Scotland. It's like, come on guys, get a fucking grip - get real."
The press can still rile Ramsay, it seems, although he denies it. "You accept it, you become so thick-skinned," he says. "It's like, Christ, guys, stop using me as a headline. We got nine out of 10 in the Good Food Guide, but apparently my nine out of 10 was lower than Heston's nine out of 10 - what a load of crap. I can't take it seriously any more. The majority of chefs I know can't run a fucking bath, let alone 12 restaurants across the world. I'm fed up with having to keep justifying ourselves. I shut my mouth now. But you know what I do take seriously? What we do every day, what my customers get served - that's far more important."
I'm glad he keeps saying "we" Ramsay dishes out the credits constantly. "That's the secret to all this - achieving that level of consistency through nurturing talent," he says. "Each and every one of my chefs, from Mark Sargeant, to Marcus Wareing, Mark Askew to Jason Atherton - they're all responsible for producing talent. When I look at the talent that's coming through now - Claire Smyth, Gemma Tuley, Angela Hartnett - wow. But you should see what's coming through behind them."
Hartnett is in charge of two Ramsay openings this year - an upscale Italian called Murano in Mayfair, which opens in May, where she will be behind the range, and the York and Albany, an 80-seater restaurant with 12 luxuriously appointed bedrooms near Regent's Park, which opens at the end of April. "It's our first independent boutique hotel - a big step for us. It will have an amazing deli, and a wine room," Ramsay reveals.
It must be exhausting being Ramsay. It's hard to keep up - and he thinks he's pacing himself. As well as the restaurant and pub empire which is developing at a breakneck pace, including a new cookery school in the offing (Caterer, 7 February, page 6), there's the TV shows (the American version of Kitchen Nightmares is currently showing, as is the manic Cookalong Live, now running on Channel 4) books (Healthy Appetite, out in April) newspaper and magazine columns and regular chat show appearances.
"A critic asked me recently whether I was in danger of spreading myself a bit thin. Seven years ago, when we spent £3m setting up Gordon Ramsay Holdings, that was when I was in danger. Not now though," he says. "Everyone wants a piece of me," he adds, suddenly, looking a bit lost.
Los Angeles opening
At least he can rest up with his mate, David Beckham, when's he's in town to oversee the opening of the London West Hollywood in Los Angeles. "David is a great foodie, you know. And Victoria loves her fish - and everything - steamed," he says, with a grin. "That's a big opening for us next summer. David Collins is doing the design again - we're replicating the London NYC."
Let's hope the US press will be a little kinder this time around. "We got panned in New York but getting two Michelin stars 10 months on - we feel vindicated," Ramsay says with a shrug. "I was judged on my persona rather than what was being put on the plate. ‘Remove me', I kept saying. How many critics truly go in and judge the integrity of the food? I know I didn't go in to New York quietly. The opening was delayed by six weeks and we had to move all those bookings - it was a fucking nightmare, I'm not going to lie about it, and I had the shittiest 40th birthday party ever. But we came through it. It was like taking off in a plane - you go through the clouds, burst through the hailstones and turbulence, then all of a sudden - bing! - you pop up through to the blue sky and you get told by the captain to put your chair back and relax. So that's exactly what we're doing," he says, cracking a big smile.