With restaurants already operating in Dubai and Japan, Gordon Ramsay opened in New York in November. Simon Wright finds him openly pursuing another three Michelin stars for his first US outpost, in Manhattan's London NYC hotel
The American PR guy looks up from his mobile phone just long enough to deliver yet more bad news. "That's a non-starter," he says, delivering the verdict with a smile and in the wholly inappropriate sing-song tones more often reserved for the ubiquitous "Have a nice day." The theatrical insincerity grates like hell, especially as things are getting rather tense. Adrian, our photographer, has just asked if we might take Gordon Ramsay to one of the London NYC hotel's penthouse suites so he can get a picture with the Manhattan street scene in the background. That's the "non-starter".
On top of that, the time available for taking pictures has been squeezed almost to the point of disappearance. The chef's flight from Dubai is a couple of hours late, and the people from Vanity Fair are first in the queue for snaps. Adrian is getting pushy. It's obvious he's been in this position before and knows that unless he stakes out some territory now, his chances of getting the shots he wants are all but gone. I leave him to it and wander into the kitchen for a quick chat with a clearly fired-up but amazingly affable head chef, Neil Ferguson.
After a couple of minutes I sense someone looking over my shoulder. I turn to find somebody else from the New York PR firm listening in intently. He smiles, and I find myself wondering whether there will be some grinning spook sitting in when I finally get to talk to Ramsay. That would be a first, but I guess it's a common enough practice at this level - these people look after Martha Stewart, too.
The London NYC isn't hard to spot once you turn on to West 54th Street - the enormous Union Jacks see to that. At the side of the building construction work is still going on, and sitting in a corner of the London Bar it's possible to view the workers traipsing in and out of a side door. The temperature in New York has dropped about 10 degrees overnight and, just where I'm sitting, the draught is icy. Deeper into the room people are taking breakfast among the cool-blue walls and bevelled mirrors. I notice a sheet of bubble wrap on the floor beneath my table. An hour later it's still there, and I find myself getting irritated by the fact that none of the staff has noticed it - or cleared my coffee cup, come to that. I imagine the reaction of a tired Ramsay at the end of a delayed 14-hour flight sitting down in the studied glamour of his new bar only to find discarded packaging at his feet, and I'm moved to ask a passing waitress to deal with both. Cheerfully, she does so. Later I realise that she's not actually a hotel employee at all but one of the florists.
And then he breezes in, at a typically brisk pace. Leather jacket over a bright gold T-shirt and jeans. A firm handshake, quick greetings, and he dashes off to get a shower before re-emerging in his whites, looking remarkably fresh. He has high praise for the new set-up in Emirates first class, "like a little cocoon", where he was positioned next to Tiger Woods, who's been designing his first golf course in Dubai. He thinks he should have got Woods's autograph for Jason Atherton, chef-director at Maze, but he confesses to finding that kind of thing awkward. He does the Vanity Fair pics in record time, without a hint of grumpiness, and then it's Caterer's turn. Will he do some shots in one of the penthouse suites? Of course. Even better, why don't they go out on one of the balconies? I miss the PR guy's reaction, but that's the last I see of any of them.
We sit down at the chef's table with lunch about to begin. The activity in the kitchen is frenetic but controlled, and it's noticeably quieter than when I came in earlier. During the next couple of hours Ramsay will make periodic forays into the body of the kitchen, checking, advising, fiddling with a dish on the pass. He seems to have developed a remarkable ability to notice small indiscretions at a distance - like a hawk spotting a scuttling vole. All the time he's chiselling away, working towards his vision of perfection. These are early days, but nobody out there is going to make allowances for that, be it the New York audience, Michelin, or the man whose shadow looms over the infancy of any New York restaurant of note - Frank Bruni of the New York Times.
So, a month in, before any reviews of any note, how's he feeling about it? Is he happy? "I'm never happy. In truth, I'm shitting myself. I mean I've put my neck in the noose. We've openly said we're going for three stars, and it's a tall order."
It's odd in some ways that we've reached the stars so early in the conversation. After all, these are the Michelin stars he's referring to, not those of the New York Times and the aforementioned Bruni. Michelin in New York is an innovation and one that hasn't been received with universal acclaim there, criticised for being Eurocentric and misunderstanding the nature of New York dining. Locally, it's Bruni who counts globally, Michelin is the one that matters - which is important when you think of the number of foreign visitors in the place and even more important if you're a chef interested in measuring yourself against the best that the world can offer. It won't surprise you to learn that Ramsay is happy to engage in just such a contest.
"We play in the premier league, and in that premier league you want to have a winner's medal. I know how we cook and how we're perceived, but the one who's raising the bar is Ducasse. With 16 stars across the world, he's 10 years in front. He's the one that's opened the gates."
Ducasse, of course, is a useful template in more than one respect as far as opening in New York is concerned. Yes, Michelin awarded three stars to his Essex House operation, but this was in the face of much criticism locally regarding "over-the-top" service, pretentiousness and pricing. Probably the simple fact of just being French didn't help in the post 9/11 climate either. It's an episode that has clearly been studied in slo-mo by the Ramsay team. The chef himself is clear that the restaurant is "more American than French, more British than French", and as for the reactions to the stiffness and piety of Ducasse's operation, he notes that at the London "we didn't come with 25 different flavoured rums for our rum baba or a list for our water". "Ducasse sent out those signals and got pummelled for it," he says, clearly having absorbed that lesson.
Striking a balance between adapting to the New York market and bringing something genuinely original, bearing a clear British trademark, has clearly been a preoccupation. "Claridges has helped me in a big way. The last five years, Claridges has been swarming with Americans, so it's not like I just dipped my toe into America. Neil's been on a sabbatical for a year. Around the world, but with a spell in California.
"So I already felt before we opened that we had a connection with the community. Service is attentive, but we let an element of fun in. You can't afford to be too precious in New York."
There have been other cultural differences to contend with, too. Much of the early publicity centred on the relationship with the unions, which have a hefty presence in New York catering and are known for being fairly muscular in their conduct. The early confrontation wasn't accidental. "There are two ways of working: you ignore them for five years, or you deal with it in the first six months," he says. "By law you have to go to the unions after five years anyway. I don't want to face that down the line I wanted to do it from day one." In the absence of any early reviews, this and the other blemish picked up with some glee by the press - a rash of indignant complaints from neighbours regarding the disturbance from construction work - dominated the early headlines on both sides of the Atlantic.
Neither issue is likely to be fundamental to the long-term success of the restaurant, but when you're as strident a figure as Ramsay, it's a simple fact that every slip and stumble will be seized upon with relish. Especially if, as in the USA, you are known only for your raging performances on television (in Hell's Kitchen) and not for your track record as a chef. "I'm known out here before the restaurant, which is an awkward scenario. So it's been the opposite to Britain."
It's obvious and inevitable that the Fox series has so far defined him in the USA. Almost anyone I speak to in New York, whether in the restaurant trade or not, remarks on his Hell's Kitchen performances, and there's an understandable presumption that his on-screen behaviour is an exact representation of the way he behaves in his own restaurants. It's clearly a perception he's trying to overcome, while maintaining the potency of his on-screen persona - not the easiest of tricks to pull off. "The idea that my kitchen would work in that way is stupid. No, my kitchen functions on striving for perfection - and we get on with it, we don't stand there bellowing at each other."
During this lunch service there's no shortage of intensity. The atmosphere reeks of concentration and there's a tension, not between individuals, but an edginess that suggests nobody here is anything but cognisant of the challenge they are confronted with. Mostly, there's nothing that could be remotely described as bellowing when he intervenes the tone is soft and imploring, sometimes with a note of frustration. An hour-and-a-half in, one individual does get a bit of a tongue-lashing. You wouldn't have wanted to be in the offender's shoes at that moment, but it's a short blast, some way from being the full-force of both barrels, and it's followed up with a quiet word of reassurance and encouragement some moments later.
In many ways it's just what one would expect. Fifteen of the current team are from the Ramsay stable. Mark Askew, Ramsay's group executive chef, is usually here when Ramsay isn't and, of course, Ferguson was formerly head chef for Angela Hartnett at the Connaught in London. "He's an amazing talent," Ramsay tells me, before proudly showing me a picture from his book Humble Pie, where a callow Neil Ferguson can be spotted among the junior chefs in a line-up of the Aubergine team more than a decade ago.
This, of course, is what the success of the ever-expanding empire of Ramsay restaurants is reliant upon: a bank of key individuals who have been nurtured through the ranks until they are ready to take on major responsibility and become the spine of a new operation - that, and a ferocious attention to detail that leaves no stone unturned.
"We are so critical of ourselves. We've had mystery shoppers in from day one, a table of four on the opening night. I'm not taking this lightly I'm living it and breathing it."
There's an awareness, too, that you're never going to please everybody and you have to have a belief in the basic truth of what you are doing. "You can't become paranoid. When the product is where it is and we deliver the standard we deliver, you really shouldn't fuck up. To push the self-destruct button, you'd have to be really stupid. There's too much integrity there."
Nevertheless, the first complaint came within 90 minutes of opening. "A lady said that it was ludicrous that the doors to my toilets were so heavy to open. I thought, ‘Fuck me. Nothing about the decor nothing about the food…' and I said, ‘How many courses did you have?' and she said four. So I said, ‘Look at it this way: you've had an amazing meal and you've gone to the gym at the same time.' Of course it went woooh - right over her head."
So much for the early views of the diners, then. A week or so later the first real review came in, from the New York Observer. Based on four meals at the restaurant, it's a rapturously enthusiastic piece that lauds the precision of the cooking and delivers a maximum four stars. "If you're looking for far-out creations or mad-scientist-in-the-kitchen fireworks, you won't find them here," writes Moira Hodgson. "What you'll find instead is perfectly executed modern French cuisine, elegant and subtle, with deeply concentrated tastes and flawless presentation."
Meanwhile, in a New York Journal blog by Marc Shepherd, the reviewer writes: "My friend's two favourites were the amuse-bouche and the chef's preparation of seasonal vegetables. You wouldn't think a plate of sautéd vegetables could stand up as an entrée, but Ramsay made it work, and my friend couldn't stop singing its praises. I have only one meal to go on, but if I were reviewing for the Times, I would award four stars, as Gordon Ramsay seems clearly better than most of the three-star restaurants I've visited."
The 2 January review published by financial media giant Bloomberg is more in line with some of the advance predictions: that the Ramsay stable would be in for a tough time Stateside. Based on three meals (these NY critics clearly have generous expenses), it starts with the rather odd accusation that Gordon Ramsay at the London "… is not a Michelin three-star restaurant, although I'm certain it was intended to be one". After one month that might not come as much of a surprise to anyone and as to the three-star ambitions, that's hardly been a secret. The review bemoans the absence of "culinary pyrotechnics" while targeting "needless complexities", but the basic thrust is that the cooking is generally competent but unexciting. Fair enough, but given the pompous tone of the piece and the presence of several embarrassingly bitchy sideswipes at British cuisine, it's hard to ignore the whiff of chauvinism that rises from the page.
The New York Sun delivers its verdict a couple of days later - "unimpeachable adequacy" is the not-dissimilar conclusion. (It has to be said that, judging by these efforts, whatever the relative merits of our restaurants, New York restaurant critics are way behind the Brits in the business of writing entertaining prose.)
Nothing as yet, though, from the New York Times and Bruni, whose pronouncements will have more than enough weight to squash any of the earlier reviews into insignificance. And then, of course, there'll be Michelin and the dream of a second three stars to add to the haul at Royal Hospital Road.
But it doesn't end there. Fifteen minutes into the conversation Ramsay suddenly announces (as revealed in Caterer just before Christmas) that he's opening in Paris in 2008.
Paris. The guy clearly likes a challenge. If New York is jingoistic about its food culture, it's surely nothing compared to the French sense of infallibility. And, as if that's not daunting enough, he's already at work with the needle just in case.
"After New York is Paris. I cannot wait. 50 seats and a brasserie. I get frustrated when I listen to the French government trying to dictate a 32-hour working week, so the perfect way would be to get the French to prep 6am till 11am and the British to cook it." In other words, doing exactly what was asked of him when he went to Paris a couple of decades ago.
"I had to clean and sharpen their knives, get their lunch, make their macchiato, go around all the sections and get their veg done. I was fucked. Then, when I became fluent in French, I got promoted, became a chef de partie and it was a different ball game. So I'll turn the clock back 20 years."
During the conversation we've been generously fed and, no, I don't think the food is three stars either - not yet. How would it be? It's recognisably Ramsay in style, though, beautifully balanced and with some real highlights, such as the gorgeous fillets of red mullet with a fennel purée and grapefruit vinaigrette. As to the validity of the critics - all I can say is that anyone who rates Royal Hospital Road, Claridges or Maze would not be disappointed here.
No, it's not WD-50 any more than Restaurant Gordon Ramsay is the Fat Duck but that's not the point, and my guess is that once the dust has settled it'll be treated on its merits, which are manifold, and less on the preconceptions of the man whose name is above the door and a more general and lazy prejudice about British food.
Time is running out, but it's not due to the strictures of any hovering PR person it's simply that we have a plane to catch. By any standards, even putting to one side a long flight from Dubai, Ramsay has been patient, courteous and generous with his time. His ambitions in the restaurant world are clearly undimmed, but fame brings other challenges too, and it's to his credit that he's facing up to them.
I finish off by asking him about how he deals with his spiralling notoriety, and it's clearly something that he's put some thought to, because his answer is instant and succinct. "It's simple. The more attention I get the more normal I try and become."
Gordon Ramsay in his New York restaurant. "I've put my neck in the noose. We've openly said we're going for three stars, and it's a tall order"
Gordon Ramsay at the London London NYC Hotel, 151 West 54th Street, New York, NY 10019, USA (formerly the Rihga Royal)
Opened 16 November 2006 Chef de cuisine Neil Ferguson
Restaurant director Jean-Baptiste Requien
Chef sommelier Gregory Condes
Formal dining 45 seats
London Bar 75 dining, 45 drinking
Private dining three rooms seating 20, 50 and 80
Prices three courses à la carte $80 (£41) seven-course menu prestige $110 (£56) three-course set lunch $45 (£23)