U.K.'s boss from hell cooks up brand in U.S.

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Launching a stateside restaurant brand via a Fox reality show may not be everyone's idea of a sound marketing platform. After all, NBC's "The Restaurant" didn't do much for Rocco DiSpirito. But for British-born chef Gordon Ramsay, it's been worth the risk.

For those not familiar, Mr. Ramsay is the star of Fox's politically incorrect summer reality hit "Hell's Kitchen," which features a bunch of amateur chefs attempting to cook at a real Los Angeles restaurant. (He also features in BBC America's "Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares.")

In each episode of "Hell's Kitchen," Mr. Ramsay berates contestants-and rude customers-in a way that makes "American Idol" judge Simon Cowell look like Mother Teresa. "Tastes like dehydrated camel turd," Mr. Ramsay tells one aspiring cook. "Absolut penne? More like Absolut bullshit." And so it goes. Mr. Ramsay won't let his reputation be sullied by a substandard dish, and he humiliates and cajoles the contestants in colorful language until the dishes are perfect. "It was a shitfight. We went to hell and back," he said. "My reputation was at stake but I wasn't going to let anything get through the net."

The show has been huge for a debut reality show-second in the 18-to-49 demographic against CBS in a recent week (June 20, Monday 9 p.m.)-and is a particular draw with young women.

For most Americans, the Fox show-produced by Granada Entertainment-is their introduction to Gordon Ramsay, but for legions of well-heeled trans-Atlantic and bicoastal restaurant goers, the 40-year-old, Michelin-starred chef is already a rock star. He operates some of London's swankiest eateries including Petrus, The Savoy Grill and Claridge's. By mid-2006, Mr. Ramsay, with the help of investment bank Blackstone, will open two new restaurants, one in New York and one in Miami.

He's already designing a range of bone-china dishes for a well-known U.S. based company he can't name yet; has a U.S. deal for "Gordon Ramsay Makes It Easy," a book about cooking simple dishes and an offer from the Disney Channel to do a show training youngsters about nutrition and cooking. Time constraints meant that he couldn't take up the Disney offer, but one wonders what kind of language he might have used.

Mr. Ramsay says he's never spent a dime advertising his restaurants. "It's word of mouth and the critics," that have helped him establish his name, he said. "I still have one eye open for [New York Times restaurant critic] Frank Bruni. I've been accused of shagging Jan Moir, [Daily Telegraph restaurant critic]" because of all the favorable reviews.

On Aug. 1, Mr. Ramsay arrives in the U.S. full-time to set up an office, pick out his Irish table linens and kick his R&D into high gear. The customers never tell you why they're not coming back, he says of his U.K. show "Restaurant Nightmares," which helps hopeless restaurants get back in the game. Mr. Ramsay is researching every aspect of New Yorkers' dining habits. "We have a database of about 2,500 customers. We know when the last time they ate in any of our restaurants. We know their wives' birthdays." New York chefs, including bad boy Anthony Bourdain, author of restaurant business tell-all "Kitchen Confidential," is also giving Mr. Ramsay a helping hand.

When asked about the state of American food, Mr. Ramsay is uncharacteristically diplomatic. "I think you can go anywhere and find something wrong with the food." Then he launches into a tirade about a terrible Caesar salad he once ordered, describing the dry lettuce as a "kick in the bollocks."


What advice would he give to the big food marketers such as McDonald's about their menus? Mr. Ramsay feels particularly strongly about the U.K.'s own obesity debate. "Don't compromise on the ingredients." He said fast-food hamburgers are cooked by machine, while delivering real food is personal. "The burgers are tasteless. Revamp them," he said, suggesting McDonald's change the bread, too, to sourdough or whole wheat. "If I was head of marketing at McDonald's, I would stick my neck out and go organic."

Back at "Hell's Kitchen," Mr. Ramsay recalled his Los Angeles customers as some of the rudest. In one episode when two women come to complain about the wait, he calls them "bimbos" and tells them to go back to plastic surgery. "One guy asked for Atkins ingredients and I asked him why he had come out to dinner?" recalls Mr. Ramsay. Another diner asked for a salad with a slice of lemon, no dressing. Mr. Ramsay described her as a "chunky monkey," and advised her not to have desert if she was worried about her weight. Who says the customer always has to be right?

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