Out of all of celebrity chef/restaurateur Gordon Ramsay’s reality shows, “Kitchen Nightmares” can literally be considered the most frightening. Unlike “Hell’s Kitchen” and “MasterChef” (which feature people competing for a grand prize chosen by Ramsay), “Kitchen Nightmares” puts the spotlight on failing restaurants that end up getting a major overhaul with Ramsay’s help. Almost of these restaurants have scary health-code violations, as well as big problems with customer service, menu offerings, decor and management.
The U.S. version of “Kitchen Nightmares” has its Season 4 premiere January 21 on Fox at 8 p.m. Eastern/Pacific Time. Calling from New Orleans, where he was taping one of the final Season 4 episodes of “Kitchen Nightmares,” Ramsay participated in a telephone conference call with reporters. During the interview, he revealed why he was kicked out of a “Kitchen Nightmares” restaurant in a record 17 minutes; how he’s been coping with his widely reported financial losses and feuding in his family; and which tell-tale signs to look for to judge the quality of a restaurant before you order anything on the menu.
How do you decide which restaurants to feature in “Kitchen Nightmares”?
Good question. We have an amazing selective panel and from our set productions. They come from Palo Island from Optimum Television in the U.K., as well, the original, sort of curator of “Kitchen Nightmares,” along with myself. We all jump in the room. We look at the ones that are most desperate to be on it. I like to have it sort of east coast, west coast, central and then, of course, the sort of restaurants that are really seriously on the red line.
But the most important thing about this year’s series is I begged Fox to turn around and give us permission to sort of turn these restaurants around so quickly and air the restaurants. As you know, the season starts on [January 21], and we are literally weeks later on air. So that gives a double whammy, not just with the tools and what we’ve done to sort of help position these restaurants by having that exposure to help these restaurants get back to where they were, rather than a three to six, sometimes a nine month gap in between airing dates.
It’s going to be such a benefit. So we look for the ones that are crucially, basically on the brink and ones that were more, sort of … family connected, but the ones with the biggest jeopardy, financially, family-wise and obviously relationship-wise.
You’ve maintained your Michelin three-star status for your Gordon Ramsay restaurant in London’s Chelsea neighborhood. How do you maintain your restaurants and do so well with them with all your other endeavors?
I suppose time management. I’m a bit of a control freak, unfortunately, but Chelsea, yes, that’s 10 years, a decade. So yeah, I work so closely with the team and every year we film “Kitchen Nightmares,” I take two young chefs out and one senior chef out of Royal Hospital Road and they come on the road with me. So they get to understand where restaurants start losing their grip on the reality in terms of where they should be. It puts it into perspective in terms of how not to run a restaurant.
So I focus. We spent three weeks in the U.S., three weeks in London, three weeks in the U.S., three weeks in London, so I am never that far away from my little jewel in the crown. But yeah, I have to say, it’s not just me, the team has been extraordinary and the loyalty within that team has been amazing. So yeah, we are not stuck in a five-star hotel with wonderful, sumptuous surroundings. It’s a little restaurant in Chelsea, 10 tables, open Monday to Friday, cook 40 for lunch and 40 for dinner. So maintaining three stars was a dream, but it’s down to the team and the understanding that we have with our chefs.
We know that on “Kitchen Nightmares,” you help family businesses, especially with problems that they may have in sorting out management. Your family has been supportive of you, even though 2010 was a tough year for you. How do they support you, and how are things going?
Yeah, I mean, this year’s been a tough one, really … Don’t mix business with pleasure. So, we got a change in management, as you have probably read and I am no longer working with my father-in-law. He was instrumental for the first 10 years of helping Gordon Ramsay Holdings establish that worldwide reputation.
I want to take it to the next level now, and we have parted company. Sometimes a change is a breath of fresh air. He has been amazing and it gets very delicate, as you can imagine, because that’s my wife’s father.
So yeah, I am going to put my hands in the air, and I’m a human being, I have a big heart, a huge passion, and it’s not easy dealing with family. And that’s how I see that level of conflict in a restaurant while filming “Kitchen Nightmares.” I can actually, honestly relate to them and say, “Do you know what? Working with your mother-in-law, working with your father-in-law is even more pressure than you think. Let me tell you something.”
As I am experiencing my own and jumping over the next hurdle in terms of where I am, I am passing that knowledge straight back to them. So it’s closer than you think, and it’s got nothing to do with TV. It is definitely real.
As I am experiencing it, I am giving them my firsthand knowledge and, listen, I’ve never denied but I have made mistakes. The most important thing about making mistakes, my goodness me, have I learned from them. I tell it straight.
The Spanish Pavillion, for instance, in New Jersey, it was family-run. The mother was too hard on one son, and not hard on the other, and then there is a son-in-law and then there is a father-in-law and it was a disaster. I just sort of saw this whole personal inside unraveling in front of my own eyes.
Having come out of this sort of situation I just got myself out of, I just went in there and told them as it was and even the producers said, “My God, I didn’t know you were going to be that frank.” I said, “Well, I have nothing to hide.” If that can help them to benefit from the sort of situation that I have just come out of, all the better.
What is the one piece of advice you could give to anyone thinking about opening a restaurant or working in the restaurant business?
That one piece of advice for anyone contemplating entering one of the toughest, one of the most demanding careers anywhere in the world: Keep your restaurant local and cook according to what’s on your doorstep. Don’t venture outside of your circle, and stay within the neighborhood, and get the neighbors, get the local community on your side first. That’s your bread and butter.
A restaurant can’t progress, can’t start thinking about Michelin stars and food critics. Cook for the facility and cook with what you have got locally. That’s absolutely crucial.
Can you talk a little bit about DownCity Restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island? Why did you choose it for the show and what were its main issues?
Providence and DownCity. I made history. It’s the first time I’ve ever been kicked out of a restaurant within 17 minutes of entering it. I didn’t even get a chance to finish my dinner, let alone help them. A feisty and tenacious manager, she kicked me out.
I didn’t know that they were taking on the room service from the hotel next door. So I ordered room service and this hideous mess arrived. And then when I got to the restaurant, literally next door, I explained, “My God I had a horrific lunch. I can’t wait for dinner because the room service had been dreadful.” She said, “What the … are you going on about. We cook the food next door.” We got off to a bad start.
I wanted to say to her, “Look, you are running a restaurant. What on earth are you doing taking on something that’s more damaging on a daily basis to your reputation coming out of a small kitchen becoming … in your restaurant? What the hell are you doing taking stupid room service for?” So yeah, we got off to a bad start, but yes, she’s made history, because it was the first time that I have ever been kicked out of a restaurant within 17 minutes of being there.
Since you have a larger-than-life personality at times, can you talk about the most important thing you have learned about yourself that helps restaurateurs?
The most important thing that I have learned about myself: Every day is a challenge. I think more importantly, I get carried away. Yeah, I get excited and I get upset and I get passionate, but the minute any one wants to go into the business to think that they become a millionaire or they want to have a TV program or write their own books and to become that level of, I suppose, adulated with TV contracts, etc. I tell them, “You must, keep them real.”
I’d still like to think 10 years down the line not having changed in terms of that level of passion. So yeah, forget the money side and really understand and look at yourself in the mirror, that you can be that committed to making it.
Really, for me, the most important part is for them to be honest with themselves because it is hard and you’ve got to work harder than all your staff. You’ve got to put more hours in and you can’t look at the money. You have to set that example. I have done that, and I do set the example, and then I do raise the bar. So it starts from the top.
If you are not prepared to be that committed, it’s a marathon, it’s not a hundred-meter sprint. Honestly, I can see it in the restaurateur’s eyes. I can look at them and say, “Well, this is a vanity, vain project for you. This is something that you didn’t really want to work that hard at, and you worry about the finances and you haven’t got the success at your hands, because you haven’t put the work in.”
Whether you are playing hockey or you’re an amazing basketball player or you want to sprint for your country at the 2012 Olympics, the bloody training that goes on behind the scenes is phenomenal and cooking is exactly the same. You must, must, must master your craft.
It was been reported that you were going to end the U.K. version of “Kitchen Nightmares.” How much longer do you think the U.S. version of “Kitchen Nightmares” will last?
Here is the scenario. Honestly, I’m looking at a potential “Kitchen Nightmares” in France. I lived in France for three years, and I love France. It is like a second home to me. So we just had an offer to go and look at a restaurant in Paris and it was a restaurant that lost its Michelin star, and so it will be another level in terms of high end.
I am quite excited about the possibility of going in there, back to the stomping ground. I have a restaurant in Paris and actually doing good for France because they gave me so much. It wasn’t about making money or syndicating a show or nothing to do with whatsoever, so I may not be doing it in Britain, but I am certainly excited about the possibility of going off to France and doing a series with six to seven restaurants across France, to be honest. I mean, that’s a big one for me, and I’m fluent in French. I love France and I relish the challenge, to be honest.
You enhanced your hair style just a bit. What are your favorites products. Who does your hair on and off camera?
We could call it “Hair Nightmares.” It is a very good question. I was in Costa Rica, and I was doing sort of a documentary on chasing bandits, and I had gasoline poured in all over my hair. I had a horrific infection. It certainly didn’t cause my hair to be falling out.
I was in Napa for Christmas, literally two weeks after the shoot, and I went horse riding with the kids. I had a horrendous allergic reaction to the horses, combined with problems I had with my scalp and so I was just, it was just a hair nightmare. That all got sorted out.
I’m very protective of my hair, and I have a very good head of it. I do my own hair and every time I go for a haircut, I am not very good at letting somebody else blow dry my hair, but I am so used to blow drying my hair in a way that I don’t walk into “Hell’s Kitchen” or “Kitchen Nightmares” and say, “Hair and makeup.” I’m certainly not that precious. So no, I do my own hair and anyone having gasoline doused on their head, trust me, I wouldn’t advise it, but it is a pretty horrific situation, and I can now say that I have almost 60 percent, 70 percent fully recovered from.
Is teaching TV viewers how to cook one of the intentions that you had when you started diversifying into television?
That is a very good question, really. I’m a pressure junkie. We got the confirmation that we maintained our third Michelin star in Chelsea for the tenth year. I am not saying everything is running smooth there, that it doesn’t need me. Yes, it does need me, but I like that kind of pressure of helping to sort of turn things around. I am not very good when things run perfectly.
But, “The F Word” was a huge success in the U.K., and I’m talking to Fox about doing something very similar over here where I can sort of jump from state to state and look at the most amazing food. An example, for instance, in New Orleans, the food is extraordinary, I mean, absolutely extraordinary. From a chef’s point of view, it’s a constant learning period.
We were in Boca Raton, and had this amazing carpaccio of octopus. They were served with this like sort of soup, and it was just phenomenal. So I’ve already got new ideas about what I want to do with that dish. For me, we don’t cook enough on “Kitchen Nightmares” on screen, but we do behind the scenes because we are running specials and developing the menu. I am so excited about the possibility of getting involved with these sort of Cajun influences here in New Orleans. That really does excite me and that starts tomorrow, but I’m learning as well. That’s the most important part. So I’ve never stopped doing that.
You seem to have a successful career as a chef and a TV star. How do you confront reports about you having financial troubles?
Yes, well, that’s a good question. Listen, there is no business anywhere in the world over the last 18 months to two years that hasn’t experienced difficulties. Unfortunately, the stuff they report in the press is not accurate. Let me tell you that. I have made a fortune, and clearly lost money over the last 18 months, like any business. For me, the last 15 months has been the most testing. It wasn’t about making money.
The last 15 months in this industry, in restaurants, are about navigating your way around. Navigating your way around this recession and making sure that you stood strong. I have put in money back into the company I have never had any issues with.
Here is where I sort of learned. I never went to business school. I sort of learned from a sort of weekly/daily basis. Today we celebrated 10 years of three Michelin stars. I’m the longest British chef to hold three stars in England. Next week we are sending a press release out that I am bringing my prices down and going back to the prices that were there from 10 years ago, out of respect for the customers that have been supporting me for that length of time.
You give and take, but I don’t sit there and worry and squander and follow every word in the financial sector, because they are inaccurate and that’s incorrect. However, the business is standing strong. And yes, we have lost money. We may have gone down, but we certainly are not out, that’s for sure. It’s been tough for everybody.
I mean, here [I am], talking about not making money in the restaurant when people’s houses have gone into foreclosure. Come on. So it wasn’t situation about being greedy. It was about being real. That is exactly the way I have played it over the last 15 months.
What can you tell us what we can look for to know immediately that we’re in a good or bad restaurant?
It’s not just the aspect of the chef and the owner and the manager of these restaurants. It’s also giving an education to the customer’s point of view as a consumer. I think “Kitchen Nightmares” should be like dental chairs. You go in, and it’s immaculate, it’s like walking into a hospital. There shouldn’t be any area of that restaurant that you are not allowed to have a look at instantly.
But the first thing I would look at, I do it with my hand. I put my hand under the table, and if you under the table, it’s absolutely spotless and there are no disgusting bits of gum, then you can tell that restaurant’s being looked after. Secondly, just have a look at all the skirt boards, all the skirting boards around the restaurant, and see how marked and scuffed they are and just little things like that. The first thing my wife does is she always walks into the bathroom, the restroom, and if the restrooms are immaculate, you know that the kitchen is immaculate. They go hand in glove.
For more info: “Kitchen Nightmares” website
RELATED LINKS ON glowbass.com:
Interview with Gordon Ramsay for “Hell’s Kitchen,” May 2009
Interview with Gordon Ramsay for “Hell’s Kitchen,” July 2009
Interview with Gordon Ramsay for “MasterChef,” July 2010
Interview with Gordon Ramsay for “MasterChef,” June 2011
Interview with Gordon Ramsay for “Hell’s Kitchen,” July 2011
Interview with Gordon Ramsay for “Kitchen Nightmares,” September 2011
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