With so many reality TV shows that he stars in and executive produces, where does celebrity chef/restaurateur Gordon Ramsay find the time to run his food-service empire? Juggling all of these different business ventures would leave anyone exhausted, and Ramsay admits that it’s been “a whirlwind.” And he is about to launch his fourth U.S. TV series on Fox: Tentatively titled “Hotel Hell,” the new series is a hotel renovation show that he will star in and executive produce. (“Hotel Hell” does not yet have a premiere date.)
Ramsay certainly has plenty of experience in this type of reality show, since he has been the star/executive producer of “Kitchen Nightmares,” a TV series that features Ramsay giving complete makeovers to restaurants that are struggling financially. (Ramsay’s other TV series that currently air on Fox are “Hell’s Kitchen” and “MasterChef.”) The fifth season of the U.S. version of “Kitchen Nightmares” premieres September 23 on Fox at 8 p.m. Eastern/Pacific Time. Ramsay took time out of his hectic schedule to do this conference-call interview with journalists.
In “Kitchen Nightmares,” do you ever tired of giving second chances to these restaurants?
A good question, really. Do you know what? I am getting tired of giving second chances, but they’re part of the issues that are taking place on a daily basis and that’s to do with the economy. And so it’s getting harder to be patient, to be honest. And so it’s my own issues and dealing with regular issues. I’m still trying to open new restaurants as well at the same time, so you’re right.
Do they deserve a second chance? When they are arrogant, obnoxious, and they’re not prepared to listen and they want to cook themselves as opposed to the customers, then, yes, I won’t give anyone a second or a third chance. But there are some sort of prissy distraught, upsetting and emotional circumstances this year. I think it’s been a bit of a whirlwind, to be honest.
Is there anything we’ll see in Season 5 of “Kitchen Nightmares” that we’ve never seen in seasons past?
More than ever before, as you know, there’s a whole team behind me and they have a couple days prep to the restaurants before I get there, a couple days prep for the restaurant after I leave. We bring in an infrastructure and we really focus on what are the most important elements to get that restaurant back. Sometimes the restaurants this year have been beautiful in terms of interior, the décor, are family -un, but the segmentation that’s taken place are more seen than ever before this year.
And then I was greeted with a huge mouse coming through one of the doors. Now I’ve had a lot of flack in my time, but I’ve never been greeted by a mouse in a door of the restaurants. And the shock of the fact that I walked in there, and then they accused me of bringing it in and that’s a little bit out there on that one, me bringing my own mouse to plant in the restaurant before helping them? Come on!
We see hours of work condensed into a one-hour program. Can you talk a bit about some of the stuff that gets left on the cutting room floor?
I’m obviously the executive producer and we have an amazing team here. It’s a dynamic team, I think it’s the fourth or fifth season. I’m not too sure what the number is. What gets left out? I love the style of the documentary aspect from the BBC versions in the U.K., so I don’t like that jumping around pace. I like it quite in depth.
I think there’s quite a lot of stuff being left out, not drama, but I think that things like the relaunch when we have special marketing exercises that we put together and we get the community involved. There are lots of issues that not just where I cook, but it’s not a cooking show, so that’s the awkward part.
I’ve love to spend more time. If there’s one criticism I’ve always had and it becomes so much more apparent now is that we want to see you cook more. So the dishes and the specials, there’s more than three dishes that go on. As you know, we completely revamp the menu from 25 to 35 dishes, so the cooking place sets on the morning of the reveal, my team is in the kitchen about half past 4 o’clock or 5 o’clock, but they move in the night before. We’re there until early hours.
Now we can’t show that because it’s sort of long-winded … It’s the proper preparations in a professional kitchen and it’s like a complete overall from an organization to a complete rip-out of all the fridges and we reposition everything set up for success. Almost while we land it in their laps, we give it to them on a plate and what I want them to do is cook it, finish it, send it and fall in love with it.
How often or have you ever second-guessed any of your reactions or decisions you’ve made on “Kitchen Nightmares,” in terms of dealing with employees, owners?
I act on impulse, and I go with my instincts. I’ve had a lot of success. I’ve had failures, so I learn from the failure. I talk about it. I can share that stuff, so I suppose I’m 44 years of age, and so if I tried it now as I was 15 years ago. I shoot from the hip.
I have to get straight to the truth and it’s not because we’re panicking and we’re not there for ten days. In the U.K. versions, we’re there for nine, 10 days at a time. Here [on “Kitchen Nightmares”], we’re here for a week and because of the work that goes into that week, the research from every critic to every article to the opening night, the first six months, the financial implications, we turn it upside down. We really turn it upside down. So I don’t pussyfoot around. I really get straight off, so I never second-guess it. I go for it straight away.
Without giving too much away, can you talk about your first impressions of the restaurant featured in the Season 5 premiere: Blackberry’s restaurant Plainfield, New Jersey?
Blackberry’s for me was pretty significant. Its nightmare started seven years ago with the restaurant, a full proof restaurant called The Sultry Shack. It was run by the major called Streeter Jones. When we did our first-ever “Kitchen Nightmares” in Britain on the south coast of England it went on to win a Baxter Hedley award it could possibly win.
So I walked in there with a love of soul food and being in amongst that sort of neighborhood, that’s how I grew up. We didn’t have anything near as glamorous. It was a hard working blue collar neighborhood and minimum worker living. The mom and dad were out all day and you got home from school and you had your tea. No one left anything and you loved eating out as a treat once a month if you’re lucky.
So I was really excited in what is the Sultry Restaurant. What I wasn’t excited about was the owner. Her mother was an absolute sweetheart. Her boyfriend was young, but he understood the importance of change. She was in denial in a way, so we butted heads and I didn’t argue. I just sort of left her to her own devices and she made it clear that she would not be there and we tried. We tried so hard.
And the confusing part is that when the rest of them are working, these outlets lean towards more catering, very true for a catering setting; it’s completely different when one is running a restaurant. If you go to their catering in a restaurant, then you’re not going out for dinner. So I had a big battle with her to try to get her to understand that there’s a massive difference, a huge leap between dining and catering. She didn’t get it. It was a first for me.
Here I am in a soul food restaurant, a friendly neighborhood, rough and tumble, and there’s a Chinese wok in the kitchen. I mean, come on! A Chinese wok in a soul food restaurant?
How are they going to work? What was the big concern? The big concern was the pizza oven! It was almost like they were putting these things in there to rattle me.
Let’s wind him up. OK, let’s get the English big shouty man upset. Let’s put a Chinese wok in our soul restaurant and let’s put in a pizza oven. Let’s really piss him off.
In some of previous “Kitchen Nightmares” episodes, you found that one jewel in the kitchen, that one employee that was not being put to the test. And when you put them to the test not only did they meet expectations, but excelled past it — like somebody who’s just a dishwasher or a prep cook and it turns out that they’re actually a very good chef in their own right. You’ve actually put them in a position where they really do well in the new position that they have. Are there any people you’ve come across where the owner of the restaurant or the head chef of the restaurant says “They’re nobody,” and it turns out this person could cook with the best of them?
I’m not very good at spotting talent and I try to when I see the hunger in their eyes. We all have opportunities in life and nothing gets given to anyone on the plate, so I’m very grateful for Ruth kicking my ass, sending me to France. I’m very grateful for Martha White getting to Pierre … So the whole thing is a springboard. You need that one little break and then you’re on the track to success if you stay on it.
So, yes, I found one guy in a Greek restaurant this year who was almost I suppose constantly sort of shot down by his dad that in his eyes, he could never step up to the plate. This guy ran the service like we never expected. Honestly this guy was almost sort of becoming a bit of a sort of filler in, run around and in his early 30s was a bit of a go-for for his dad and never really had an identity, so the staff in that restaurant didn’t take him serious.
So yes, this was amazing because I’d never seen anyone run a hot plate and coordinate a kitchen and multi-task the way he did. He just snapped into it almost like he’d been trained for six months to gear up for that one night. And he kept it all in and it just went crazy. It was an amazing thing to see.
But we come across these little gems and they are few and far between. I can’t absolutely ever put money into these restaurants because that’s a production thing. I can’t be seen to favor one. I can’t be seen to employ any of them either, because it looks like I’m then robbing them of their status. But we are asked all the time I would to leave with you, can you take me. It’s hard because I don’t care what any of the negativities are. There’s so much more politics and tough love and there’s a big requirement. Like I said after 48 hours, they can’t stand you.
But then we were tortured. They didn’t communicate. They show you nothing. And then when you start showing them the change and the difference and then all of a sudden they start to almost nearing your side and they come back. And then you go out on a high, but it’s a bumpy road, so there’s no restaurant anywhere in this country tonight, tomorrow and even in the U.K. that won’t have a bump in service. And the most important thing is stop taking it personally. Just get on with it.
Some of these restaurants have these high visions of themselves, and you try and bring them back to the basics. And there are some that are still in the Dark Ages and you bring them forward to a place where they’ve redeveloped themselves entirely. Are you going to find more restaurants like that?
The situation this year the corporate is always going to survive, because they have the cash flow and the bigger picture with 20, 30 restaurants or multiple are going to survive. The family run businesses have been hit hard than ever before and that’s pretty evident.
But I found an amazing restaurant in L.A. of all places, very good restaurant that opened to huge success. And then the son didn’t want to put all the money in and they ended up putting all the money in and then his father started fighting with the help. Honestly, you go anywhere in the world today any customer … instantly there and then.
So it’s not about our three, four long lead, but I’ve always said the quicker you get, the blood is in and you can start perfecting, we kick off a better “Kitchen” in two week’s time. This is our biggest and our boldest adventure coming …. We’ve never ever been this big …
So taking criticism is only going to make me better. Unfortunately, a lot of these owners shut their doors down because what they believe is better than what people know is better they don’t take on board. And that’s a great shame.
A lot of the people have on your reality shows have learned a lot from you. What have you learned from them?
What have I learned from them? I’ve learned things to find only chefs that put small portions on plates and charges a fortune … It’s been a 25 year journey to get there. You don’t just jump into fine dining because you have a vision from a bistro style environment.
What I’ve learned more than anything is the research that goes into the ethnic restaurants. This year Greek restaurants are highly gender, fusion, Asian. So I quite like being selfish and delving into I suppose the estimating importance of reestablishing it.
We’ve just done a smokehouse here in Atlanta. It was amazing, but the whole setup was extraordinary. They had these $14,000 smokers; amazing. It was like Rolls Royces in the kitchen. I turned up and they served me smoked wings and they were smoked wings from three days ago. And yet they were taking fresh wings out. They were so scared of being busy they got themselves so booked out in advance with ordering the food and cooking on an industrial sort of level, as opposed to an authentic level. So I love delving into that authenticity.
I just recently came back from Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Thailand. I went to live with a family in Vietnam. I spent a week in a cooking school where you pay the family to stay and we went up into the mountains and you just watch. We were in the sort of camp watching and tasting everything.
And so no dairy, no cream, no butter — buying produce fresh twice a day, go to local markets or the local fisher and it was just amazing. So the Vietnamese level of insight on food-wise I think being multi-cultural and broaden those horizons and bringing that level of no dairy is quite apt today. I think every chef in the country should cook for month with no dairy. You’ll surprise yourself.
What advice do you give to people going into the restaurant business?
We’ve just come across another restaurant in Atlanta where the owner and partner, he completed culinary school May 20, , and then straight in from culinary school, he jumped into opening an restaurant. I can’t think of anything more dangerous. Cooking is like going to the law school or becoming a doctor. There’s a 10-to-14-year apprenticeship that you have to go through to understand the balance, the vision, and not your craft.
There are never two days the same in any restaurant. It’s an exciting journey, but you have to do the homework. You have to do the craft. It doesn’t just happen because you have a grade one particularly coming from culinary school. Find a second language, understand what the restaurant means in that neighborhood and forget styles, accolades, books, TV. Forget that and just focus on knowledge.
Because I look at the different insights now in terms of the India experience two years ago and the Vietnamese, my two years in France. Spain, I lived there for nine months; Italy for seven months and it’s all helping now. So I didn’t have the time, and now that I have broadened my horizons, I think back to those amazing magical moments on a boat without a pot to piss in and just buying fresh fish off the coast of Sardinia and then learning, learning how to make the most amazing polenta properly done with staff.
What do you feel the number-one issue that most of these establishments that you visit seem to have, as far as the difficulties that they’re finding in running a successful restaurant?
Most of them become static. They forget to fight to move on. They get there and they open. They trade, but then they unknown to them, they’re in a time warp from the first minute that door opened. The secret of any successful business in a restaurant is staying in front of your customers and moving on that person before with the lady in front of you. The secret is to stay in front of your customers because once you’ve opened these businesses you’re in it, the only way you can improve is by going and eating out because you can’t disappear for two months and travel and understand.
The biggest problem is they get comfortable and then they forget to fight. They forget, “OK, we have to move on.” Everything has to evolve. You don’t need to go fine-dining crazy, but you need to work up with new ideas.
The staff is going to be inspired and so they get complacent because they think that they have a restaurant, but they don’t understand what’s open within a five mile radius. And that is something they need to know on a daily basis.
And I always say running up to launching a restaurant once the restaurant is open, check out the reviews. Find what’s hot. Find what’s just opened and then look for the worse review of the week in any restaurant and getting there. There is so much to learn from watching a restaurant getting absolutely panned and having a bad experience. Go and see it for yourself.
There’s so much to learn and that’s what you get, I think, in a way. It doesn’t mean that they’re lazy. But they don’t understand the importance of having their own situation becoming stale and how trendy are restaurants now. Within six months, 12 months, you can become old hat, depending on the energy inside those four walls.
For more info: “Kitchen Nightmares”
RELATED LINKS ON knotmove.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,” June 2010
Interview with Gordon Ramsay for “Kitchen Nightmares,” January 2011
Interview with Gordon Ramsay for “MasterChef,” June 2011
“Kitchen Nightmares” news and reviews