How Thomas Keller transformed American cuisine by combining French snobbery with a greenmarket sensibility.
Once upon a time, a young chef, still reeling from a failed restaurant in New York City, found himself in beautiful Yountville, Calif., among the vineyards of Napa Valley. He found a building that had once been a brothel, and then a French steam laundry, but was now a restaurant owned by the local mayor and his wife. Over the next two years this chef, Thomas Keller, raised more than $1 million, and in 1994 his new restaurant, aptly called the French Laundry, opened its doors.
It was the beginning of a restaurateur’s dream come true—one that forever transformed the U.S. food scene. By 1997, Ruth Reichl, then food critic of The New York Times, had called the French Laundry the most exciting restaurant in America. The French Laundry Cookbook, published in 1999, is now in its 16th printing. Keller has put together an impressive string of successes, opening a French brasserie, Bouchon, along with the more casual Bouchon Bakery as well as the family-friendly Ad Hoc, all in Yountville. He’s since rolled out outposts of Bouchon in Las Vegas and Beverly Hills. He plans to open a second Bouchon Bakery in New York next year.
Alice Waters and Chez Panisse may have started the locavore movement. Jean-Georges Vongerichten perfected high-end fusion cooking, and Wolfgang Puck created the celebrity chef. But Keller, with his emphasis on flights of tiny courses, his application of rigorous classical French technique to both high and low cuisine, created a new style of fine American dining. A decade later, there is still a two-month wait for a table at the French Laundry.
Keller has become the only American chef to be awarded three Michelin stars for two different restaurants, the French Laundry and Per Se (which marked his triumphant return in 2004 to New York City). He is the darling of the James Beard Foundation, with awards for best American chef, outstanding chef, and best new restaurant (for Per Se), among others. “Most anyone who’s been to Per Se, and I imagine to the French Laundry as well, has seen how an American, cooking mostly American food, can make a restaurant experience to equal any other in the world,” says Sam Sifton, food critic for The New York Times. “For a young nation, that’s something.”
Yet Keller comes off as exceedingly modest. He didn’t attend culinary school, choosing instead to apprentice himself to master chefs in the U.S. and France, landing his first job as chef de cuisine at La Reserve in New York in 1984. He insists that the secret to his success is not talent but hard work and an obsessive dedication to detail. The French Laundry has featured a new menu every day since it opened; Keller will serve asparagus there only during the three or four weeks in early spring when it is at its peak. “It’s all about ingredients and execution,” he says. “That’s the equation for good cooking.”
Keller’s very success—and the requisite temptation to expand—could ultimately threaten the culinary perfectionism upon which his reputation rests. Ad Hoc’s famous fried-chicken recipe is now sold as a kit by Williams-Sonoma stores, alongside cookie mixes from Bouchon Bakery. So far, however, Keller seems to have walked the fine line between cashing in and selling out. “If I have to be a brand,” he says, “I am determined to be Hermès.”
Tom Colicchio talks about what to avoid if you want to succeed as a restaurant owner.
Restaurant owner Tom Colicchio has won almost every major culinary prize out there—including the James Beard award for best chef in 2010. In other words, the man knows a little something about running a successful enterprise or two. But he’s also seen how restaurant owners can make painful mistakes before they even get their establishment up and running. Colicchio spoke to NEWSWEEK’s Jessica Ramirez about what new restaurateurs must avoid if the want to do well in this business. His advice:
DON’T THINK GOOD DINNER HOST EQUALS GOOD RESTAURANT OWNER You need to know that just because you’re good at some aspect of cooking doesn’t mean you can run a place. For example, some people with no restaurant experience have dinner parties at home and think maybe it’s a cool thing to do for a living. That’s not quite how it works because the expectation is different. If the air conditioner breaks at 8 p.m. and everybody’s screaming at you that your restaurant’s too hot, that’s not fun. Your friends at home at your dinner party won’t yell at you.
DON’T ASSUME THE BUSINESS END IF YOU DON’T KNOW IT You can be a great chef, but if you can’t control costs you don’t stay in business. Get the right people—like lawyers—to look over business contracts. I actually have attorneys that do it for me, partly because I’m a lousy negotiator. The other option is look for a partner who can bring those [business skills] to the table, someone who can negotiate that contract on your behalf, someone who’s not going to run the restaurant day in and day out, but who you can turn to for business advice. That’s what I did. I have a backer—his name is Robert Scott, who, before retiring, was the president of Morgan Stanley. I would always rely on him for business advice. So if you take on a partner, don’t just look for someone who’s going to give you money. You want someone who you can also go to for advice.
DON’T LEAVE LAWS AND REGULATIONS TO SOMEONE ELSE In this age, HR is so important. I’m not saying you should have an HR director at a small restaurant, but a lot of people are getting sued these days. So you really need to understand local labor laws because you don’t have to be doing something maliciously to get sued. For instance, there’s [a New York regulation that refers to what’s] called “spread of hours.” Let’s just say an employee works a split shift. So this waiter comes in and he worked three hours for the lunch service, and he takes off for three hours, and comes back and works dinner for six hours. If the spread of hours, including the break, is more than 10 hours, you have to pay [one hour of additional pay for each hour in excess of 10 hours]. So a lot of these laws are bizarre, but not knowing them can hurt you.
DON’T TRY TO BE EVERYTHING TO EVERYONE Try to figure out what you want to be and stick to that. You can’t be everything to everybody. You have to figure out your price point and figure out how to deliver quality and value at that price point. Then every decision you make is in support of that concept and that price point.
DON’T SPEND WHEN YOU DON’T HAVE TO Designwise—and I learned this the hard way—you can probably spend a lot less than you think you can or than you think you need to. Once you’re presented with a design from an architect, try to take money out of it. If you don’t, then you end up spending way too much for things that really, at the end of the day, won’t make much of a difference to your bottom line.
BY this point, nearly everyone agrees that dining out has replaced going to the theater and that chefs are rock stars. So why don’t restaurants sell tickets?
Grant Achatz, the highly praised chef of Alinea in Chicago, has asked himself the same question. Now, he says that with his next restaurant (called, naturally, Next Restaurant), that’s just what he’ll do.
Anyone wishing to eat at Next after its scheduled opening in the fall will pay in advance on its Web site. Like airlines, Next will offer cheaper tickets for off-peak hours. A table at 9:30 on a Tuesday night, say, would cost less than one for Saturday at 8. Ticket prices will also vary based on the menu, but will run from $45 to $75 for a five- or six-course meal, according to the site, nextrestaurant.com. (Wine and beverage pairings, bought with the ticket, will begin at $25.)
The menu will change four times a year, with each new edition featuring the cuisine of a particular place and time. When the restaurant opens, Mr. Achatz said, the theme will be Paris in 1912, with painstakingly researched evocations of Escoffier-era cuisine. Three months later, the kitchen will turn out a fresh set of recipes — evoking, say, postwar Sicily, or Hong Kong 25 years from now, with modern techniques employed to imagine the future of Chinese cuisine.
Subscriptions to a year’s worth of space-and-time coordinates will also be sold.
“We now pay three or four reservationists all day long to basically tell people they can’t come to the restaurant,” Mr. Achatz said of Alinea. With Next, he intends to strip away those and other hidden costs of dining out. “It allows us to give an experience that is actually great value,” he said. “That’s the theory.”
But the plan would also have value for Mr. Achatz and his main partner in Next and Alinea, Nick Kokonas. By law, restaurants may distribute tips only to those employees who work in service. But the service charge included in the ticket price “gives him control over the money,” said Bill Guilfoyle, an associate professor of business management at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. “He can give it to whomever he sees fit.”
Mr. Achatz could pay cooks more than members of the wait staff, a reversal of the usual pecking order that could allow him to recruit shining kitchen talent. Mr. Guilfoyle also said that the 150 or so tickets that Next sells each night could mean a cash-flow bonanza like the one Starbucks enjoys on its cash cards. Starbucks had a multimillion-dollar “float of products the customers had paid for but hadn’t collected yet,” he said. “If Achatz is smart, he’ll invest this in the futures market.”
Much of the work of taking reservations has already migrated to the Internet. Customers who book seatings at unpopular hours on Open Table earn points that add up to cash vouchers accepted by all restaurants that the service represents.
The restaurateur David Chang has an online reservation system at his Momofuku Ko, although checks are settled at meal’s end. He said that the savings in payroll and staff time have been tremendous. He had considered off-peak pricing, too, but was afraid it would turn off customers. “It’s going to irritate very many people,” Mr. Chang said of the ticket plan. “But I think it’s liberating, and a lot of restaurants are going to follow suit.”
But Mr. Achatz, who is also working on concurrent plans to open a bar called Aviary, hopes that people won’t be irritated once they enjoy the convenience of a meal with no decisions to be made and no check to be signed. “There’s no transactions in the restaurant at all,” he said. “So you can literally come in, sit down, start your experience, and when you’re done, you just get up and leave.”
By PETE WELLS
Thomas Keller runs a food empire that started in Napa Valley but now extends to New York, Beverly Hills, Calif., and Las Vegas. The chef's flagship restaurant in Yountville, the French Laundry, has three Michelin stars, as does his New York restaurant, Per Se.
Mr. Keller recently discussed celebrity chefs, his favorite places to eat and the differences between running restaurants in various parts of the country (hint: there isn't much of a difference). The 54-year-old Napa Valley resident chatted while at the Pebble Beach Food and Wine festival last week—in between a demonstration on how to perfectly roast a chicken and preparing a nine-course dinner for 100 guests:
WSJ: There is an influx of celebrity chefs opening restaurants in Napa County. Is it becoming a bit like Las Vegas?
Mr. Keller: I don't think Vegas is a bad thing. As long as the chef respects his standards and his reputation, then he is going to do really good food. Vegas had the image at one point that chefs went there to make a lot of money, but I don't think that's really the case.
When you think about Napa Valley, it's the only place in our country where people go to eat and drink. That's all they go there for. It's not New York City, where you've got the cultural aspect of it, where you can go to the MoMA or the Statue of Liberty. Napa's got the greatest wineries. You've got to have great restaurants. Wine and food just go together. So from a chef's point of view, where would you want to be?
In New York, people come to Per Se because it's a closing [of a deal] or they're going there before the theater—there are all these different reasons to go to restaurants. But in Napa Valley, that's it. They're there to eat and drink.
WSJ: So what's the difference between operating a restaurant in Napa and New York City?
Mr. Keller: Outside of local regulations, really nothing. They're unique in the sense of their place, French Laundry being in the country in Napa Valley and Per Se being in the middle of an urban environment. For example, we have the three-acre garden in Napa that we can't have in New York City because that would be a big part of Central Park and I don't think they would like that.
WSJ: How are the diners different?
Mr. Keller: They're not. You're not the only person that it sounds odd to, and I'm not sure why, because when you're dealing at that high-end level, it's the same type of client. It's the person that appreciates the quality.
We don't think about our guests. We think about what we're doing. We do what we believe in, not what our guests want us to do.
WSJ: What do you make of the trend of celebrity chefs?
Mr. Keller: I don't understand the celebrity chef thing. [The media] can give it and take it away, so it's something that's really irrelevant to me.
When I started cooking, it didn't exist. There were certainly no national celebrities in the restaurant industry. There were a few around the world but those were always associated with France where there has always been that deep respect for the culinary world. Our culture didn't have that.
Of course, what Americans do the best is to elevate things to unrealistic platforms without a lot of foundation behind it. We fall into this trap of having to have celebrities.
WSJ: You're a celebrity chef, though.
Mr. Keller: I don't establish myself as a celebrity. You would establish me as a celebrity. I try to keep arm's length at it.
WSJ: How have celebrity chefs affected cuisine?
Mr. Keller: It's certainly made it better. The quality of the produce that we have in our stores is because chefs demanded better products from suppliers. Guests would come into my restaurant, see baby lettuce, go to their marketplace and say, "Where can I get baby lettuce?" All of a sudden the demand is created.
WSJ: What are your favorite places to eat in the Bay Area?
Mr. Keller: Certainly, Chez Panisse has always been a favorite place to eat, for me. In San Francisco, I'd probably have to say Delfina, although I haven't been to Delfina for five years probably. Taqueria [on Mission and 24th Street]. That's a great restaurant.
Write to Ben Worthen at email@example.com
We imagine most restaurant menu meetings focus on what's in season or maybe what dishes customers particularly enjoyed. But Grant Achatz worries about nothing less than the whole culinary world closing in. In a particularly revealing video posted to the Alinea's YouTube channel, Achatz meets with his fellow chefs to discuss changes to the menu, and his unending search to "push it more."
He seems concerned with the problem of developing a style without getting stuck in a rut. The culprit of his self doubt is a dish of squid and green garbanzo beans. Achatz's girlfriend Heather Sperling, who is also the Chicago editor of Tasting Table, mentioned that it was her favorite dish on a recent visit to the Publican, which reminded him of a dish on their own menu. "Did they get that from us, or did we get that from them?"
The Publican version of the squid and green garbanzo bean dish is off the menu tonight, though it will probably be back on by Thursday. Let us know if you try it.
See the video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qgriXQZVHCk&feature=player_embedded
I just got back from a long weekend in Philadelphia, and I didn't see a single nettle on the menu. It was a very enlightening trip. Traveling to other cities is one of the most important aspects of a critic's education. When we don't get out, it's easy to take for granted what we do well in the Bay Area, and not focus on the things we're missing.
There's a lot of excitement on the dining scene in Philadelphia these days, and it was impossible to cover all the new places that had opened. I was there with friends and colleagues from around the country, so we'd go out at night and compare notes the next day.
I could write several posts on my meals, but I'll cut to the important part: the elements of the dining experience that made me wish we had something similar here.
First thing I'd do if I had my way is to plunk Zahav down South of Market near my house. Michael Solomonov offers his interpretation of Israeli food, in a space that has an industrial edge with large windows overlooking Society Hill, an open wood oven and a kitchen sequestered behind paned glass, where diners can sit at the counter and watch the heated action.
On entering, diners see Solomonov warming his back in front of the oven as he rolls out flatbread and places it in the oven where it quickly puffs and browns. He then removes it and loosely drapes the hot bread next to the creamiest, most intensely flavored hummus I've encountered. The small plates menu also includes such items as cauliflower that's browned to a mahogany hue and accented with yogurt flavored with chives, dill, garlic and mint; crispy haloumi with dates and pinenuts; and grape leaves stuffed with veal.
Chifa showcases Jose Garces Peruvian/Cantonese food in another stylish restaurant that features a collection of blue and white jars covering the walls and huge industrial fans hanging from the ceiling. I'd love to see his red curry with king crab, tofu, eggplant, coconut and jasmine rice show up on a menu here. His ceviches are pretty special too, but at least we have similar items at places like La Mar and Limon.
From Amis, which is Mark Vetri's new Roman trattoria that's been open only about two weeks and has a very San Francisco vibe, I'd love to transport the mortadella mousse, where the whipped charcuterie has the texture of whipped butter, served with slices of toasted baguette. I also long for someone to recreate the artichokes, where the frilly ends are browned and crisp, giving way to a nutty, soft interior.
At the sister restaurant, Vetri, I had the tasting menu that included a haunch of baby goat. Vetri procures animals that are between 16 and 21 pounds and slow roasts them over mesquite. They're strongly flavored but the sweetness of the meat still shines.
The polished, knowledgeable service orchestrated by Kristina Burke at James is another thing I'd like to send to San Francisco. In fact, at all of the places I was impressed by the professionalism of the staff. When it comes to food, I longingly remember Jim Burke's tender ribbons of pasta lightly tossed with duck ragout, shaved chocolate and orange. We ordered it as a challenge, and gave up any pretense of doubt about his talent with the first bite.
And then there are the local specialties: the soft, buttery pretzels that are the best I've ever tasted from Miller's in the Reading Terminal Market, and John's Roast Pork, where owner John Bucci, Jr. carries on a tradition started by his father in 1930.
The seasoned meat is sliced thin and piled into a soft bun with sharp provolone. I also fell in love with the cheesesteak and the fried chicken wings, generously coated with fine bread crumbs mixed with paprika, cayenne and salt, and then fried to a resonate crunch. These are a relatively new addition and found their way onto the menu when the restaurant added a fryer in 1988.
Yet, something like Philly cheesesteak connotes such a strong sense of place, it may be one of those dishes best preserved in its own locale. It only gives us another excuse to go to Philadelphia.
After a year in which his global restaurant empire almost went bankrupt, the bad boy of British cuisine is serving cheaper cuts of meat and focusing on television.
By William Green
Bloomberg Markets, January 2010
On a gray morning in October, Gordon Ramsay bursts into the kitchen of his south London house, pop music blaring from the radio. At the heart of the room stands a 67,000-pound ($109,000) French cooking range that weighs 2.5 tons and had to be lowered by crane into the celebrity chef’s home.
Ramsay, who is 6 feet 2 inches (1.88 meters) tall and weighs 215 pounds (98 kilograms), is wearing jeans, a tight black T-shirt that accentuates his muscles and a Bell & Ross watch -- a Swiss brand marketed to soldiers, bomb-disposal experts and other “men facing extreme situations.”
The 43-year-old Scot pours himself a juice, sits at the kitchen table and looks back on his own extreme situation: a year in which his global restaurant empire almost went bankrupt.
In the fall of 2008, his London-based Gordon Ramsay Holdings Ltd. breached the covenants on a 10.5 million-pound loan and overdraft facility from Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc. The bank hired KPMG to perform an independent review of the firm, 69 percent of which is owned by Ramsay and 31 percent by his father-in-law, Chris Hutcheson. In late December, Ramsay says, KPMG recommended that the company declare bankruptcy, fire hundreds of people and close all but its best-performing restaurants.
‘On the Line’
“Everything was on the line,” Ramsay says. “December, January, February and March were the most highly pressurized, s---tiest, most awful four months I’ve ever had in business.” Ramsay was in Hollywood for most of the first 12 weeks of 2009 shooting the U.S. version of Hell’s Kitchen, the reality show he fronts for the Fox network. After a day of filming, he’d often be on the phone for hours at night, talking with Hutcheson about how to save their business.
The stress was so intense, he says, that he’d go for runs in Malibu at 4:30 a.m., wearing a black vest loaded with 20 kilograms of weights. “I just ran and ran and ran,” he says. For Ramsay, bankruptcy was unthinkable even if it made financial sense.
“There was no f---ing way that was ever going to happen,” he says. “That was never even an option.”
Ramsay’s fame would have made it the most public of failures.
“He’s one of the great chefs,” says Jean-Luc Naret, Paris-based director of the Michelin Guide series, which awards the stars that are the Oscars of the food world. Restaurant Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road is London’s only dining spot with three Michelin stars. In all, Ramsay boasts 12 stars, surpassed only by Frenchmen Joel Robuchon (25) and Alain Ducasse (18).
By 2009, Ramsay had about 20 restaurants as far afield as Dubai, New York, Paris, Prague and Tokyo. He also starred in five TV shows that reinforced his image as a master chef who swears and shouts in pursuit of perfection.
In the U.K., he earns more than 2 million pounds annually from Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares and The F Word, in which his culinary adventures with celebrities have included creating breast-milk cappuccinos. In 2009, Hutcheson says Ramsay’s talent fees from U.S. shows alone hit $9 million.
Ramsay has also published two autobiographies and lent his name to 23 cookbooks. According to Nielsen BookScan, his books, which have been translated into 18 languages, have generated almost 25 million pounds in U.K. sales alone. Ramsay also endorses pots, pans, glasses and china branded as Gordon Ramsay by Royal Doulton, and he’s Diageo Plc’s U.K. pitchman for Gordon’s Gin. Hutcheson says Ramsay makes about 3 million pounds a year from endorsements.
All of this has placed Ramsay at the vanguard of a generation of celebrity chefs with such myriad business interests that they barely cook.
‘International and Sexy’
“Television made our profession really international and sexy,” says Austrian-born chef Wolfgang Puck, who began appearing on U.S. morning television in the 1980s. Today, Puck, 60, has more than 90 restaurants and says he generates $50 million a year in sales of cookware and appliances.
Ramsay, too, has focused on TV in amassing a fortune that London’s Sunday Times estimated in April 2008 at 50 million pounds.
“He’s perhaps the most media-enhanced chef in history,” says Bill Guilfoyle, a restaurant marketing expert at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.
Ramsay’s empire expanded just as the global recession deepened. He opened eight restaurants in 2008 and was particularly exposed as diners cut their spending. Brand-name chefs like Ducasse and Robuchon seldom own their restaurants outright; instead, they sign consulting deals under which they provide chefs, create a menu and run the operation. Ramsay’s company owned almost all of its restaurants and was on the hook for everything from rent to salaries.
“We weren’t unlucky,” says Hutcheson, 61, chief executive officer of Gordon Ramsay Holdings. “We were clumsy. We’d put too many risks in front of us with too much confidence that nothing would fail.”
For Ramsay, this was especially embarrassing because Kitchen Nightmares showcases him as a savior of other people’s restaurants.
“It’s not great if you’re making a show called Kitchen Nightmares and advising people on how to fix their businesses for you to go bankrupt,” says Pat Llewellyn, producer of the program and Ramsay’s partner in a production company called One Potato Two Potato.
Ramsay was, at least, no stranger to hardship. The son of a failed musician who worked as a day laborer, he grew up poor in Glasgow, Scotland and Stratford-upon-Avon, England. In his 2006 autobiography, Humble Pie (Harper), he describes his late father, also named Gordon, as a wife-beating alcoholic and thief, whose favorite punishment was to thrash the back of his son’s legs with a belt. Ramsay’s mother, Helen, raised their four children, baking bread when she couldn’t afford to buy it and cooking them dishes such as ham hock soup or sausages and beans. His father’s view, Ramsay writes, was that “only poofs cook.”
A knee injury wrecked Ramsay’s dreams of a soccer career. So he stumbled into a hotel management course before taking a series of junior cooking jobs.
In 1989, his fascination with haute cuisine was awakened at Harvey’s, a London restaurant run by Marco Pierre White, the first British chef with three Michelin stars. Ramsay then moved to London’s top French restaurant, Le Gavroche, as an apprentice chef. Michel Roux Jr., now its head chef, says Ramsay was late for work in his first week after being arrested for jumping over a London underground turnstile to avoid the fare.
While Roux says Ramsay was unruly, he made up for it in the kitchen. “He was beautiful to watch,” Roux says. “He’s a very naturally gifted chef. He has the taste, the eye of an artist, the efficiency, and he’s ruthlessly hardworking.”
Ramsay spent three years in France, including a stint with Robuchon, where he mastered the essentials of French cuisine. Then, in 1993, he became head chef at Aubergine in London.
“He was an animal, a monster; he was horrible,” says Angela Hartnett, who worked with him there. Hartnett says Ramsay once threw oysters at her after she’d opened them imperfectly. “He’d always say, ‘Why are you diluting my standards?’”
Nonetheless, Hartnett has worked with Ramsay for 16 years and is currently head chef at Murano, one of his London restaurants. One reason she stayed was the quality of his cuisine, which features lighter sauces using less butter and cream.
“He took classic French cooking and modernized it,” Hartnett says.
Pursuit of Perfection
Friends say Ramsay is hard-wired for perfection.
“If he were in a line of washer uppers in a prison, he’d want to do it the best and fastest,” producer Llewellyn says. Aubergine won two stars in 1997, and Ramsay decided he deserved more than the 25 percent stake its owners had given him. Ramsay quit, triggering a lawsuit for breach of contract that the parties settled out of court.
Ramsay had just married a schoolteacher, Tana Hutcheson, with whom he now has three daughters and a son between the ages of 7 and 11. Tana’s father, Chris, who owned a printing company, risked 1 million pounds in cash and loan guarantees to bankroll the Royal Hospital Road restaurant in 1998.
He and Ramsay have been partners ever since, and their bond goes beyond business. “He’s my son-in-law but, actually, he’s my son,” Hutcheson says.
The Royal Hospital Road restaurant, with signature dishes like lobster ravioli in a lemon grass and chervil sauce, won its third star in 2001. By then, Ramsay was as famous for his temper as his cooking. A British TV documentary called Boiling Point showed him spitting out food and firing a waiter for serving the wrong appetizer. Ramsay even ejected restaurant reviewer A.A. Gill -- along with his guest, actress Joan Collins -- for criticizing him in print.
“I’ve become more mature,” Ramsay says now. “I wouldn’t say mellow. I still get incredibly frustrated.”
Many employees defend him, saying he’s generous and loyal. “He’s definitely not malicious,” says Josh Emett, head chef at Gordon Ramsay at The London in New York. “He’s passionate.”
Ramsay’s breakthrough came in 2001, when private-equity firm Blackstone Group LP asked him to run the restaurant at Claridge’s, one of four landmark hotels it then owned in London. Since the 1850s, Claridge’s had been patronized by famous guests ranging from Queen Victoria to Cary Grant.
“I thought it would be clever to have a bad boy there, and Gordon was the baddest,” says John Ceriale, Blackstone’s senior adviser for the lodging industry.
Ramsay’s arrival attracted a thousand calls a day for dining reservations, Ceriale says, and the restaurant has since made Gordon Ramsay Holdings as much as 2 million pounds a year. In 2002, Ceriale also put Ramsay in charge of all food at the Connaught and installed him at the Savoy Grill, a 120-year-old restaurant in the Savoy Hotel once run by French culinary legend Auguste Escoffier. A year later, Ramsay opened two restaurants in the Blackstone-owned Berkeley hotel.
In 2004, Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares debuted in the U.K., making him a household name. Mike Darnell, Fox’s president of alternative entertainment, saw him in a reality series, Hell’s Kitchen, and signed him to make U.S. versions of both shows. According to Hutcheson, Ramsay earns about $250,000 per episode. On Nov. 3, Fox announced that Ramsay will also star in MasterChef, an American version of the British cookery contest.
“He can’t walk the streets of New York without people shouting and screaming,” Darnell says. “He’s like a rock star.”
The TV work, along with his international restaurant expansion, has triggered accusations that Ramsay is spread too thin. Richard Harden, co-founder of the guidebook Harden’s London Restaurants, says he was the city’s best chef for 10 years.
“Many of his restaurants have lost their way,” Harden says. “If you’ve got so many interests that are so geographically diverse, you can’t give them all proper attention.”
Jay Rayner, restaurant critic for the Observer newspaper, says Ramsay’s food is “out-of-date” as he doesn’t have time to create new dishes. “It’s no longer top-notch,” Rayner says.
While Ramsay bristles at such criticism, saying consistency is more important to him than being avant-garde, he makes no apology for spending less time at the stove. “You tell me a chef anywhere in the world that’s prepared to turn down quarter of a million dollars for an hour’s work on TV, and they’re the biggest lying bastard that ever put on a chef’s jacket,” he says.
By 2006, Ramsay had nine restaurants in London. Ceriale then asked him to create restaurants in Blackstone’s overseas hotels, too. Ramsay opened in New York that year; Prague and Boca Raton, Florida, in 2007; and Hollywood and Paris in 2008. He rented the properties from Blackstone and used his non- restaurant earnings to equip the kitchens -- a strategy he says made sense because it deployed income that would have been taxed at 40 percent in the U.K.
Every one of these overseas ventures has lost money. In New York, where he opened two restaurants in Blackstone’s London NYC hotel, Ramsay says losses reached $4 million a year, with a unionized staff costing 80 percent of revenue.
Hutcheson says he and Ramsay didn’t think locally. For example, they neglected to take into account how little alcohol New Yorkers would order at lunch. Ramsay’s foray into Prague failed in early 2009. He also tripped up in France where he opened at the Trianon Palace Versailles, on the outskirts of Paris. Hutcheson says they lost as much as 200,000 euros ($295,000) a month there in 2008, with wages consuming 90 percent of revenue.
Ramsay’s ambitions in France were fueled by ego, Ceriale says, as he dreamed of winning three stars in the home of haute cuisine.
“I totally agree,” Ramsay says. “The French have been brilliant over the last 20 years at coming over to our country and telling us how crap our food is.”
Hutcheson says this emotional approach became a liability once the credit crisis struck. In late 2008, when RBS wanted to assess whether its loan was at risk, he says his accounts department couldn’t provide the relevant financial data. The company was also 7.2 million pounds in arrears on U.K. taxes. At the time, Ramsay and Hutcheson had 1,250 employees, up from 45 in 1998.
“The company just grew too quickly and no one kept on top of it,” Murano’s Hartnett says.
To avert bankruptcy, Ramsay and Hutcheson poured nearly 9 million pounds of their personal savings into Gordon Ramsay Holdings in 2009, 69 percent of it from Ramsay. They worked out an extension of tax payments with the British government and cut the staff at their London headquarters to 58 from 86.
Hutcheson says he told Ceriale the company would go bankrupt unless they could renegotiate their contracts with Blackstone.
“Shuttering the restaurants would not have been the best outcome for us or Gordon,” Ceriale says. “They needed to restructure the business, and we were the key to restructuring it.”
After weeks of negotiation, Blackstone agreed to assume ownership of the restaurants in Hollywood and Versailles, paying Ramsay a consulting fee to run them. The restaurant in Prague was closed in February. In November, Blackstone also took control of Ramsay’s restaurant in Boca Raton and his two restaurants in New York, paying him a percentage of revenues to oversee them as a consultant.
“Financially, we weren’t going to come out with much,” Hutcheson says. “But you just want to stop these apparently endless losses.”
In Ramsay’s remaining restaurants, everything is now about cost control. In London, his bistro Foxtrot Oscar has closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Stuart Gillies, his head chef at Boxwood Cafe in The Berkeley, has saved 1,500 pounds a month by no longer ordering flowers, and he now uses cheaper cuts of meat, such as beef shoulder, that he says require more skill to prepare.
Hutcheson says the worst is over and Gordon Ramsay Holdings should generate 7 million pounds to 8 million pounds in earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization in the fiscal year ending in August. The company is also moving ahead with two new projects in 2010: Petrus, which had two Michelin stars, will relocate in London’s Belgravia neighborhood in January, and the Savoy Grill will reopen after a renovation.
Still, Ramsay will focus as much as ever on TV. “I want a life out of my kitchen,” he says.
In the future, Hutcheson says restaurants may become even less of a priority for Ramsay.
“I can run the business in Gordon’s name,” he says. “TV is his forte. That’s what he likes doing.”
Ramsay says his restless ambition stems from his childhood. He sometimes forces himself to recall those days as a reminder of how far he wants his life to be from that misery.
“Trust me,” he says. “That’s enough to keep anyone f---ing moving a thousand miles an hour.”
Jose Garces, Philadelphia's "it" chef-restaurateur, was announced Sunday as the newest member of the Food Network's Iron Chef America team -- not only earning him bragging rights, but also directing an international spotlight on his fast-growing empire run out of Old City.
On The Next Iron Chef, Garces, 37, won a cooking duel against New York chef Jehangir Mehta, capping a season that began Oct. 4 with 10 contestants.
Garces hosted a viewing party last night at his West Philadelphia Mexican restaurant, Distrito, that attracted hundreds of fans and members of his close-knit staff. Chef Seamus Mullen, who was eliminated on last week's show, came down from New York to see Garces and Mehta create a multicourse meal out of various ribs.
The show, hosted by Alton Brown and "The Chairman" (played to a campy hilt by actor Mark Dacascos), was taped last spring, around the time that Garces was a no-show at a James Beard Awards ceremony at which he won best chef in the Mid-Atlantic region. Whispers began that Garces could not attend because he was working on something substantial.
As an Iron Chef, Garces joins the roster of Mario Batali, Cat Cora, Bobby Flay, Masaharu Morimoto, and relative newcomer Michael Symon, who won the first season of The Next Iron Chef in 2007.
By: Michael Klein
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