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To hell's kitchen and back again

How Gordon ramsay turned the tables in New York. By Michael Park

IT was my f***ing birthday and I've never had such a shit birthday in all my life," says Gordon Ramsay. "It was very difficult and the most demanding time of my entire cooking career. And shit, did I get my nuts kicked in.

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Oh my God." The forthright, always quotable, Scottish chef is talking at speed about his own personal kitchen nightmare: the opening of his first New York restaurant in November of last year. "We got screwed," he says. "We got bent over. It was extraordinary."

While Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares has never featured any of its eponymous hero's own restaurants, the story of the first year of Gordon Ramsay At The London, the chef's fine dining restaurant in midtown Manhattan, would make a great episode.

It had everything: a badly-organised kitchen; problems with the air conditioning; a doorstep protest from local residents; complaints about the toilets; construction woes. And then, minutes before the first guests arrived, the ceiling came crashing down. A couple of bad, biting reviews in influential and well-read publications followed, threatening the viability of the whole operation. An intervention of the kind Ramsay is so adept at delivering to other restaurateurs was surely needed. But with the jet-setting chef busy making TV shows on both sides of the Atlantic and overseeing his British restaurant empire, his ability to rescue this one looked doubtful.

On a rainy December afternoon, all seems in order in Gordon Ramsay At The London when I walk in. Ramsay himself - who is supervising preparations for the May opening of his first Los Angeles restaurant, and working on an American version of one of his television shows - can't be here. But we have arranged to talk on the phone once I've paid this initial visit.

The restaurant - which Ramsay tells me was "fully booked two months before we opened" - is on the ground floor of the 54-floor, 562-room, London Hotel. Ramsay is responsible for catering throughout the hotel - including in the more casual Maze eating area but the restaurant itself is relatively small, seating only 45 at capacity. The decor is tastefully subdued, the table linen is crisply ironed and the place settings are immaculate.

The menus promise the kind of dishes that have won so many plaudits for Ramsay: Three courses from the à la carte menu cost $90 (£45), seven courses from the Prestige menu cost $120 (£60), easily besting the prices in Ramsay's UK restaurants.

Watching the smiling, besuited waitresses serving plaudit-winning dishes (pan-fried fillets of red mullet with saffron, fennel purée and a pink grapefruit vinaigrette; sautéed Maine diver scallops with mixed spices, cauliflower purée, beignets and sherry caramel), it is hard to believe that this sedate-seeming place once stirred a cacophony of negative criticism.

But its owner is brutally honest about the fact it was a difficult birth. Ramsay had long harboured a desire to crack America. "New York and Paris have always been the brother and sister of the culinary world," he says. "American customers in all our restaurants across the UK have always asked, When are you going to come and open up in America?' It was only a question of when, and finding the perfect location."

The when and the where fell into place after the Blackstone group, an American outfit which owns the Savoy Hotel in London (where Ramsay runs the renowned Savoy Grill), bought the weathered Rihga Royal Hotel in the heart of the Big Apple. The group's plan was to transform an old hotel into a sparkling new one, The London, and Ramsay was to be their shining jewel.

"I went to look at it and fell in love with it straight away," he says. I'm surprised. The building is a dull, anaemic-looking structure, despite its favourable location close to attractions such as the Museum of Modern Art, Times Square and Fifth Avenue.

Inside, however, it glistens. Millions have been spent on a near total renovation, allowing the owners to charge room rates in excess of £220 a night and offer guests and non-residents alike the opportunity to dine in style.

The refurbished hotel and Ramsay's restaurant were scheduled to open at the same time, on Ramsay's 40th birthday, November 8, 2006. Financial factors and accepted bookings put pressure on all concerned to be ready to open that month. But, Ramsay now admits, he wasn't.

"We opened too early," he says with a sigh, suggesting he knows that a delay would have prevented many of the problems that were about to befall him. "I personally wanted to wait until January and open up quietly, softly and then build it, but financially we were running behind by three months and we were fully booked." He pauses then adds: "The opening was absolutely horrific. It was a complete, utter nightmare."

Ramsay himself was spending five days a week in New York. The restaurant's first seven days were invite-only, and guests didn't have to pay. Yet the litany of things that went wrong would make Basil Fawlty's place look professional by comparison. "The air conditioning wasn't ready," Ramsay reveals. "We hadn't got an even distribution of the cold air so we had Pashminas going everywhere. We had a protest outside by the neighbours 'cos they were complaining about the smell coming out of the extraction vent. There was an uncompleted foyer and then, two minutes before we opened, the glass panel from the ceiling entering the bar came crashing down. I thought - happy 40th birthday, motherf***er."

By the time the paying public and restaurant critics were allowed in, however, it appeared many of the problems had been taken care of and initial reviews were positive. One of the smaller New York papers gave the venue four-out-of-four in a review published on Christmas Eve, and Time Out New York awarded an additional star in its five-out-of-five review early in the new year. But if Ramsay and his staff thought they had got away with what seemed to be behind-the-scenes issues, they were wrong.

New York Magazine weighed in with a damning two-out-of-five review. "Possibly Ramsay's earlier London restaurants were imbued with passion and a certain ineffable sense of place," wrote one critic. "This one isn't."

Then came "the f***ing tsunami of bullshit with the New York Times", as Ramsay puts it. The paper's influential restaurant critic, Frank Bruni, dismissed the venue with just two-out-of-four stars. "All of a sudden it was a catastrophe," says Ramsay.

While Bruni didn't bring a hatchet, he certainly knew how to slice and dice. "Most ingredients are predictable, most flavours polite, most effects muted," he wrote. "The restaurant fails to deliver the most important thing of all: excitement. Mr Wise the pastry chef and the chef de cuisine, Neil Ferguson, are running a serious kitchen here and are capable of impeccable work. And that makes the restaurant's tentativeness and its bad decisions, which were too numerous, all the more frustrating.

"Seldom has a conquistador as bellicose as Mr Ramsay landed with such a whimper."

The echoes from the New York Times's damning review were heard around the world, but they were listened to by Ramsay himself.

"We sat down and we discussed it," he says. He felt that he was personally to blame, at least in part. "I got judged on the persona as opposed to palate because unfortunately I was renowned in the States before the restaurant opened. And in Manhattan, more than anywhere in the world, they want to discover you as opposed to confirm you," he says.

Within three months of the New York Times review, the head chef, Neil Ferguson, who had worked for Ramsay for over a decade, was gone. "I made the decision to change the chef," Ramsay says, though he insists the decision was not entirely based on those bad reviews.

"I'm not saying he is part of any form of failure. I always go back to the drawing board," Ramsay explains. But he does believe Ferguson, who has since left the company ("I offered him a really exciting job in Dublin but his wife is American so he wanted to stay there," says Ramsay), was letting the cooks run the show. "There are two ways in a kitchen," he says. "You run the brigade or the brigade run you. And I felt that within a short period of time the brigade were running him," Ramsay tells me.

Too many cooks create inconsistency: the enemy of quality and a serious handicap to winning any praise, plaudits or - more importantly to Ramsay - Michelin stars. Action was needed and Ramsay replaced Ferguson with 34-year-old New Zealander, Josh Emett, the then head chef at Maze. Emett quickly set about changing the menu, reorganising the kitchen, moving staff to new positions and making sure everyone knew who was boss. Ramsay is happy for me to talk to the man he calls an "amazing general", and to whom he entrusted the task of getting the New York restaurant back on track.

When I return to The London to meet Emett, with Ramsay still in California, Jean-Baptiste Requien, a regular on several of Ramsay's television shows and restaurant manager at The London since it opened, is waiting to greet me.

While we wait for Emett to finish lunch service, Requien and I take a seat near the bar. He tells me the past year has been difficult. "Opening in New York has definitely been the toughest we have ever had," Requien says in his thick French accent, before ordering me some starters to taste. "To get such a bad review in the New York Times, that was very hard," he says, then admits: "You don't receive a two-star and bad review for no reason. There were a few things not the perfect way. Everything was OK, but you don't run a restaurant like this just OK. It has to be perfect."

The starters arrive: a delicious, perfectly-cooked wild mushroom risotto with Parmesan foam, and a small, delightful plate of marinated beetroot, ricotta, pine nut and Cabernet Sauvignon dressing.

Later, Requien leads me into the kitchen. I am struck by the quietness of the place. There is no chaos, no crashing crockery or raised voices. It is hot and all the young cooks, a diverse mix of sizes, shapes, and nationalities, in their white uniforms and pinstriped pinnies, wear short sleeves.

Emett greets me with a firm handshake and shows me towards the chef's table - a raised U-shaped worktop directly facing the counter where dishes are prepared on silver trays and then taken by waiters into the dining room. (The table is bookable: $1700 (£850) buys an eight-course dinner for eight people and offers the unique experience of watching and interacting with the staff and the head chef as they work.) Tall and lean, Emett immediately strikes me as the professional, take-no-prisoners kind of guy to whom Ramsay would relate. When I ask how he set about achieving the ever-important consistency and getting the brigade back in line, it becomes obvious that he shares his boss's passion for colourful language.

"By saying this is how we're going to f***ing do it and that's how it's going to stay," he says bluntly. "And telling them you can't come up here and just dress it slightly different once because I don't accept slightly different. It's that way and that's it. And that's not about being stale, it's about providing something that is consistent and is going to be consistent day in and day out."

Emett says he learned these lessons over the eight years he has worked with Ramsay. He tells me that when he first walked into Ramsay's kitchen in Chelsea at the age of 26, he immediately felt at home.

"I thought, f***, this is exactly where I want to be," he says. "There was just a furious pace. Some good young guys, a lot of pressure, some tough nuts, and a lot of bad language. It's one of the hardest kitchens in England. But we were doing some fantastic food and people gave a shit about what was going on and it was all about the cooking and all about the work."

Ramsay recognised Emett's talent and moved him from Chelsea to Claridge's to the Savoy, and finally, fortuitously, to New York. When Ramsay asked him to take charge of the shaky fine dining operation he was ready. He got the brigade in step, then set about simplifying the menu.

"There wasn't anything really straightforward," Emett reveals. "You have to have dishes that aren't going to confuse everybody, so we started doing dishes that the average person coming into the restaurant could feel at home eating." Someone has brought him a strawberry soufflé for approval, and he offers me a taste. We both agree it may be a tad overcooked.

The new team cooked their hearts out and last October, less than 10 months after its wobbly opening, Gordon Ramsay At The London was awarded two Michelin stars. In the same week, the respected Zagat Guide declared the restaurant number one in the top newcomer category among New York restaurants in 2007. The resurrection was complete.

The two Michelin stars were a vindication of Emett's changes and of his style, and of Ramsay's decision to appoint him head chef. They also helped increase the number of phone calls the restaurant was receiving from 350 to 600 a day.

As the evening dinner service gets underway, there is no evidence of Ramsay's Kitchen Nighmares-style fireworks among the staff at The London. All appears well in this culinary Eden, even if Emett admits getting to this stage has been "a massive learning curve".

Emett has been asked by Ramsay to run his new Los Angeles restaurant when it opens next year. As for New York: "The objective now," says Ramsay, "is to get three Michelin stars next September and one star in Maze. Because if you're telling me that food is not a minimum one-star standard then I swear to God I'll run down Times Square stark, bollock naked."

Christmas With Gordon Ramsay on Channel 4 on Christmas Eve begins with Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares USA from 9pm. Ramsay's latest book, Three Star Chef, published by Quadrille, is available now.

www.thelondonnyc.com

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