INTERVIEW: Gordon Ramsay on Dubai being his toughest launch yet
Gordon Ramsay isn’t a man you’d be quick to associate with small talk. But he’s attempting it here anyway. Leaning in, his hands are resting on a table between us, locked together in a white knuckle grasp.
Lightweight, pacey questions trip out of his mouth, ramping up into more inquisitive bursts. “Where are you from? Enjoying Dubai? Who’s your favourite chef?” He punctuates each response with his trademark four-letter-word way of talking. Today it’s “nice”, which is, well, rather nice compared to other four-letter words he likes.
“Harpenden in Hertfordshire”. Nice. “Very much so”. Nice. “You of course, Gordon”. Well, not so nice. It goes down like a lead balloon. “What? Oh please, don’t say that, you can’t say me,” his blue eyes alert, face furrowed, blonde hair ruffled. Too late. He’s visibly uncomfortable, but we push on.
“Dubai really is built on steroids,” he states. “Where else in the world can you have a great day on the beach, have a great lunch and then take your mates skiing on the same day? Insane.”
That Ramsay is wrestling with such chit chat is a surprise in itself. Anyone who has seen his TV programmes Hell’s Kitchen, Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares or Masterchef will know the man likes to get to the point. Fast.
In previous interviews he comes across as a bit antsy at best, fidgety almost, and at worst as though he could just walk out. Either way, it’s clear he much prefers being on his feet in his kitchen, getting the job done. And this media caper is the side dish to his preferred main course – a mix of cooking, business and shouting on TV. But it’s a side dish he knows he has to swallow.
“I think the misconception comes when people see Kitchen Nightmares,” he says, sitting in his newest outlet, Bread Street Kitchen, located in Atlantis, The Palm. “It’s not how my own restaurants function. I’m left dealing with other people’s problems, so you get no praise.
“I’m brutally honest,” he adds, leaving the small talk behind as abruptly as it started. “I’m a passionate chef who strives for perfection. Flipping burgers and dressing caesar salads – any muppet can do that. If you want to get to the top there’s a commitment and a dedication that needs to be had. I want the best, but I give the best. I ask a lot, but give a lot.”
Gordon is back in Dubai three months after Bread Street Kitchen opened to a tidal wave of hype. Now he’s asking us to give it a chance. “The launch was a nightmare,” he says with surprising candour. “We upset this person because he wasn’t invited and that person was a high-society model and didn’t get an invite. Oh please, really? So much politics. Nightmare.”
So why is he back so soon? “A lot of chefs visit once a year and label-slap,” he says. “They stick their name above the door and then disappear. I’m going to be different, you’ll see I have a much more modern approach.”
There’s an urgency to his tone that points towards an elephant in the room. It’s fair to say there’s been a little disquiet rippling around the restaurant. The friend of a friend who experienced bad service, those taking to TripAdvisor to say a thing a thing or two, a few too many empty tables mid-week?
“We’ve been open three months,” he says, eyebrows raised to the roof. “It takes six to nine months to settle these things in. But I admit the pressure is on, because it is Gordon Ramsay led”.
Gordon’s first restaurant in Dubai, Verre at the Hilton Dubai Creek, closed in October 2011. “I first came (to Dubai) in 2001 to open my first restaurant here,” he says. “We still have a very loyal customer base. People are pleased to see us back and I know the market very well.”
Dressed in his uniform chef whites, his work armour, this sounds like fighting talk. “Dubai is a very impatient city,” he continues. “The pressure here is intense. Dubai is faced with this dilemma of speed, no one waits for anything. You need to be better than London, because we’re impatient here.”
Gordon is right about Dubai. It doesn’t do slow burners. But successfully opening new restaurants in major cities isn’t new to him; in fact, he’s opened 49 restaurants in his career to date – and seen 23 close. He’s been awarded 16 Michelin stars in total and currently holds nine, with his signature restaurant, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in Chelsea, London, holding three of those so coveted stars since its 2001 opening.
This is his sixth Bread Street. How did the launch compare to say New York, Singapore or London? “It was hands down the toughest launch ever. Ever,” he says. Out of the best part of 50 he’s pulled off? “Yes really, the hardest. I mean that.
“I don’t want this to get overly precious or start getting fixated on reaching for the stars too early, but this has been a big operation.”
Bread Street has recently launched a string of weekly themed nights: Wellington Wednesday (a night dedicated to his signature dish Beef Wellington), a British Garden Party every Thursday night and a new market-themed Friday brunch. The restaurant is also taking part in Taste of Dubai this month with a specially priced set menu. Is Gordon succumbing to gimmicks?
“I hate trends, because you’re then second or third best 18 months later,” he says. “We’ve stayed strong to the DNA of Bread Street. We’re bringing over a bit of cool Britannia from East London so establishing that British theme is fundamental.”
The signs are immediately positive. The first Wellington Wednesday had more guests on the waiting list than in the dining room. “It was packed. We could have filled the place three times over,” he says, his tone urgent. He talks in statements, rather than sentences. Each word being hammered home. “Customers vote with their feet. That’s a strong testament.”
But in a city as “impatient” as Dubai and one so heavily loaded with celebrity chefs – how does he feel about competition from the likes of Wolfgang Puck, Gary Rhodes, Jean-George Vongerichten and his former protégé Jason Atherton? “You look at every top chef here, it is celebrity led, it is restaurant led, it’s name led. It’s a very competitive market out here. It’s like Vegas now.”
In 2015, Forbes listed Gordon Ramsay’s earnings at US$60 million for the previous 12 months, and ranked him the 21st highest-earning celebrity in the world. He’s got a face that’s recognised in most countries and he and his wife Tana count the Beckham’s as close family friends.
He also turns 50 in November this year. But it’s obvious he’s still got a lot to prove. “Mastering my craft and proving what I have learnt has kept me at the forefront, in the dugout, still at it and not allowing myself to get bored with it. I’ve never sat back and stopped learning.
“I don’t indulge, you won’t see me walking around tables every night, with a glass of bubbles lording it up because I’m the owner. I hate that.”
One thing he’s clear on is what he doesn’t want Bread Street to become. “Here you have what I call scripted restaurants, it becomes like a theme park – run to this preconceived script of what’s on trend at that moment.
“I was in Coya last night and we hadn’t even finished our main courses and suddenly we’re in a discoteque, glasses were bouncing off the table. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but that’s what I mean about trends. The whole thing moves around in trends.”
Keeping it local
The Scottish-born British chef is, he says, keen to bring a “little slice of London” to Dubai and aims for Bread Street to become an established go-to in the city. “We had an amazing team from London who helped with the infrastructure and we have a new team arriving soon,” he says. “It’s all about the new stuff that’s happening in London and innovation.”
What we can expect is more themed events – a “really cool Britannia cooked breakfast” is to launch in a couple of months and a butter chicken curry night. “The style of curry here is really unique and the culture here for a curry is lovely,” he explains. “I want to make that quite cool and hip without it feeling like it’s something outdated.”
For that reason he hates the word brand as much as trend. “I want to localise Bread Street and keep it authentic to what’s happening locally, that’s why I hate the word brand and I keep a very close eye on all the competitors.”
A handful of restaurants in Dubai are very much on his radar and maintain a level of popularity he wants a piece of. “Jean George, Darren Velvick, I love Zuma – it’s very authentic and has a great buzz, La Petite Maison too – half my ex staff are there. Dubai has done wonders to relaunch those well-loved models.
“Qbara is also incredible,” he continues. “There are elements there I’d like to evolve in Bread Street. I’d like to cherry pick a couple of their successful dishes and adapt them.” He pauses and finally adds: “I do see a lot of my dishes popping up, it really makes me laugh, it makes me happy. It’s a complement, definitely.”
For him, he’s always been more mentor than mimic. “I teach and I managed to teach exceptionally well, whether it’s Claire Smyth, Angela Hartnett or Jason Atherton. I have been one of the most unselfish chefs anywhere on the planet.”
But with that knowledge comes a responsibility to deliver. “You get more weight on your shoulders, you can’t afford hiccups. Everything that goes on that menu has to be utter professional - pure, pure you.
“This has been one of the toughest launches, ever. Yeah, like I said, the politics is one thing but this is such an impatient city.”
But the nice thing, he ponders: “Dubai is multicultural, we’re all neighbours and we’re all feeding off each other and I can see what’s working and what’s not working. It surprises me and frustrates me, but it’s also very nice too.”
There we are back to that four letter word. Nice. So when will he next be back in Dubai? He hints at May. “My mum really wants to visit Dubai with us,” he says, smiling. “I was like – ‘for a week?’ No. She’s says ‘how about three weeks’ Three weeks! Wow.”
Well we’re sure they will have a lovely time. A very, very “nice” time in fact.
The Bread Street Diary
A night dedicated to Gordon’s signature dish Beef Wellington. Guests can enjoy a selection of starters, beef wellington and deserts plus selected drinks and live entertainment.
When: Wednesdays, 6pm–10:30pm
Price: AED300 per person
The British Garden Party
Free flowing selected house beverages and specially designed cocktails on the terrace with live music.
When: Thursdays, 6pm–10:30pm
Price: AED250 per person
Bread Street Market Brunch
Expect the best dishes from BSK’s famous British European menu with a market theme, live music and free flowing beverages.
When: Fridays, 12:30pm-4pm
Price: AED450 per person
Reservations: +9714 426 2626