If Gordon Ramsay hadn't become arguably the most famous chef in the world, he says he might have joined the special forces or some other branch of the military. He got this inclination a few years ago when he was in Afghanistan cooking for the marines.
“Something happened to do with the Taliban, and it wasn’t nice,” says Ramsay, who despite talking over a hurricane of opening-night preparations at Gordon Ramsay Steak doesn’t need to raise his voice. “We had to fend for ourselves, and I got back to the tent and they [the soldiers] said I handled it brilliantly, that I should be in the forces. So, yeah, if it wasn’t cooking, I think it would have been something along the lines of the military.”
If you know anything about the multi-Michelin-starred chef, whose television franchises (Hell’s Kitchen, Kitchen Nightmares, MasterChef, among others) have turned cooking into something resembling UFC over a stovetop, you might assign this to macho posturing in keeping with his full-contact persona. But that’s not what’s actually going on here. In fact, whether it’s because he’s still in a jetlag-induced Zen state after arriving from London a day before opening May 11 or because he really does, as he insists, thrive on pressure, Ramsay is remarkably at ease.
He’s been that way since stepping into the klieg lights of this opening-day dog-and-pony show during which he showed off a lively-but-light Caesar salad (chili oil!), demoed his signature beef Wellington (complicated) and thanked everyone who ever worked at Paris Las Vegas for his present circumstance. The few F-bombs the famously potty-mouthed chef dropped were mostly at his own expense. And he insisted on taking questions long after his handlers wanted him to move onto other things—like the 250 dinner guests due in just hours. Ramsay was, and I’m almost suspicious he actually is, charming.
Make no mistake, though, Ramsay is in it to win it. He always has been, and the aforementioned combat cooking anecdote came in the context of being asked if his preternatural drive is fueled by fear of failure. He had by then mentioned more than once that restaurateuring in Vegas ain’t no joke.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been up against such tough competition,” he says, leaning across a small, round table in the corner of his restaurant’s Sloane Ranger-inspired bar. (The Jam, Style Council, Bryan Ferry and Yaz were on the playlist—thank you!) “There’s no other city in the world that hosts so many top-chef restaurants. So, in a way, it makes you better because you have to maintain a certain standard, you have to compete with the best of the best, there’s nearly a dozen top chefs.”
Competition makes Ramsay tick—it’s his Rosebud. And here in Las Vegas, just down the street, are friends, mentors, protégés and nemeses—Guy Savoy, Joël Robuchon, Mario Batali, to name a few—who just might take his red sled.
The entrance to Gordon Ramsay Steak pays homage to the Chunnel, the 26-mile tunnel beneath the English Channel that connects London to France. The internal logic here is that you leave Paris and arrive in London without having to walk out of the casino. Anyone who has spent extended time in both places will tell you it’s not the worst idea. For all of Paris’ City of Light romance, there’s something comforting about coming back to laid-back London. Ramsay says there’s a “big brother, little sister” relationship between the two cities, without specifying which is which, though the 65-foot Union Jack covering the restaurant’s ceiling might offer a clue. Still, traveling to Paris has long been an artist’s right of passage, and Ramsay was no exception.
Before that, though, there was the first dream, and the first one is the one that never dies. For Ramsay, it was being a professional footballer. This was no idle fantasy, either. He grew up hardscrabble—first in Scotland and then as a boy in Warwickshire, an English midlands county best known for Stratford-upon-Avon, the town where a scribe of some note was born. Ramsay’s father, an excellent swimmer, was an itinerant blue-collar worker, hard drinker and roustabout. His mother, once a lifeguard, became a nurse. Ramsay often speaks warmly of his mother, not so much his dad.
In mid-’70s Britain (and having spent boyhood years in Ireland, I speak from experience), youth football clubs were lighthouses in the stormy seas of uncertain childhood and bleak economic prospects. They offered belonging, purpose and, especially, a chance to vent without running afoul of the authorities. For 1970s youth, survival meant football, punk rock or something even harder.
In soccer, it’s safe to say, Ramsay found his first stable environment, a place where the rules were clear and he could win. And he did. He was picked for his county’s under-14 squad and spent some time training with the developmental squad of the famous Scottish club, the Rangers. His knee had other plans, though, and Ramsay’s soccer career ended at age 19 with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
“I set my heart on playing for my country, and I had an extraordinary excitement from playing soccer,” he says. “That was my first dream. I suppose I had it taken away at an early age, and when you get that second bite of a cherry, and you grasp it, the fear of not having it …”
Ramsay wasn’t about to miss out on that “second bite,” and he stormed the cooking world with an athlete’s passion. “I channeled everything in a very stubborn way, because you have to be selfish or you’re not going to get there. So, you sacrifice relationships, family … I just absolutely went on that mission to gather everything I wanted to gather from those chefs. I had to go in there almost like a trained Navy Seal to grab everything I wanted.”
This is when it struck me that he would have been well suited for the Seals. He’s in terrific shape, having recently run the Los Angeles and London marathons, and that fire that goes with playing high-level competitive sports obviously still burns. But luckily for thousands of diners, and unluckily for a few dozen reality-show contestants, Ramsay turned to cooking, eventually making his way across the channel and into the kitchens of Michelin-starred chefs Savoy and Robuchon.
Ramsay dove into this new game with the same fervor he pursued football. He opened his first solo restaurant, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, in Chelsea in 1998 and eventually won three Michelin stars with it, becoming the first Scottish chef to do so.
It was a strange time to come of age and gain fame. The cultural elevation of dining into some kind of Holy Grail pursuit was in full gear. Suddenly food critics were winning Pulitzers, chefs were jetting around the world like rock stars and entire networks were given over to the dramatis personae of staged food fights.
It seemed like another game with another clear set of rules, a game that could be won. And for a while, nobody played the game better than Ramsay: two dozen restaurants, a dozen Michelin stars and nearly as many TV shows exploiting his fiery persona followed. For a full decade after his eponymous first restaurant, Ramsay charged full tilt down the pitch and might well have been heading for another blowout, when fate intervened.
Sometimes a setback can stop you from flying off the edge.
“When the shit hit the fan in 2008 and the recession came in, I was exposed in London, New York and Paris with a huge investment,” he says. “So, you’re left holding the baby and all of the sudden, where you were making half a million dollars a month, that turns into a loss of half a million dollars a month. You have to make some serious, crucial decisions. It’s all about navigating your way out of that.”
For Ramsay, that meant getting back to basics. He seized control of his business (a messy process that involved firing his father-in-law—an original investor—as CEO), his brand and his body. He tuned down, toned up and rededicated himself to his family.
“You understand what’s important to you, and you make those decisions. I’ve seen too many chefs fail with divorces and separations,” he says. “I’ve lost chefs to alcohol and drugs.”
And what has he taken from all this?
“Learning to slow down, really, to be honest.”
In a way, Gordon Ramsay Steak represents this fresh outlook. It’s a return to the British-French fusion, inspired by the provincial working-class dishes of both countries that first made a name for Ramsay. Don’t get me wrong, Gordon Ramsay Steak seats about 200 more patrons than his first affair, and from the moment you walk through the faux Chunnel entrance and glimpse the restaurant’s precise design—complete with a neon sculpture dangling from the roof depicting the motion of Ramsay’s hands preparing roast beef Wellington—you understand this is still Gordon Ramsay. It’s just maybe a Gordon Ramsay you want to hang out and have dinner with.