Star Chef on Passion, Pressure and Perfection

Award-winning chef says a culinary career is all about pressure and perfection.

June 18, 2008, 12:00 PM

June 19, 2008— -- When Gordon Ramsay was a child, he never dreamed of becoming a star chef with restaurants around the world. "Soccer was my first love," says Ramsay, who hoped to play professionally.

But after he was recruited by the professional club Glasgow Rangers and a stint on the Scottish national team, an injury drove him from the field into the kitchen.

"That's how I got into cooking, through soccer," he said. "At the age of 18, I had a horrendous accident when I smashed my cartilage."

He says after his injury he hit "rock bottom" but "decided to get off my butt and do something about it."

He says he's "somebody on a mission."

"There's no script," he said. "I don't like looking back. I'm always constantly looking forward. I'm not the one to sort of sit and cry over spilt milk. I'm too busy looking for the next cow."

Ramsay spent time in France, where he says he submerged himself in the history of cuisine and "found my feet in terms of odd cuisine, trained my palate to the absolute extreme and got my butt kicked in sort of the best restaurants in Paris."

"[To] become a great chef you got to work with great chefs. It's as simple as that. And there's no recipe that you can read and you will happen to become a talented chef if you read books, nothing of the sort. "

In October 1993, he became the chef at Aubergine, and in 1998 opened his first London restaurant, Gordon Ramsay. He is now the author of countless cookbooks and the owner of 19 restaurants from Paris to Prague that have, as he says, "a collection of stars across the world."

It was the "excitement," "liveliness" and "boisterousness" of restaurant work that attracted Ramsay to his culinary career. He says that food isn't a job, "it's a passion."

"It's an amazing journey," he says. "So at each and every kitchen, I pinch myself. And with 1,500 members of the team now, we are an incredible force."

Ramsay's favorite food? He says he has a weakness for chocolate. "I absolutely adore it. I have a sweet tooth; I love the most amazing fondue chocolate with milk ice cream. And everywhere I go, all I want to eat is chocolate."

The self-described "control freak" is known for having an abrasive personality and vocal fireworks on the hit TV shows "Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares" in the United Kingdom and "Hell's Kitchen" in the United States.

"I'm firm, but by God, I'm fair," he said. "So I don't give a damn what individuals think -- 'Oh, my God, how can he be so rude?' No, I'm not rude, I'm honest. Mate, when it's crap, it's crap."

Ramsay says he resents it when his restaurants are judged according to preconceptions about his personality.

"Unfortunately, today at the age of 41, my persona gets judged over my substance, which is really frustrating," he said. "I've been cooking for 21 years, and it shows on the wrinkles of my face. But here's the scenario: I'm now being judged by individuals that know less about food than I do. But yet, you have to take it like a man. Well I don't want to take it like a man anymore. I'm fed up with the sarcasm, the damn right rudeness and more importantly, the arrogance of food critics. Have they actually spent a 16-hour shift cooking 70 to 80 lunches, 120 to 150 dinners short staffed, fish cook is not turning in, produce inconsistent because of the weather?"

Despite his public persona, Ramsay says his restaurants boast an impressive 87 percent retention rate over the last decade when it comes to the staff, and he takes training those employees seriously.

"I train my chefs completely different to anyone else. My young girls and guys, when they come to the kitchen, the first thing they get is a blindfold. They get blindfolded and they get sat down at the chef's table … Unless they can identify what they're tasting, they don't get to cook it. Why should they be cooking it if they don't know how it tastes like? Yet everyone gets taught to cook first, not to taste."

Ramsay will launch an academy and cooking school in September, and as a marathoner who is training for an Ironman competition, he also demands that his staff stay in top form outside the kitchen.

"The pressure on young chefs today is far greater than ever before in terms of social skills, marketing skills, cooking skills, personality and, more importantly, delivering on the plate. So you need to be strong. Physically fit," he said. "So my chefs get weighed every time they come into the kitchen. And they run. And they seriously look after themselves. They have free memberships to the local gyms, and more importantly, I need them to … not just to train their palate but to look after themselves."

Ramsay says his goal has always been to be the best.

"As a soccer player, I wanted an FA Cup winner's medal. As an actor you want an Oscar. As a chef it's three-Michelin's stars, there's no greater than that. So pushing yourself to the extreme creates a lot of pressure and a lot of excitement, and more importantly, it shows on the plate."

What's next for Ramsay? First up is cooking at a 90th birthday celebration for Nelson Mandela in July.

"I'm very excited about that, and I'm cooking for him and an amazing turnout of pop stars and royalty and government and heads of state."

He also has a new cookbook in the works called "Healthy Appetite," hoping "to prove that healthy food doesn't have to be junk food," and he says he wants to stay out of the public eye. "That's my ambition. Staying off the telly. "

"Everyone keeps bothering about this 'Iron Chef' to go and compete. They want me to go on and compete with them. But let me tell you something, I have a competition every day. I have to hit perfection."

It's that quest for perfection that drives Ramsay in everything he does. He says "kitchens are high-pressurized environments that function on perfection. Pressure is healthy. It becomes stressful when you can't handle pressure. The majority of chefs I know can't run a bath, let alone 19 restaurants across the world."

He admits that he's prone to cursing but says that's common in kitchens around the world.

"It's an industry language that I'm not incredibly proud of, however, whether you're a baseball player, a soccer player, a football player, or whether you drive cars for a living, trust me when it hits the fan … let it go! It's a curse word, Christ almighty, it could be worse. I could be vegetarian."