When Gordon Ramsay first appeared on TV, no one could have imagined how forcefully he would burst onto the scene. With his tough-love approach to motivating chefs and imposing discipline on failing restaurants—and his signature screaming, swearing and smirking—he has raised the bar for cooking shows. From Kitchen Nightmares to Hell’s Kitchen to MasterChef, he has helped create some of the longest-running franchises on both sides of the Atlantic.
TV FORMATS: How did your television career start?
RAMSAY: It all started off with a documentary called Boiling Point. The first major program I ever did was Faking It for a company called RDF in London, where I took this young guy from a burger stand and put him into a competition with extremely talented fine-dining chefs. It was a month’s intense training, and I had to get him shipshape to propel him into the premier league of chefs. The idea was to stick him into the competition and have him go unnoticed. Obviously, it wasn’t in anyone’s interest if he came in the top ten out of 25 chefs, but he actually went on and won the competition! That was how it all started, and Faking It was an amazing documentary series. They got a ballet performer to become a DJ, a disc jockey to become a racecar driver, and my job was to turn this burger-van cook/driver into an amazing chef within a 30-day intense training period. That’s how it started.
TV FORMATS: How have your shows contributed to the cooking competition genre? It has grown considerably since your early days in television, hasn’t it?
RAMSAY: Oh yes, very much so. When I first arrived in the U.S., in 2004, [FOX was] thinking of picking up Hell’s Kitchen from ITV. [During] the same six-month period, in London—I was non-exclusive to both networks—I had done Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, and then literally a month before that I did a live show called Hell’s Kitchen. It all came fast and furious for me. I think back to the network days under Mike Darnell [then president of alternative entertainment] when I first arrived at FOX, and anyone remotely talking about cooking was definitely not thinking about a major network; it was all for Food Network. No one dared show food [on a broadcast network]. What Hell’s Kitchen showed, first off, was a top-end prize. [At the time] American Idol had just kicked off and was becoming a phenomenon in the music world, House was a massive drama on FOX, and they had nothing like it food-wise. I remember Mike Darnell saying to me, This will help offer great, unscripted insight into how restaurants perform. So I focused on running a restaurant, and FOX ran our show; that’s how it worked. After filming the first season of Hell’s Kitchen, a year later we launched Kitchen Nightmares in the U.S. That’s what opened up the public’s eyes to, I suppose, the downside of my industry: anybody can open a restaurant. It was those idiots who were having dinner parties and being told by their neighbors, “Hey, Bob, your food’s amazing, you and Belle should open a restaurant,” because you don’t need qualifications to open a restaurant. That was the scenario, but that was partly why that show became such an insight—and, as you know, from Tabatha’s Salon Takeover to Bar Rescue, there were all sorts of follow-on shows. Hell’s Kitchen premiered in 2005. It was a long time ago when it all started.
TV FORMATS: You have an executive producer credit on a lot of shows. What responsibilities do you have in addition to being on camera, and how do you share responsibilities with the broadcaster?
RAMSAY: Being an executive producer doesn’t mean you’ve got the green light to overbear and over-control everything. I still need direction; I still need producing. The essence of becoming an executive producer, for me, was sharing that responsibility not only to deliver a great show but also to establish longevity for what we were doing. So the ironic issue with Kitchen Nightmares was that I give these restaurants prescriptions and there’s a huge team behind me. I did my due diligence, and so did they, and we surveyed and researched everything we did. Then, when the program is a big success, the restaurant benefits tremendously. But they then fall short in running the business and get carried away with excess cash flow. When they close down a year later, Kitchen Nightmares gets the blame for it. The restaurants were going to close anyway, but we gave them a lifeline, and the prescription needs to be followed religiously. So that’s my added responsibility as a chef-patron. As an executive producer, I have to have one foot in the camp for the network and one foot in the camp for the business. And then, reputation-wise, I take everything so seriously. I like that level of jeopardy, but it makes it more compelling for me to be an executive producer. I need producing; I’ve never been scared of the truth. I love being creative with amazing directors, and I don’t like having it all my own way.
TV FORMATS: How involved are you in the casting of your shows? I imagine that is a fundamental component.
RAMSAY: Yes, casting is fundamental. Casting is the heartbeat of any major show. The only one I never got involved with was Hell’s Kitchen because I never wanted to have preconceived ideas about the contestants coming into that arena to win a quarter of a million dollars, so I step out of that ring. But on Kitchen Nightmares, absolutely, and on MasterChef and MasterChef Junior it’s a huge part of my responsibility. I need to spot that vulnerability in those youngsters. I need to see that passion in the adult version of the show. I need to understand that it’s integrity [that motivates you]. Forget anything to do with Hollywood, and forget the words “TV fame.” I want to identify the DNA of what you’re about, and what this competition means to you first, from a chef’s point of view. I have 2,500 staff, globally. I can guarantee you, after being in a room with someone, I can pick up on that in 30 seconds.
TV FORMATS: You mentioned MasterChef Junior; what are the challenges in working with children?
RAMSAY: The challenge with working with children, for me, is the limited time you have with them because of their age. We cram so much into them. Their head teacher is gone, there’s no Mom and Dad, it’s just you and me, and we are on this incredible journey. Some days you’re going to love me, some days you’re going to hate me, and some days you’re going to question me. All I want is that every time we have a problem in this kitchen, I want to find a solution. That’s life. We’re going to go up, we’re going to go down, we’re going to hit adversity, but more importantly, we are going to get ourselves out of it. Even with ten minutes left to go on a Mystery Box Challenge, and you think it’s your last challenge cooking in this arena, I can guarantee you, you can come back strong and finish in the top three with ten minutes to go. So word of the day: Solution. Give me the solution; don’t give me the problem. That level of no fear, that honest insight—I like it when I see little snippets of myself within their characters. I was never academically super strong. I struggled in English, math was okay, biology and chemistry [were] disasters for me. What got me through were sports and food. Every youngster peaks at a different age and the pressure on them today is all about their eating habits, and how adverse they are, and I suppose the complex they get by being slightly overweight. But it’s not their fault! It’s their bloody parents because they’re under the influence of their parents. So two things are happening: these kids are reeducating their parents, and these kids are finding confidence in areas that they’d never shown at school. No one had come at the top of their class in English and math. But this canvas for cooking and this amazing arena to show off and find gifts they never thought they had is right in front of them on a daily basis. That transformation is pretty extraordinary.
TV FORMATS: Are there extra challenges involved in a live show like The F Word?
RAMSAY: Yes and no. Every top chef in the country cooks live every night, so I’ve never had any issues with that. What it’s managed to do is confirm that we can cook live. More importantly, the talent we’re finding, these families, whether it’s military wives, the meatheads, school pride, there are some amazing communities and little ethnic groups out there who are just super talented. So I wanted to reposition cooking live on a network. Whether it’s Good Morning America or Today, you’ve got a three-minute segment to put [a dish] together quickly or else [Today co-host] Matt Lauer’s going to kick you in the ass! Me? I want to cook. I want to cook from raw ingredients. Chicken parm is chicken parm, and you’re going to see that transformation to give you hope to do it at home. That’s what The F Word has done, and more importantly, it has unearthed some incredible talent that had been a massive secret across this country.
TV FORMATS: Tell us about Studio Ramsay.
RAMSAY: Studio Ramsay is going to be a sort of hub for a new generation of young chefs, maître d’s, sommeliers, industry spokespersons, in terms of developing and creating new ideas, looking for tomorrow’s chefs. [We then want to] give them a platform, whether it’s through publishing, TV, marketing or social media. We have access to 20 million people across all our platforms, so it’s a great way to search for that kind of talent. We’re looking at a couple of scripted ideas. There’s so much drama involved in restaurants. I’ve grown up in them for the past 30 years. And we have a bit of a family business going on: Matilda, our youngest child, has her own show on CBBC, Matilda and the Ramsay Bunch. I look at the creative genius of producer Pat Llewellyn, an amazing lady who found the Two Fat Ladies, Jennifer Paterson and Clarissa Dickson Wright, back in the ’90s; Jamie Oliver for The Naked Chef, back in the late ’90s; and she found me. That’s the kind of talent I want to continue searching for through Studio Ramsay.
TV FORMATS: Has Matilda sought your advice for any aspects of her show, or is she very much her own person?
RAMSAY: For me, like with the juniors on MasterChef, I need to see attitude. I don’t have that overbearing control and say, Hey, look, Tilly, do this. Or she says, Dad, your food’s way too fussy, mine’s a lot simpler and where there’s simple food there are great flavors. OK, Matilda. So I tend to back off on that front. She’s 15, and she started as an 11-year-old, and she doesn’t quite understand how popular she’s become. She’s still hungry and determined—she still wants to be a doctor, she wants to be a dancer, and she wants to have a restaurant on the side of it, so I love that innocence. But we have managed to sow a lot of confidence in her, because whereby every other parent of millennials was buying their kids iPads and Xboxes, I bought my kids animals, from pigs to sheep to turkeys [so that they would] understand that we don’t waste food. Rear them, nurse them, look after them, and then we’re going to cook them.
TV FORMATS: Besides providing viewers with an hour of good fun, what else have you wanted your shows to offer?
RAMSAY: If there’s any key messaging that I’d love to be pushed out it’s that cooking is fundamental and it’s educational. We do it three times a day, seven days a week. We need one good meal, so what’s at the end of the rainbow for me is to have some practical food and diet insight across every program in a way that you understand that cooking is educational. It’s something that we all must do, we all must learn, rather than getting to the age of 21 and having never boiled an egg before!
TV FORMATS: What advice do you have for people who feel intimidated in the kitchen?
RAMSAY: Understand the basics. When making a great pasta, do it yourself. Making fresh pasta is like making bread, there are never two that taste the same; like a risotto, there are never two that are the same. So keep it simple and the better the ingredients, the less you need to do to it. More importantly, I always [tell people] at the beginning of their journey: close your eyes for 30 seconds, taste and lock in that flavor. That was my ambition as a young 25-year-old, 25 years ago, when I sat outside MIPCOM on a boat as a private chef for Reg Grundy, one of the biggest TV moguls in the world, thinking, Christ, get this dinner party done and then I’m going to find the best restaurant in Cannes. I’d saved up my money, I get to the restaurant, no wine—the waiters hated me for not spending money on wine—but I wanted to taste the specialty of that chef, and lock in the flavor. We didn’t have [smartphones that were also] cameras then; I used to draw pictures on doilies, stick the doily in my pocket and then bolt out of the restaurant with all that knowledge!