On a sunny Thursday morning, I find myself sitting across from the legendary Gordon Ramsay who is in Kuala Lumpur for a single, solitary day. This is also his first time seeing his Malaysian outpost – Gordon Ramsay Bar & Grill – in real life.
Yet, already tales of his ferocious work ethic have emerged, whispered about among staff in awe of his enthusiasm and seemingly bottomless energy. This is after all a man who arrived at 11pm the night before after a 15-hour flight and yet carved out time to visit the restaurant that very night and was wide awake at 6am and as fresh as a daisy when I met him in the flesh later that morning.
Also, he is – gasp – really kind and sweet in person.
“Where do you live, Abi?” he asks ever so pleasantly. For a minute, I am so startled (and star-struck and socially awkward), that I have no idea what to say. Is this larger-than-life mythical figure actually exchanging pleasantries with me?
As it turns out, he is. I have 30 minutes of one-on-one time with him and have prepared for the interview like a studious schoolgirl (and ardent superfan), but what I wasn’t prepared for was how refreshingly nice Ramsay is in real life.
Because he really is wonderfully solicitous and encouraging and all-round amazing. Contrary to his on-screen persona, there is no trace of the volatility, sarcasm or tempestuous flare-ups that have defined his television career. Granted, we are not in a hot restaurant kitchen, but it seems that what us mere mortals see on screen doesn’t at all translate to real life.
For the uninitiated, Gordon Ramsay is a celebrated food personality who is often considered the world’s most famous chef. Ramsay’s name and fame have risen in tandem with his turns on television shows like Boiling Point, Hell’s Kitchen and MasterChef, all of which have given him global appeal and reach. Part of this magnetic allure has to do with his on-screen identity, which often depicts Ramsay as both a perfectionist and a difficult boss with a penchant for shouting and yelling in the kitchen. Hell’s Kitchen in particular was notorious as ground zero for the famed chef’s vitriolic, expletive-laden outbursts.
But Ramsay says that as a leader, he simply wants to get the best out of his team and ultimately, put the best food on the table for customers. And according to him, he is actually far more laidback in real life.
“How would I describe myself as a boss? Oh, gosh. Um, incredibly passionate, incredibly fussy – I want it right. But everyone thinks I strive for perfection so everywhere I go, I need it to be perfectly set but no, I am more relaxed than you can see actually,” he says.
Running a restaurant business
A parallel part of Ramsay’s success is the fact that he is a hugely respected and successful chef, who trained under the likes of culinary greats like Joel Robuchon, Guy Savoy and Marco Pierre White, to name a few.
As a restaurateur, he is both seasoned and serious, having established his flagship eatery Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London in 1998. Amazingly, that eatery has earned – and kept – three Michelin stars for over two decades, making it the longest-running three-Michelin starred eatery in London.
Since those early days, the enterprising Ramsay has branched out and now owns and runs more than 60 restaurants that employ over 3,500 staff all over the world, mostly under the auspices of his restaurant business Gordon Ramsay Restaurants.
In Malaysia, Ramsay opened his very first restaurant – Gordon Ramsay Bar & Grill – six months ago at the refurbished Sunway Resort to raucous reception. The restaurant received thousands of reservations in its opening week and is still hard to book.
“I knew it would be busy but not quite as far in advance as it is. I mean, 20,000 reservations in our opening week in terms of what those bookings looked like were crazy!
“So I’m gifted with the amount of support that we get from our Malaysian counterparts. The TV programmes work very well over here and I think Malaysians are appreciative of us not trying to cook Malaysian food in Malaysia and being respectful of the property landscape that is Malaysian cuisine,” says Ramsay.
The Malaysian chapter
So just why did Ramsay decide to open a restaurant in Malaysia? Well, according to him, his love affair with Malaysia dates back over 20 years ago and has remained steadfast ever since.
“I fell in love with the country back in early 2000 and I travelled extensively and put myself in a local pair of shoes on many occasions and got taught by some amazing aunties and worked with some great chefs here,” he says.
Before opening here though, Ramsay had to decide which of his many restaurants to launch locally. After all, he has numerous brands under his umbrella – from Bread Street Kitchen to Gordon Ramsay Burger and Gordon Ramsay Steak. Ultimately though, making that decision boiled down to two things: what worked best with the location and which particular restaurant would create a memorable experience for Malaysian diners.
“I think the restaurant is conceptualised around the location and where it’s at and what kind of roof it’s under and so my first restaurant in Malaysia – Gordon Ramsay Bar & Grill – is an equally on par version of the Savoy Grill in The Savoy back in London.
“So I didn’t want to go for a three-star Michelin restaurant here with just 40 seats, I wanted to come in with something that could create a great standard and could create a great buzz and stir an experience.
“And so far it’s just six months but we’ve paced ourselves beautifully, we haven’t put the kitchen under pressure to be full seven nights a week – we’re still just in a nice, tight rein on the bookings and making sure that we’re not getting carried away and making sure that we are building a business because I’m here for a long time,” he confirms.
Ramsay says he had to really do his homework before launching the restaurant, from finding produce that matched what was available at the London outlet to being smart with his inclusion of local spices.
But perhaps one of the most important aspects Ramsay had to iron out before the restaurant opened was finding the right staff, a critical component of a successful restaurant. The kitchen team here for instance is largely staffed by young Malaysians, many of whom have no culinary training at all.
In this respect, the restaurant group has a well-established intensive training regimen in place, which has been instrumental in laying the groundwork for ensuring that the restaurant runs like a well-oiled machine.
“We have an amazing training policy; that is we promise to absolutely train them on an intense training course where they get up to speed on what we are about, what the DNA is and how to perfect them.
“So those that aren’t culinary trained – in many ways – I actually prefer – because you can tailor make them with no bad habits because they get taught one way and that’s your way and that’s a great foundation,” he says with conviction.
Ramsay says he is particularly heartened by the grit and ambition that the young Malaysian team has shown, as these are traits that cannot be taught.
“I can teach them till the cows come home, but if they don’t want to be great, then they shouldn’t be here. But they all have great ambitions to go on after here and rise through the ranks and do well for themselves, so that makes me so happy,” he says.
Another challenge in putting together the Malaysian restaurant is the fact that the menu on the local front does not have alcohol as a cooking agent, in a deviation from the original outlet at The Savoy, which it mimics. This was something Ramsay was determined to do in order to cater to Muslim guests in Malaysia.
But as it turns out, removing alcohol from his cooking arsenal is something Ramsay has already tackled in the past at The Savoy and experimented with for two years. Consequently, he didn’t have as much work to do to ensure the local meals were up to scratch, even sans alcohol.
“Running a restaurant like The Savoy Grill – it is a super powerful address and so being inside that five-star hotel in London, you need to adapt – if it’s Muslim customers who cannot have alcohol in their food, then it is no alcohol. So we learnt to pivot quickly, I think that’s really important.
“So I learnt that in London first before implementing it here. I didn’t come here and guess. So no alcohol in the sauces meant more of a depth in terms of caramelising vegetables – getting beautiful vegetable stocks and using vinegars and acids, gastriques and being very creative. So there’s a much longer route to go around but the results are super-positive,” he says.
The day-to-day operations
Given Ramsay’s hectic schedule and the many other restaurants under his auspices, it is interesting to discover that he still keeps watch over his first Malaysian restaurant, monitoring it closely not a few times a month as you might imagine, but every single day!
“Every day, I read the reports and every day, I see the staff requests and every day, I see the feedback from the guests. And customers vote with their feet, they don’t ring you up and tell you ‘I’m not coming back.’ They just don’t come back, so that’s a great indicator. So I’m very involved, I’ve got a great team but the restaurant is closely connected to London more than you think,” he says.
In terms of maintaining the quality and consistency of the food, Ramsay says there are decades of experience that have helped him figure out how to do this well.
“I don’t think it’s any different to Gucci or Prada, I don’t think it’s any different to Ferrari building a car. There is a level of expertise that has been 25 years in the making – so it’s about not trying to shoot too high too soon and taking the step-by-step process,” he says.
These days, Ramsay says he doesn’t really actively cook in the kitchen even when he visits his restaurants in different countries and likens his present role to that of a conductor, who supervises, coordinates and brings out the best in each team member.
“I think my role now – and has been for many years – is a conductor. If you’re conducting an orchestra with a 25-piece string quartet, then you need to be on it.
“And there are 27 staff in the kitchen so it all merges into one when each department works tirelessly to put this thing together. If anything, I want to get the best out of them by allowing them to do as much as possible and I’ll come in and do a tweak sometimes,” he says.
Ramsay also says he doesn’t really take online reviews or reviews on social media sites too much to heart. Instead he keeps his focus entirely on the customer experience, because he believes that at its heart, a business’ strongest success barometer is whether customers are happy.
“I’ve known some of the most barmy reports come through on Google and social media with guests that haven’t even been in the restaurant, so how is that a balanced insight to reviewing a restaurant that you’ve never been?
“So it’s about taking the rough with the smooth but the biggest critic of all is not some platform on Google rating four stars or five stars, the biggest and most important critic is the customer because without them, you are screwed,” he says.
Pressure and expectations
Given that the success or failure of his Malaysian outpost and literally every single restaurant under his auspices hinges on his reputation and name, does Ramsay constantly feel the pressure to live up to expectation?
Well, the short and sweet answer is, yes he does. And crazily, he thrives on that pressure!
“Yeah, there is always pressure but that is why we do it – we love pressure, pressure is our thing. Without pressure, I am useless – terrible!
“And not everyone wants to live like that, so the good thing is it’s so unorthodox that if you are not giving it everything, it is one of the worst jobs in the world to have. I suppose it’s in my blood now, it’s a DNA that I don’t want to settle unless it’s absolutely perfect,” he says.
Moving forward, Ramsay says he has been overwhelmed by the enormous outpouring of support Gordon Ramsay Bar & Grill has received since its inception in Malaysia, which is why he is absolutely determined to expand his footprint in the country – whether that’s through a fish & chips outlet or even a Gordon Ramsay Burger joint.
“The response here has been off-the-charts, really unprecedented. And I love this part of the world honestly, so I will definitely be opening more restaurants,” he confirms.