Letters from Home

Gordon versus the Empire

Bill Buford’s recent article on Gordon Ramsay’s slog in the U.S. (“The Taming of the Chef: Can Gordon Ramsay make it here?” April, 3, 2007 ) has me thinking again about the sins and virtues of the Ramsay Holdings pub venture, and the exhausting drive my darling head chef is taking into my homeland.

I discussed the issue of the Ramsay brand back in October, with Fiona, a brand consultant friend of mine. This was just after Gordon and company bought the Warrington Hotel in Maida Vale and just after his tie with Thresher’s was launched, thus plastering his mug all over every corner of London.

I said: His brand needs revising. It needs to be pulled back. He is in danger of over-exposure with a limited audience. His edge will lose its charm, and it is in danger of suffocating his skill.

Fiona said: No, not necessarily. He is highly-identifiable. He reaches a broad market with passion and strength. His brand is on the up.

Gordon Ramsay, the Shape Shifter
The difference between our viewpoints is global exposure. Whilst Fiona was thinking about the European market, where Ramsay’s history is known, I was thinking about the American market, where Ramsay was about to turn the American concept of London on its ear.

In New York, Ramsay is investing millions of dollars trying to convince a very limited American audience – and very particular one, the finicky New York restaurant crowd – that Great Britain makes Great Food and Great Chefs. Well, at least one.

Unfortunately, The Great Chef is busy building himself up as the next Posh, the Great Celebrity, and his modus operandi of training up other Great Chefs (or hiring them, in the case of Angela Hartnett at Claridge’s) is slowly waning, as was seen at the almost ignored opening of the Narrow in Limehouse.

Ramsay is spreading himself out in London, to make the most of the limited time his brand has value. He is turning his obsessive eye to the original Frontier, as if it were virginal, as naive as most Brits believe it to be, back then and now. He assumes his same concepts of conquest will work in the U.S. market. And that the same cooks will succeed in a U.S. marketplace.

The Grand Delusion
Why, you ask, is this occurring? Gordon is a certified celebrity here in the U.K. and a hometown boy. Whatever the individual opinion of him, there is still a staunch dedication to his essential Britishness. And naturally there will always be hangers-on willing to splash out the cash to eat at a table marked by his name, even if he hasn’t set foot in the place for months.

And whilst the Brits look the other way, for the next phase of his life, like his friend Posh, Gordon is interested in the new America, to expand his empire. The realization I believe he is slowly finding over there, is that his “eff-ing” brand won’t sell his tranquil and modest food to Americans, even if they would surely love the stuff if they ate it.

Expectations are a funny thing. We can get food anywhere, but it’s the show that has us hanging on. Delivering American palates from the divisive foul-mouth/fine-food paradigm will be his biggest challenge.

I Heart New York
Buford’s observation in his long and complex New Yorker piece of Ramsay’s London opening paints our Gordon Ramsay exactly right: a manic chef with a spotted history who— like so many Brits— doesn’t understand America but is obsessed with owning their ideal of New York. They have to have it.

But it isn’t American New York they want: it’s some movie image of the city, their New York, with its glittering wet streets, luminous yellow cabs, the dizzying heights of sculpted metal. The tough parts: the muggings and the race issues and the insufferable English tourists, they are always hidden from the postcards.

And, of course, when you have a particular British attitude of suffering and privilege, and you live on a particularly isolated small island where the currency is particularly strong, well…. all of this can lead to a particularly big surprise when your Big Chef head doesn’t fit into the four-star mold of New York fine dining.

Not there, or in any part of America.

One thought on “Gordon versus the Empire

  1. Very interesting. My company considered publishing one of Ramsay’s cookbooks but decided not to because despite the TV show Hell’s Kitchen, most Americans don’t know who Ramsay is, and those who do see him as a brash, mean man, which doesn’t sell in the U.S. Paula Deen and Rachael Ray sell in the U.S. The nice guy, everyman, Mario Batali sells here–especially when he works with NASCAR. Maybe Ramsay has enough UK clout to succeed in NY, but that’s a tough market with a high turnover. It will be interesting to see what happens.

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