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December 21, 2006

Harry Phibbs argues that we could all learn from Gordon Ramsay's loathing for mediocrity and determination to achieve excellence - and not just in the kitchen: Humble Pie: My Autobiography - Gordon Ramsay

Posted by Harry Phibbs

Humble Pie: My Autobiography
by Gordon Ramsay
London: Harper Collins, 2006
Hardback, 18.99

The celebrity chefs are coming of age and writing their autobiographies. After Marco-Pierre White's White Slave, which I reviewed earlier, comes Gordon Ramsay's offering. White taught Ramsay a lot when Ramsay was working for him at Harvey's in Wandsworth in the 1980s.

Some might regard the two as similar personalities. Both are passionate about food, foul mouthed, and aggressive. But I think Ramsay comes across as much nicer than White. Ramsay swears at kitchen staff simply because he wants them to cook better. With White there seems to be more to it than that.

Ramsay resents the accusation he has got after his stints of reality TV - Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, Hell's Kitchen and The F Word - that he is a bully. He is entitled to resent the charge. Ramsay is consistently striving to make people succeed, not to humiliate them for failing. I'm not so sure White is entitled to feel similarly aggrieved by his reputation.

This book certainly tells us the whole story: a painful chapter about his brother's drug addiction; another about his upbringing with his wastrel violent father, to whom Gordon's mother would endlessly give "one last chance". It took quite a few years for Ramsay to be a financial success. Given the hours he was working, the pay he was on seems remarkably low. But he would pick jobs on the basis of what he could learn from them rather than the pay or title they offered.

Even now he is rich it is unclear what he spends it on. He sends his children on holiday to Butlins:

I'm not interested in getting them hooked on luxury. I want them to keep it real.
The only one of his restaurants he will allow them to eat at is the Boxwood Cafe, a family friendly restaurant at The Berkeley Hotel in Knightsbridge:
The only time they come to any of the other restaurants is on Christmas Day when I'm cooking at Claridges. They get a sandwich which they eat at the chef's table. Out of respect for my staff I'm not going to ask anyone to start cooking something for an eight-year-old girl.
The chef's table is actually in the kitchen. I hope they keep the language under control on such occasions.

By the way, don't expect to see Gordon Ramsay at the end of term nativity play at his children's school. He says:

The nativity play is like hell on earth. All the dads rushing in with their bald heads and their pin-stripe suits, bawling their eyes out when they see their little darlings up there on stage, and the mothers rushing to the front so they can use the zoom lenses on their video recorders. Dear God. Save me from all that.
He has a similar perspective on doing the school run and making small talk with the mothers of his children's school mates:
Outside the school gates it's a nightmare. I don't want to talk about their split-f****** hollandaise sauce. I want them to leave me alone.
Ramsay is particularly entertaining when being rude about his rivals.

I hope nobody bought this book as a Christmas present for Sir Terence Conran. Ramsay says:

Le Pont de la Tour is a restaurant more famous for its ashtrays than for its food. No disrespect, but you don't go to bloody Terence Conran for fine dining. You might go to him for a sofa, but you don't go to him for an experience in food. I remember going to Mezzo for dinner once. It was like being in a Ford car plant. The food was on an assembly line and it tasted like it.
He also returns to the attack on Antony Worrall Thompson. Reflecting that Hell's Kitchen was a mistake because it involved teaching celebrities how to cook rather than those who were genuinely interested, Ramsay adds:
Worst of all, on GMTV, there was the squashed Bee Gee himself, Antony Worrall Thompson, analysing my every move, telling everyone how he would have handled the service. What a joke: it would have killed him. Of course he would have loved a gig like that himself.
Given Ramsay's preoccupation with life in the kitchen, where he still works long hours, it is impressive that he has managed to start a family, undertake the TV series, write a column for The Times and, indeed, to write this book. He is a heroic figure. His contempt for pretentiousness working in a field where there is such an abundance of it is commendable as is the importance he places on honesty and the fairness with which he treats his staff. But most of all it is his determination to achieve excellence and loathing for mediocrity which is a spirit we could do with emulating - and not just in the kitchen. I'd like to see a reality TV series with a Gordon Ramsay equivalent sent in to turn around a failing school.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.

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