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Gordon Ramsay: The Bad Boy Chef Teaches Good Business ...Bill Knell

It took a while for Chef Gordon Ramsay to come to my attention. With limited television viewing time available due to a hectic work schedule, I tend to watch a select group of cable channel programs that have patiently been waiting in my digital recorder. When summer comes and my first run favorites are unavailable, I get adventurous and occasionally go slumming amongst the broadcast channels. In the midst of that trash heap, I found the Chef from Hell.

I don't know what made me watch, but there was something about a guy with a foreign accent yelling at a bunch of strange looking people in chef uniforms that appealed to me. It reminded me of visiting the carnivals during my younger days. I felt the same allure to Hell's Kitchen that I did to the Bonnie and Clyde Death Car exhibit or the Reefer Madness film theater in the exhibits section of the carnival.

Watching Hell's Kitchen for the first time bothered me. I dislike reality television shows. My wife and I share an office in our home with a television set that is on most of the time. In the interest of marital bliss, I occasionally watched Judge Judy or Jerry Springer. After growing bored of the antics on those programs, my wife discovered Big Brother. Although much easier on my ears, that show did nothing for me. I should have felt the same about Hell's Kitchen.

With my finger firmly planted on the channel-changing button of my remote, I was ready to retreat back up to the sanity of the higher double and triple digit channel numbers on my cable box. Despite my best efforts, I could not change the channel. I had to watch every BLEEPING moment of Ramsey's Tirades. By the end of the episode, I figured out why.

Despite my aversion to reality shows, I watch The Apprentice. Anyone interested in business probably does. Once you get past all the personalities, contestant chitchat and other crap thrown in to satisfy the standard reality television formula, it's a show about business done right. When business is done wrong, the offending participant is fired. That's about as real as it gets. That is also the appeal of what one of my adolescent children calls "the Mean Chef show." Mean? I beg to differ. It's about cooking and kitchen management done right.

Anyone who has ever been served a one or two hundred dollar meal that tasted like day old fast food can relate to Ramsay's Standards and his passion for serving the best food in the most creative way possible. Although I am a late comer to Hell's Kitchen, I have become an ardent fan. So much so that I actually journeyed to the BBC America cable channel to seek out more of Ramsay. What I found was wonderful.

Although I haven't really watched UK television in a serious way since Benny Hill, I took a chance with Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares and won big. I found the series to be entertaining and very informative. In a day when the overall educational process is dumbed-down to the point of being almost useless and somewhat illegitimate in the real world, it is refreshing to see how Ramsay is able to reach out and state the obvious to the clueless. This is something that people wanting to try their hand at the restaurant business can learn from.

As an occasional business project manager and consultant, it has been my unpleasant experience to have to explain to people why their ideas suck. That's the reason I rarely do that work anymore. When facing a wide-eyed client who is ready to mortgage a home, borrow from relatives or max out credit cards to open a dream business, I often have to be the one to explain why they should not. It's hard to tell people what most financial, mortgage, credit card and commercial real estate companies will not. Those entities stand to profit from a small business failure as much as a success.

People that fail at business usually end up back at work for another twenty years paying for a dream that turned into a nightmare. The lenders know they'll do anything to save their home, so they get paid. Suppliers looking to dump over-priced retail displays and over-stocked wholesale items just want to make a sale. The strip mall landlord with empty stores and a bad location is glad to get as little as a few months rent out of any Sam Walton wannabe so he or she can pay a few of their own bills.

Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares illustrates what I call Logic's Lousy Lesson: Business Owners can do anything they want, as long as they do it the right way. Just because you love skating, doesn't mean you should open a skating accessories store. Your Grandma may cook up a mean batch of oatmeal cookies, but think twice before you bet the farm on that recipe. He may have a potty mouth, but Ramsay knows what works and what doesn't. Maybe that's because he had his own hard lessons along the way.

Born in 1966, the future Scottish Celebrity Chef watched his father try various careers and businesses. Because of many failures, the family constantly moved. Ramsay probably thought he inherited his father's knack for bad luck along with his first name. After youthful successes in football (soccer), the future chef was going to be signed by the Rangers. A series of injuries prevented that. Rather than sign with a lower league team, Gordon enrolled at a local college to study hotel management and catering. He was just nineteen years old.

After working in relatively small kitchens and managing hotel dining rooms, he moved to London. Ramsay's gig at Harvey's placed him under Chef Marco Pierre White. White is considered the godfather of modern English cooking and cuisine, but has a notorious temper and tyrannical kitchen management style. During his heyday, Chef White routinely ejected patrons that complained about his cuisine and allegedly abused his staff in one way or another. Ramsay left Harvey's after almost three years and later stated he was tired of the "the rages and the bullying and violence."

Chef Ramsay decided to further his perfection of the French Cuisine by going to work for Albert Roux at Le Gavroche in Mayfair. It was there that he met Jean-Claude Breton, his Hell's Kitchen Maître D' and real life Master of the Hall at Ramsay's Royal Hospital Road restaurant. After following Albert Roux to the French Alps to work as his second, Ramsay moved to Paris to work with Guy Savoy and Joël Robuchon. Savoy's style of kitchen management was oppressive. Three years of the physical and mental stress present in French Kitchens was enough for Ramsay. He spent a year working as a Chef on the Idlewild, a private yacht that cruised out of Bermuda.

Gordon Ramsay returned to England in 1993 and worked as Head Chef at La Tante Claire. Despite their philosophical differences, Chef Marco Pierre White offered Ramsay a position as Head Chef and 25 percent of a restaurant later known as Aubergine. Ramsay remained there until 1997 when a dispute over operation of the restaurant caused him to leave. Chef Ramsay opened his own restaurant, Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road, in 1998. Royal Hospital Road was awarded a third Michelin star in 2001 and Ramsay became the first Scot to achieve that honor.

The Chef from Hell was on his way, but not everything would be smooth sailing. In 2001, Ramsay opened Amaryllis in Glasgow, Scotland, the city of his birth. The restaurant was successful at first, but high rent, light weekday business, snippy staff members and an inability to keep the menu reasonably priced were key elements in its failure. Ramsay lost more than the restaurant. His protégé, David Dempsey, died in 2003.

Amaryllis was to have been a vehicle for Dempsey to establish himself as a notable Chef. While he was there, the restaurant achieved the honor of the only restaurant in Glasgow to win a Michelin Star. When it closed, Ramsay brought Dempsey to London to work as Head Chef at his Hospital Road restaurant.

After just a few weeks back in London, Dempsey was caught trying to break in to a premises located in Elm Park Gardens, just off the Kings Road in Chelsea. The owner of the flat struggled with him and Dempsey fell to his death from a second story window. Dempsey allegedly had a drug problem. Ramsay's brother is an addict and the Chef is fiercely anti-drug.

All Chefs are subject to corporate chaos, bottom lines, food costs, staff problems and the always-changing tastes of the public. Chef Ramsay has handled those problems better than most. His passion for a culinary job well done, ability to make changes when needed and admit failures when they occur are the attributes that make him an excellent mentor and someone worth watching. As of 2006, Chef Ramsay has become somewhat of a conglomerate with restaurants, pubs and cuisine consultant responsibilities throughout the world.

It's difficult to say how much of Ramsay's restaurant success is due to his television presence. When it comes to culinary stardom, the cooking and cuisine most-often make the Chef. However, if it's also about name recognition and being a bigger than life media figure, Chef Ramsay easily fits into those roles as well.

British television audiences discovered Ramsay's wild ways in 1998 with Boiling Point. Ramsay's rants continued in 2000 with Beyond Boiling Point and took on a new look in 2004 when Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares hit the airwaves. The formula of Chef Ramsay spending a week trying to rehabilitate an ailing eatery during each episode has worked well. The Kitchen Nightmares show is still going strong after several seasons on UK television and its clone on American TV is a favorite among those who follow Ramsay in the USA.

The premier of Hell's Kitchen in 2004 followed Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares and introduced UK viewers to the best of the worst of Gordon Ramsay. While he must have learned some of those temperamental tirades from chefs White and Savoy, Ramsay has perfected them. So much so, that Fox Television brought the potty-mouthed practitioner of pugnacious platitudes to American audiences in 2005. Hell's Kitchen caught on quickly in America and remains one of the highest rated shows on Fox.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, imagine a mouthy Martha Stewart spitting out expletives, kicking her beloved pets because they sampled the Apple Pan Doughty or throwing food around when guests mention her stay at Club Fed. While they may be able to imitate his style, few self-styled food experts, chefs, cooks or restaurateur wannabees have reached Chef Ramsay's heights of fame and influence.

Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares on Fox is a must-see for entrepreneurs, investors and anyone wanting some entertainment that educates as well as it entertains. Some of his other programs in the UK and USA have come and gone, but Nightmares and Hell's Kitchen remain on the air and are fan favorites. His new Fox series about hotels in need of Ramsay-style tough love is bound to be an education in getting it right for Innkeepers. Hell's Kitchen continues to remind us that when it comes to Gordon Ramsay as a successful multi-millionaire businessman, he still isn't afraid to get his hands dirty and make sure everyone knows how to prepare a meal to his standards.


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