These days, if you ask Gordon whether his dad ever did anything nice for him,
he can think of only one thing. "He taught me how to swim," he says, "and I think that's important." So, at least there was that. But it came at a price, because Gordon Sr., a true sadist, taught Gordon Jr. to swim by holding his head under water for minutes on end.
In his teenage years, Gordon developed into an outstanding soccer player, known on the field as Flash, after Flash Gordon, and was recruited to be an apprentice defender by the Glasgow Rangers, the great Scottish soccer team. His father was elated. Then a knee injury permanently sidelined him, after which he discovered his passion for cooking. His father was furious. "Cooking is for poofs!" he would say. "Only poofs cook!"
While Ramsay Sr. was around, the strife never ceased. Gordon left home at the age of 16, worked part-time as a dishwasher, spent a year in cooking school, became chef for a small-town restaurant in Oxfordshire, had an affair with the owner's wife, was found out, and moved to London, where he came across a picture of Marco Pierre White – cigarette in his mouth; long, greasy hair; dark eyes, brooding, soulful – and said to himself, "There's Jesus." He called on Jesus at the fabulous Harvey's, got a job with Jesus, and began working his way up the ranks in some of the finest restaurants in the world, where chefs were just as nasty to him as he would one day be to his own underlings. One night at Harvey's, he dropped a piece of fish, so infuriating Pierre White that he said, "You know the best thing that's happened to you, Ramsay? The shit that ran down your mother's leg when you were born."
Things like that bothered Ramsay, but not really. It's how it is in many a top-flight professional kitchen. It signals passion for food, where the paradox of passion – if passion equals love, and passion equals pain, then love equals pain – ruled the day. He understood this, but eventually the abuse became too much, and he quit, only to suffer through it again with all subsequent chef-bosses, until, in 1993, he took command of the kitchen at the newly opened Aubergine, where he earned his first two Michelin stars. He started to give it as good as he once got it, and continued to do so at the first of his own restaurants, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, in London's Chelsea district, which he opened in 1998 at age 31 and which, in short order, won him his third Michelin star, a sudden and unheard-of accumulation of the only currency that matters inside the heart of an ambitious chef. That same year, his growing reputation as a fang-baring shouter led to a BBC documentary series called 'Boiling Point.' Off camera, he talks softly about how important it is not to put your staff on edge with your criticisms, while on camera, he's a hissing, barking, sweating, stress-riddled, spleen-venting freak show. To string a few of his choicer comments together: "Ya fat bastard, is yar brains in yar fucking ass? What're we gonna do now then, fatso? Come on, you; let's go, you; donkey, fucking wake up, dickhead; get with it, dickhead; I don't give a fuck about that, dickhead; next time don't even set the alarm clock, stay in your fucking piss; oh, come on, donkey; well done, gold star, asshole." And this is to say nothing of how he'd lean in toward his employees, getting almost nose-to-nose, pushing them, grabbing them by the collar, grunting and growling. It was pretty vicious stuff, and today it makes even him queasy to watch.
But the public found it vastly entertaining and booked his restaurant solid for months into the future, which enabled him and his partner, father-in-law Chris Hutcheson, to open more restaurants and start earning more of those precious Michelin stars. Then came the cookbooks; the various TV series in England; 'Kitchen Nightmares,' 'Hell's Kitchen,' 'MasterChef,' and 'Hotel Hell' in the U.S.; the two autobiographies; the Gordon Ramsay chocolates; the Gordon Ramsay calendars; his brand extension into "quality home and lifestyle products," and all the rest of it.
Last year, Ramsay won the top spot on Forbes' list of highest-paid chefs, with earnings of $38 million. During the recession, his restaurants, like all top-tier restaurants, got hit hard. But last year, things began turning around. "Our 2012 profits are in excess of 5.5 million pounds, and that's just in the U.K.," he says, and he has drastically changed the way he runs his company. "Once I fired my father-in-law, in 2010," he says, "I overhauled it, narrowed it, reined it in, got rid of dead weight. I'm doing licensing deals now, instead of exposing my own cash. Gross revenues from our three Vegas restaurants are $55 million. I want to consolidate and not make the mistake that my father-in-law made and just say yes to everything, thinking short-term." It's businessman spiel like that, however, that makes critics think he's all about the money now and not so much about the food.
"Do I want to be in the kitchen with a pan and apron at 75?" he says. "No, I'm sorry. But as much as the money's nice, that's never been my main motivator." And, so far, his Michelin stars would seem to prove him right; with 11 of them right now, he ranks third in total number, behind living legends Alain Ducasse and Joël Robuchon.
And his confidence in his cooking skills is as gigantic as ever. "I've got this mystery-box competition coming up in a week," he says, "and no way do I want to know what the mystery ingredients are that I'm going to have to cook with. The others have an hour to cook, and I'm going to join halfway through. I know it's slightly kamikaze, slightly mad, but I'll get in the zone, forget the bullshit of cameras and lights, ignore everything around me and absolutely cook my ass off – and outdo what the contestants are doing in half the time." This has always been a big source of pride for him, his willingness to publicly put himself on the line in the kitchen and face possible humiliation – and if you're a big-time chef about to appear on one of his shows, you'd better do the same.
"I mean, I once asked Cat Cora from the Food Network to appear on 'MasterChef,' which sometimes pits amateur chefs against pros. They were to prepare a Cat Cora dish, and obviously she was never going to lose, but she and her agents insisted that, even if her dish wasn't the best, she win. 'Damage limitation: She needs to know she's going to win.' I said, 'Look, there's no fucking way I'm ever going to allow that. No way. Over my dead body.' I was so pissed off." (A representative for Cat Cora says the incident never happened: "Cat has competed for 12 seasons on 'Iron Chef' against the best in the world and clearly isn't afraid of competition. Simple as that.")
Ramsay's father died in 1998 at the age of 53, of alcoholism. Seven years earlier, he'd abandoned his family for a just-as-wretched life with a new family elsewhere. One of the last times Gordon saw his father, he invited him to dine at Aubergine. "He didn't really understand the menu, and he asked for a glass of red wine, which he topped off with 7-Up or Sprite. He said it made it taste better. I didn't know what to say. But I could see my French sommelier's toes curling. And I was so embarrassed that I made up an excuse that I had to go to a meeting." Several years later, his mom remarried, happily. His older sister Diane became a housewife with three kids; younger sister Yvonne, a nurse; and younger brother Ronnie, a heroin addict, which he has mostly remained ever since. Gordon says he has tried to help Ronnie and even put him through rehab several times, but as thanks, his brother only stole from him and threatened his life and the lives of his family. Where Ronnie is now, Gordon isn't sure. He thinks he's living on the streets of London, a beggar, and as long as he's using, he wants nothing more to do with him.
Ronnie and Gordon, though, as a blood-bonded pair, are interesting to think about, how one went straight down, the other straight up, and what they might have in common, including some fondness for all-or-nothing extremes and the obviously bottomless rages against their father that still must exist inside, channeled outward in such different directions – which in Gordon's case also probably includes all those eruptive-looking sags and folds on his face, that deeply corrugated forehead, those crisscrossing creases and dents. He's tried to deal with them. Several years ago he had the largest crevice on his chin (the one that he once woke up to find daughter Tilly trying to shove coins into) cosmetically plastered over. He looks better now, but, of course, the cosmetician's magic can only do so much.
These days, he spends a good bit of his time outside the kitchen in pursuit of action and thrills. He races Ferraris, has bought 12 of them, and is waiting glassy-eyed on delivery of a $300,000 F12 Berlinetta, the fastest production Ferrari ever: zero to 62 mph in 3.1 seconds. He once hung out of a Black Hawk helicopter shooting at wild hawks with the Marines. He's planning on trekking in the Brazilian jungle soon, "to cut myself off and be remote, just myself in the situation [of the natives], and do everything." While filming an investigative documentary about the shark-fin trade in Costa Rica, he was doused with gasoline by angry locals, who threatened to set him on fire. "I was scared for about the first 20 seconds, but I'd started running, which made the petrol evaporate quicker," he says, "and then I was more concerned about the cameraman and crew." He's a dedicated marathoner, has finished 12 of them in London, is about to run his second in Los Angeles, and has competed in five ultramarathons in South Africa. He's got that Ironman competition in Hawaii coming up, and he's training hard. "This morning, my training session was at 4:30 am," he says. "And then I'll do it again after work. I make the time for it. I don't want to just scrimp over the finish line in, like, 15 hours. I want to do it properly." He takes no medications, as in, "No! Never! Shit, no!" He's never been to a therapist or psychologist, as in, "No! Never! Never been in therapy, never needed therapy. No!" He scoffs at the drug tests he has to take as part of his contract with Fox. "A gorgeous 25-year-old student nurse from South Africa or Australia will say, 'From a single hair follicle we can trace back 17 months, 18.' I say, 'Sweetie, do I look like I'm on coke?' She says, 'Yes. You do.' I say, 'Sweet, the only coke I take is fucking Zero, Diet or Zero.'" He works out in a home gym, has granitic legs and visible veins running down his biceps. He likes wearing tight T-shirts that show off his physique, and he's wearing one today. He had his chef's jacket especially made, with a waist that tapers nicely. And he looks magnificent in it. But unlike the custom jackets other chefs wear, his doesn't have his name emblazoned on it. Why should it? Everyone knows who he is. He's Gordon Ramsay, the biggest, richest, most well-known chef in the world, a rock star of the kitchen, his knife his Stratocaster, his pots and pans his Marshall amps. He's everything his father wanted to be but wasn't. "His father was a failure in life," says his mother. "Because of that, I think Gordon has something inside of him saying, 'I ain't going to be a failure. No matter what. I am not going to be a failure.'" In that regard, almost everything he does involves some kind of competition, with a winner and a loser, and so far, so good; but the race isn't over, and there are many folks – former friends and colleagues, other chefs, complete strangers – standing on the sidelines, rooting for him to return to recent family tradition, to fuck it all up and fail.