If the waiters at Gordon Ramsay’s first Singapore restaurant Bread Street Kitchen are sweating, it’s not from being yelled at by the celebrity chef who built a successful career based on cooking and an expletive-filled vocabulary. “The climate in Singapore is so hot, it’s not something I have control over,” says the 48-year-old who is in Singapore this week for the restaurant’s opening. “Not because I’m shouting at them.”
The restaurant opened last Friday at the Marina Bay Sands and is a partnership between the Gordon Ramsay Group and the integrated resort company which also owns several celebrity chef restaurants in the complex including Waku Ghin, DB Bistro Moderne, Osteria Mozza and Cut.
The Singapore outlet is part of a major push into Asia by the group as part of its restructure since Mr Ramsay and partner Stuart Gillies took over the reins almost five years ago after removing Mr Ramsay’s father-in-law, Christopher Hutcheson, from the business. After weathering near-bankruptcy, lawsuits and public spats with Mr Hutcheson that were tabloid fodder for the UK media, “the company is doing brilliant” today, says Mr Ramsay.
“We’re making £52 million (S$109.6 million) turnover in the UK alone, and £100 million globally. Yes, there was a time when we were not boasting profits. Now I make sure the company is sufficiently liquefied with cash to get out of bad times.”
Bread Street Kitchen in Singapore is his second restaurant in Asia, with the first one opened in Hong Kong in September last year. He is reportedly opening another outlet in Hong Kong this October, and one in Dubai and another in Macau by 2016. Bread Street Kitchen first opened in London.
As for other Asian cities, “Shanghai, Beijing, I love, but I want to get this Singapore one right first,” he says. “I want to enjoy the view. I tell my young chef here, do you know how lucky you are to come to work, and be able to see this magnificent view of the promenade?”
The Singapore dining scene excites him. “It is incredible,” he says. “Singapore is very close to catching up with London, and there’re more restaurants opening in the next two to three years, so the dining scene here is going to get better.”
Mr Ramsay adds that “I’ve had a love affair with Singapore for two decades,” recalling his first time in 1998 when the Raffles Hotel invited him to take part in its annual food and wine event. Following that, he spent 12 years as International Culinary Panel consultant for Singapore Airlines. He caused the biggest stir in Singapore in 2013 when he took part in a wildly successful cook-off against some of Singapore’s best hawkers. And now, “I’m finally here with MBS,” he continues. “I have a vested interest in Singapore, more than any other European or American chef. So opening a restaurant here is a long time coming.”
Despite Singapore’s longstanding manpower issues, the British chef is unfazed. “I’ve worked in New York, Paris, London… there’s not a kitchen that doesn’t have issues with manpower.”
What he deems more detrimental than staffing issues, are young chefs who are helming restaurants too soon. “Too many young chefs are cutting off their intellectual learning. They have limited knowledge, and they don’t plan for succession, and suffer burn-out. That’s a much bigger problem.”
In Singapore, Bread Street Kitchen is headed by Sabrina Stillhart, a long-term chef with the group. He feels it’s a travesty that there aren’t enough female chefs in restaurants today – “I’ve got 17 working for me (in the UK) and some of them are the best in the country.”
The menu in the Singapore restaurant is fairly similar to the one in London, but flavours have been adjusted to suit local tastes. Even then, he says, he may not have gotten it down pat. “Even before we opened, we came last September to do research. But you never get real feedback until the restaurant is up and live. So we are tweaking on a daily basis.”
Since he arrived, he’s already taken some items off the menu because they were not up to scratch, and expects to be doing tweaks at every service for the next eight to 10 weeks. It’s all about “getting it right”, he says, and he is very serious about it.
Also, with a casual restaurant, he’s able to change things faster than in a fine-dining restaurant. Which, incidentally, he hints may be in the offing for Singapore. “Would I like to open a Gordon Ramsay Restaurant?” He asks hypothetically. “Yes, but I want to build the bricks and foundations first. Doing fine dining takes years to set up.” However, when pressed, he says, “Would I do fine dining next year? Yes. But let’s have that conversation next year. You heard it first.”
In real life, the chef with the formidable reputation is charming and friendly, and professes a bit of embarrassment that random strangers keep approaching him when he walks through MBS. “Everyone wants a photograph, and I’m really nervous about that,” he confides. “The food is more important than me. People don’t realise how normal I am.”
So is he not at all what he’s like on TV, vulgarity spewing and all?
“I don’t watch TV, so I don’t really know what I’m like. My mum suggested that I watch, but I’m too scared to,” says the host of shows such as Masterchef US and Hell’s Kitchen. “Also, I have no time for TV, so there’s none of that ‘Ok kids, let’s watch Daddy on TV’.”
His real self is such that “I have a way of dealing with things – I have to get straight to the problem. I’m firm but fair. If I were flipping burgers, my staff would be giving each other hi-fives, but I’m cooking with a higher standard, so I have disciplines that I cannot break. That’s not me being rude, that’s just getting straight to the point.”
In fact, midway through the interview, he compliments a server on his hair. “Your hair is very immaculate. Where did you get it done, can you book me in for 4pm with your stylist?,” he asks. The poor server doesn’t know quite how to react. “I’m serious. Please give them a call. I’ll pay double to get in.”
At the age of 48, the avid cyclist has no plans to retire, revealing that he just had a full body check-up three weeks ago. “My doctor tells me that I’ve got the heart of a 25-year-old, and the resting pulse rate of a 48-year-old, and I’ve no need for beta blockers,” he says. “Do I look washed out, and ready to have a heart attack?” Obviously not.
When he does retire, though, he would like to be a food critic. “It’ll be an amazing job, and after 30 years cooking, I am qualified.”
Until then, cooking will continue to be what he does best. The restaurant has an open kitchen in its basement, and diners will see him there on some days. “It is important in the first 12 months, that diners see me,” he says. Without any prompting, he asks, “Will they see me swear?”
In all seriousness, he replies, “I, Gordon Ramsay, do have good days. People watch me on TV, and go, he’s so rude. But I do have good days… today is one of them. Long may it continue.”
This article was first published in The Business Times on June 24, 2015.