Heat. It can drive trainee cooks who can’t handle it out of 100-degree professional kitchens. Not a culinary superbeing like Gordon Ramsay, who’s towered over the blazes of Hell’s Kitchen, a restaurant empire studded with award-winning eateries in three continents. Not this man, who has been a feature of several TV shows, 23 cookbooks and two printed autobiographies. Yet, at the peak of his fame at age 42, when this tousled blonde chef, known for foul speech strong enough to singe meat, was earning £9 million for TV appearances, eight of his new restaurants got scorched by the recession. Consultancy KPMG recommended Gordon Ramsay Holdings (of which he owns 69 per cent), file for bankruptcy at the end of 2008. It’d breached a £10.5 million loan and overdraft facility. Financial heat drove Sir Gordon out of his kitchens into India to film TV series Gordon Ramsay’s Great Escape in March 2009.
When UK’s only three-star Michelin chef arrived in Delhi in a T-shirt, combat pants and a backpack, Ramsay was pale, broke and at the bottom of his game. Gordon minus his gusto admitted, “The last six months had been pretty shitty.” He’d been forced to sell his Ferrari Scuderia, and his reputation had taken a drubbing after media reports about “boil-in-the-bag” food at his gastropubs and rumours about his affair with his book agent. “Gordon was here to learn,” says a Great Escape team member, “and that’s something huge for a chef with his reputation and experience.”
With an estimated appearance fee of £1 million, Great Escape, which bypasses posh spots and tries to be Slumdog, got Ramsay to wrap his tongue and mind around curry. The three-part series—yet to be aired in India—which premiered on Channel Four, pulled in 2.3 million viewers in UK this January. Viewers objected to scenes like the ones where he calls masterchef Imitiaz Qureshi “the dog’s bollocks” and Sadguru Jaggi Vasudev, “Father Christmas”.
As the book based on the series hits the UK stands, PR buzz has suppressed truth about Ramsay in India such as the fact the he fled from the sets in Kumarakom, without packing his bags, when Restaurant Gordon Ramsay toppled out of the prestigious listing, Top 100 Restaurants of the World. Why no fuss? The production house, One Potato, Two Potato, is co-owned by Ramsay. Here’s what really went down during the series, that’s quite unlike Kitchen Nightmares, F Word and Hell’s Kitchen.
Shedding his ogre-like arch-devil personality from TV show Hell’s Kitchen almost entirely, Ramsay becomes dogsbody to everyone from the acclaimed masterchef Imtiaz Qureshi in Lucknow and lesser known genius Sambhar Mani in Dharavi. No more reigning over haute cuisine and nervous chefs, here he was a man without a past, a minion, chopping onions in a railway pantry car. Rather than foie gras, this burnt-out celeb-chef gets down to making vegetable korma and fighting motion sickness, under the watchful gaze of railway chef Balaji, onboard the madly bucking Mangala Express.
“At places where no one knew him he was more at ease. Working under caterer Sambhar Mani in the streets of Dharavi, he was astounded by how much work goes into vegetarian food. He talked to everyone, when chatting with Catholic schoolteachers, he didn’t swear at all,” says another crew member. While the Slumdog sambhar simmers, Ramsay walks about Dharavi, bites into vada pav and plays an impromptu innings of galli cricket. From being Hollywood and Hyde Park’s most-recognised culinary being, he seems content being just another gora on the loose. In Nagaland, he guffaws when they call him “Girton Ramsay”.
Away from the clutches of the tabloid press and far from Chicken Tikka Masala land, Ramsay navigates this food adventure show with pure machismo, he machetes through the jungles of the Northeast to hunt boar and deer, grinds fire ants to chutney in Bastar and bakes a goat leg under the Thar desert sands. “Jeopardy was one of the key elements built into every episode,” says a show planner. And that gives you stick-in-your-mind TV moments. Like when this 6 foot tall, 90 kg chef, who’s only taste of chutney was frilly fruit bits floating in sweet syrup, is about to clamber up a tree to ambush fire ants for a Chhattisgarhi tribal version of this delicacy.
“What do I do if the ants bite?” asks Ramsay before sticking his feet into the chop marks on the trunk made by a wiry Jurwa tribal. “Don’t move and don’t shit,” is his guide Rajneesh’s quick-fire repartee. “He really warmed to the tribals,” says our source, “much more than the society ‘bimbos’, as he called them, in Delhi.” You sense this in his confessional piece to camera in Bastar. The scenes in Delhi took rehearsals, not with Gordon but the society Dilliwalas, who “had to be coached: don’t gush over Gordon”.
But ruled by BBC guidelines, how could this multi-million dollar talent go tree-climbing, diving down to the riverbed for karimeen and risk his life racing buffaloes in paddy fields? Specially when he refused to be a wuss and wear a harness or rely on protective nets. “It was a safety nightmare, where’d you get certified tree climbers in India,” asks a third team member. The next best thing was having stuntmen fly down from Mumbai, who stood below sal trees while the giant white man went up into the canopy and came down howling as fire ants tore into his torso.
Unlike the effete Rhodes across India, that had celebrity Gary Rhodes in his starched chef-whites cook with housewives in five-star hotels, there’s not a single indolent moment in Great Escape. Shunning the one-teaspoon-of-this territory of cook-and-tell stovetop shows, Ramsay’s is a high-octane escape, where he drives a Royal Enfield, a sputtering Morris Minor, wears a lungi and vest, stirs up handis and wipes away his sweat with a red gamcha. A back-in-Glasgow-glow spreads across his face when he shares blood sausage and tea with Naga tribals, as Scots traditionally do.
Though he was away from the tabloids, Ramsay was desperate for good-publicity oxygen. “He was insecure,” says a crew member, “he’d keep asking, ‘did they like my food?’ At most places, they didn’t.” At a toddy shop in Kerala where he replicates their beef chilli fry, people hated his version (the recipe is in the TV series cookbook). After he goes buffalo-skiing in Wayanad, racing about a flooded paddy field like Apollo on adrenaline, living out a mannish fantasy that could have maimed him for life, villagers applaud Ramsay’s brute power. But the porridge he stirs up? They feed it to their cows. These rejections are now culled footage in an editing studio in England.
Senior journalist Satish Jacob, whose Christmas lunches are famed for their kebabs and kormas from Uttar Pradesh, detested Ramsay’s “slow-cooked chicken”. He called it “muddy”. Adman Suhel Seth uses the most manipulated food adjective ever, calling it “succulent.” “Seth insisted he’d come and sample Gordon’s food only if we took him on camera,” says a crew member.
Author and publisher Malvika Singh, who lays out one of the finest tables in the capital, pairing handi gosht with wild rice and prawn curry with cous cous, does praise his creation on camera, but now admits she was being polite. “It was gimmicky, tandoori fusion without a specific spice and sense of India. I can’t remember it clearly, whereas I can still taste the lamb chops stuffed with gherkins and cheese made by Antonio Carluccio when he visited India ten years ago.”
Though he kept summoning up the glow for the cameras, when Restaurant Gordon Ramsay tumbled off the Top 100 Restaurants of the World, the chef imploded. The fact that his protégé, Marcus Wareing, with whom he’d had a public spat, debuted on the list with his six-month-old Petrus, added to the humiliation.
Shortly after international tabloids picked up and tracked Gordon Ramsay in Kumarakom, he evaded them by getting onto a high-speed boat. That night he said to the crew, “I’m going for a swim.” He never showed up, nor responded to calls. When the crew finally went to his room, they found he’d vanished. He’d caught a plane back to England to salvage what he could.
Ramsay returned to India to finish the series in June. And it’s clear that he’s found culinary confidence again as he cooks up a karimeen fish three ways—fumet, steamed and in red curry—for an evening party at the Mumbai Taj. “Chef Hemant Oberoi talked about the terror strikes and cried. All of that was lopped off, due to the Taj’s policy.”
Even then, you have amazing moments that can only be born of great research, fat budgets and spontaneity, like the bullock-skiing, the reading of entrails in Nagaland and chicken barbequed in leaves in Bastar, being lifted out of the fire with natural oven mitts—sal leaves. Ramsay’s appetite for adventure, which is larger than most of our lily-livered TV hosts, sparks up the series, like when he hoists the hand of a woman, who’s rubbed insanely fiery Bhut Jholokia chillis on her eyes, as if she’s won a boxing bout.
Even if all the driving of Enfields, tribal dances with spears, wearing of combat pants was only therapy masquerading as TV for a chef in a midlife crisis, it’s riveting. Love him or hate him, you’ve never seen anything like Gordon Ramsay in this confessional mode of Great Escape. His cheffy curiosity is highly infectious. Even if you know all about curry, the series shows off flavoursome tweaks you haven’t seen yet, like black sesame paste, sour kachri (wild cucumbers) and odorous elephant apples. Watch your TV listings.