The Electric Restaurant Acid Test

From Notes of a Gastronome: The Taming of the Chef in The New Yorker

Why did they seek out the substandard, the industrial, and the unhealthy: prawn cocktail crisps, say, or fish fingers with Birds Eye peas (a “traditional” Sunday supper), or a “spag bol,” that horrific canned imitation of a classic Bolognese pasta? The implicit complaint—that the English don’t care what they put in their mouths—was evident in how it got there: by scooping up most of what was on your plate and eating it in one bite. Using your knife, you crushed what you could onto the back of your fork, one item after the other, your starches (like that perennial favorite chips and mash), your green-gray veg, a modest protein, calculatedly overcooked, unless it was fish, in which case it was just outright obliterated, and then—bang!—into the mouth, fork upside down.

There is good journalism, and there is great journalism and, fifteen years after he penned Among the Thugs, arguably the greatest study ever on British football hooliganism (not least because it was penned by a fascinated American), Bill Buford remains an absolute master of the latter. His profile on Gordon Ramsay in last week’s New Yorker – which entailed trailing the British chef for months through the launch of his debut American restaurant – was one of the liveliest and most engaging pieces I’ve read in any magazine in a long time. (Though I never ate “spag bol” out of a can, the essence of the above paragraph remains true for my food intake as a kid as I’m sure it does for many other iJamming! readers.)

Like a lamb to the slaughter: Gordon Ramsay brings London to New York

Admittedly, Buford was aided in no small part by his subject, whose every shouted word is as an (often unprintable) soundbite, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t rise to the occasion. Where most of The New Yorker’s journalism is famously clinical and fact-driven, rarely letting the writer get in the way of the story, Buford is one of the magazine’s only writers who can espouse the Tom Wolfe School of New Journalism, and not make it look like old hat.

As for Ramsay, I’ve never eaten at one of his restaurants and judging by his focus on foie gras, offal, tongues, livers and the like, I doubt I ever will. But I’ve seen him on TV and I find him as fascinatingly addictive as the next person; I end up liking him despite myself. The main criticism one could have about Ramsay (apart from his borderline violent demeanor) goes unstated in Buford’s profile, perhaps because it’s so glaringly obvious: a man who divides his time amongst a dozen restaurants and almost as many TV shows and book projects, can not maintain command of his kitchen(s). If his NYC restaurant “Gordon Ramsay at the London” has failed to live up to expectations – especially in the media – it’s surely for the reason that, as Buford’s profile makes all too evident, Gordon Ramsay is rarely at the London….

Ramsay was in California, filming the third season of “Hell’s Kitchen,” and then in Las Vegas, to preside over its finale. Next, he embarked on a new venture, an American version of “Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares,” the successful British series in which Ramsay plays culinary doctor, entering real restaurants in real trouble and prescribing their cures. His first problem kitchen was in California, but during the shoot he fell ill after eating a dish prepared by one of the participants. (He discovered a refrigerator filled with water and a container of pesto covered with fur.) He then flew back to the East Coast for four more episodes, including one in an Italian restaurant and another in an Irish pub on Long Island. It was an impossible schedule and a very “hard slog.” Nobody quite understood him, and one of the chefs whose nightmare kitchen Ramsay was trying to save steadfastly refused to make dishes from scratch. (“I just couldn’t get through. He really liked the tiramisù he got from Restaurant Depot.”) Meanwhile, his younger brother, a more typical child of a council estate, had been arrested in Bali for heroin possession.
Ramsay returned to the New York restaurant in March. He had been away for two months. The Channel 4 documentary, charting his effort to get three Michelin stars in America, wasn’t going to be made. It was immaterial. He had other problems…

When a magazine story is this enjoyable then, like the perfect meal, it’s a shame it has to end.

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November 2021