Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Ramsay the Terrible

So yesterday I posted about one of the two books I am currently reading. Today I will write about the second book, one that is a little easier and a lot more fun to read, although the Gellhorn book is fascinating. I’m finally getting around to reading Gordon Ramsay’s book Roasting in Hell’s Kitchen which is unselfconsciously hilarious, a little disturbing, and has swayed me over to this guy despite myself. Ramsay is perhaps the most driven S.O.B. I’ve ever read about, and, unfortunately, his drive is motivated not in small part to desperation. Or at least it was, by this time, I believe, Chef Ramsay never has to be desperate for approval ever again.

Much of this desperation stemmed from his relationship with his abusive father, an aspiring musician and an alcoholic who beat his children for lying and instilled in his eldest son a hatred for dishonesty. The relationship was brutal and heartrending but the lessons about lying seemed to have bored deep into Ramsay’s nature. Ramsay repeatedly holds up lies as the vilest poison in a kitchen, and berates and humiliates anyone he catches out on a lie. I’ve seen this kind of brow-beating before and it is disturbing to watch—and Ramsay is a master at drawing it out of a person and cornering them mercilessly. But there is a point to it that I recognize now, if the person who lies is allowed to get away with it he will continue to do it, and may become duplicitous, which is another fatal but all too common characteristic in a professsional kitchen.

But then there are the critics. I used to be one of them, feeling nauseas every time he chewed out a whimpering line cook or chucked a dish at the wall. “There’s no need for that,” I would think, intimidation only makes people more nervous and unable to concentrate. But Ramsay’s rise in the kitchen was repeatedly marked by people treating him in just the same way, and if there is a justification for this type of behavior, it is that to survive in the best restaurants in the world one has to develop a Calphanon shell. Ramsay tells stories that may be shocking to some, but are mixed with amusing honesty, about having scalding hot dishes hurled at him and having to stand there, straight faced, with spaghetti hanging off his ear. At times, he, like any sane human being, bolted from abusive chefs, but they often ran him down and implored him to stay, probably for his inhuman capacity for work and for what he calls, “good hands.”

While reading this book I find myself doing a kind of mental gaping. I marvel at the all of the abuse that Ramsay withstands, and as he now takes more abuse from critics—read this article in the New Yorker about his recently opened New York restaurant—he forges on despite it all. Of course by now he could retire and be assured that, if someone handles his money correctly, his great-grand-children would never want for anything in their lives. But he admits to being a person who can never sit still so retirement seems unlikely. He also comes across as a bit of a dodger at times, ducking out if things get a little too rough. A survival instinct I suppose, and one that has served him well.

Often I’ll read a passage and think, “wow, I saw some things in my time in the kitchen but never like that,” and then I’ll realize that, well, yes I had. I worked for a sadistic chef for two years who was part barbarian, part courtroom-shark (his father had been a defense attorney in the redneck town of Martinsville, Virginia). This guy was always looking for a way to back you into a corner and force you into the unforgivable position of being “in the weeds,” which means being behind on the line. Really, the guy was merciless, and at that time I had yet to step up and get a fire lit under my ass about working at the club. In the first three months of the Chef’s hiring, three employees quit, including the garde-manger chef and the pastry chef, who wrote a long indictment of the chef and slipped it under the general manager’s door early one morning. I was on my way out as well, and spent many sleepless nights planning my next move. I would drive to work everyday with tornadoes ravishing the pit of my stomach and try to remain calm as I prepared for the day, but it was one of those instances where every time the guy walked into the room you would just feel automatically defeated. He sensed this, and played on it, and I never understood what he stood to gain by wrecking a person’s self-confidence in this way, and yes I did see him make someone cry, not me thank God. To see someone cry in the work-place is so sadly surreal that it difficult to bring that memory back.

I tried to quit. I had been offered a job at a competing club by the former chef, but when I put in my notice the sado-chef wouldn’t let me go. He took me out on the loading dock several times and made a case true to his legal upbringing. The other club would eat me alive, he claimed, that I was just beginning to make progress under his “guidance.” This went on for the period of my notice, but in the end the cliché endured, money did indeed talk. They offered me a substantial raise and a promotion and I relented.

But now how would I survive this guy? My foray into leverage bargaining had not changed the chef’s attitude toward me or his staff one iota. I still was marked as backwater scum, although by this time he knew that my family had a legal background as well, owning the publishing company that published North Carolina's statutes for years and years. I still felt exhausted in his presence, and I remained very miserable at the job. As I watched the other staff members get berated on a daily basis I often asked myself, “Is it really worth it.”

One day, and this is the only way to describe it, I had a revelation. I was so annoyed by this chef that I decided that I was just going to silently mock him all day. I would mirror his characteristics, all but the berating of my co-workers, I never have been or never will be good at that, it just isn’t in my character. For all of his faults, this guy could really move in the kitchen. I estimate that he was about 250 pounds, but he was agile and could knock out a prep-list (long complicated ones for banquets) extremely quickly. Part of what made it uncomfortable to have him around was that he was so big and he seemed to be everywhere. So that’s how I started to work too, in a mocking way, at first. By the end of the first day I realized that I had finished the entire next day’s prep list. This is a great way to work, a day ahead, because as the day’s parties go out, everything is done and all you have to do is prepare the hot food, and get going on the next day's prep. By the third day I had given up on the mocking part of my plan and just started busting-ass like this, all day, every day. As we went into the holiday season it was being noticed how fast I had become, and compliments and glowing after-action reports were accumulating.

One day the chef took me aside and said very quietly, so no-one would hear, “Man, you’re kicking ass.” I was truthfully able to say, “It really hasn’t been that bad.”

The chef and I had more scrapes, but as long as I continued to “mock” him, I was able to maintain quality in my work and build the department. We knocked out a humongous amount of parties, and our business continued to grow, making the catering department the club’s cash cow—after golf; golf ruled at that place.

My humble story is hard to compare with Ramsay’s experience in London, an epicurean center that had finally arrived in the nineties after literally centuries of derision, mainly from Frenchmen who called English chefs, according to Ramsay, “rosbifs.” Ramsay’s scrappy rise, and his battles with rivals, most notably Marco White, culminated in him becoming the only Michelin three star chef in England. There is just no way I can dispute this accomplishment, even though I feel bad for a sous chef that Ramsay might make cry. If I believe that Ramsay’s style is destructive, and then see how he forces his underlings to rise to the occasion (or perish) as he has, I may have to reconsider my opinion of his methods.

As for me, I know that after all was said and done, the sado-chef forced me to step up. I don’t give him the credit for making me a better chef though, I give that credit to myself for not giving up. But the great ones, like Ramsay, know that being at his level means finding the deepest part of yourself and using it to go on. Anger, such a constant problem in the kitchen, may be just the very emotion that is needed to drive a chef to excellence.


linser said...

I think you ought to be really pleased with yourself for what you figured out. I have to admit I felt kind of exhausted and drained just reading about it. Somehow it reminds me of teaching in a snobby all boys English boarding school. (Maybe the humiliation part and the exhaustion). Only I never figured out how to hang in there beyond one year.

Charlotte said...

Great post. I think the thing with bullies is that, unpleasant as they are, they are also there to teach us a lesson about ourselves. You were brave enough to stick around and you learned that you can cope under fire.

Emily Barton said...

Everything I've ever read about being a chef (including this) has made me realize I'd never survive in the profession. Kudos to you for lasting as long as you did (and also for getting out).

imichie said...

Linser, I am proud that I made it, but eventually I got worn out by the revolving-door of *ss-holes.

Yes Charlotte, difficult people are one of life's obsticles, and I've done my fare share of standing down from them as well as standing up.

Emily, you would have had them organized and stepping-to in no time, in a great, non-confrontational way. What I needed was your kind of organization.

litlove said...

My son is a big fan of Gordon Ramsay (perhaps because he is hypnotised by the swearing?) so I found this a fascinating read as I knew nothing about his background and nothing about life as a chef. I'm so impressed by the way you turned that man's behaviour around to work for you, but I wouldn't have coped well with it myself.

imichie said...

After reading the rest of Ramsay's book I'm going to have to hedge a bit. By the end, the book starts to sound a bit like a diktat and is full of rants. BUT, how fortunate I only have to read about it now and not live it. Litlove, I'm reading some things by and about Martha Gellhorn now and I like this quote from her, "nothing is better for self-esteem than survival." Kind of like "that which does not kill us makes us stronger."