“Seeds…,” Gordon Ramsay is telling me. “Seeds should be inside a f****** cage. Fed to your parrot. Or your canaries. Seeds should go inside a cage and stay inside a cage.”
It is vintage Ramsay. I have unleashed a small tirade by asking the multi-Michelin-starred chef what food fads most annoy him.
“And foam,” he adds, for good measure. “Foam should go in your hair. Not on a plate. In the 1990s I had a cappuccino soup with white beans, but I moved on. Foams have to be abolished.”
We are sitting in the Union Street Café in south-east London, one of his 31 restaurants worldwide, drinking coffee. He takes his short and black with – almost incongruously for a man with such a finely tuned palate – an injection of artificial sweetener on the side. But it is another ice-white chemical substance we are here to discuss today: cocaine and his loathing of it. And this is where shouty chef departs and in his place I meet a man who passionately wants to spill the beans on “the hospitality industry’s dirty little secret”.
He’s made a two-part documentary to expose its prevalence and its power – not least over those he has loved. He lost a head chef, David Dempsey, in 2003 in a cocaine-related death. And his brother Ronnie is a long-term heroin addict who’s now been missing for six months.
But the momentum for this film came, he tells me, at Christmas last year. “A customer took a side plate from the table, went into the bathroom, snorted a couple of lines of coke and handed the plate back to the waiter and said, ‘We’ve just done some lines of coke for lunch, can you change the sideplates…’ This started the whole dilemma of how far this is going on and the pressure restaurants are up against from customers.”
The diners got a ticking-off from the manager. Ramsay says if he’d been there he would have thrown them out. He was shocked about the openness of the drug use, and decided to test the loos used by public and staff of his own restaurants – including the Union Street Café where we’re talking. He found traces of cocaine in every single place he owns – bar one.
Maitlis & Ramsay
He tells me about the celebrity book launch where a foil wrap of cocaine was pressed into his palm during a handshake. “The chef came up to me, shook my hand and said, ‘It’s on me’. No one saw that wrap. I put it into my pocket, went to the bathroom and flushed it down the toilet. It was about two and a half grams.” [Enough for at least ten lines]. The chef came back ten minutes later and asked Ramsay if he had any left, and high-fived him when he said no.
“Being tarnished with that image, you know, not only upset me but started to worry me. That’s how they think you roll with money and success. He couldn’t be further from the truth.”
But it was the moment he was asked by diners to garnish his own cuisine with cocaine that things really hit home. Where once a dusting of icing sugar would suffice, now it was class A drugs. The ultimate status symbol of a bizarrely indulgent host.
“I got auctioned off for a big charity dinner three years ago. Someone paid [for me] to go round to their house for a good cause… You cook for 12-14 people and literally have to stand there, do all the meet and greets and photographs. And when dessert arrived the couple came to me and said, ‘Look, everyone on the table is happy you’re here, but can you make a soufflé like never before and combine icing sugar with coke and dust it?’
“I laughed it off but there was no way I was going to go anywhere near that. I dusted the sugar on top of the soufflé and caramelised it purposely so they had no idea whether it was on or off. I set the soufflé down. Didn’t even say goodbye. I just left out the back door.” He admits he was put off drugs very early through his younger brother, Ronnie, a long-term heroin addict. He recalls the day of their father’s funeral in 1998, which they went to via the drug dealer.
“The condition that Ronnie said he’d attend the funeral was that I went [to his dealer’s] and sorted out his debt, paid it off and got him a fix. But I had to sit there and watch this brown murky water being fired up with a Zippo lighter in a spoon, a rusty spoon, though a needle. So yes, pretty shitty.”
So is a relationship with Ronnie possible now? “No, I can’t. No. And everyone’s panicking discreetly because no one’s heard from him for six months. Last time we heard he was in Portugal, busking.”
Ramsay tells me of a situation last December. “He turned up outside the [three Michelin-starred] restaurant at Royal Hospital Road begging customers for money and we had to get the police to move him on. It was that bad.”
Ramsay in Columbia
He speaks with sadness but also the frustration of someone who’s tried everything and seen it fail. Ronnie, he says, has been “clean” on six occasions but always ended up back on the drug. Now his own family has to come first. The father of four teenagers was not shy about throwing the horrors of drugs before their eyes. Gordon being Gordon, it came in the form of a recipe.
“I sat them down and showed them the process of not just chopping or cutting up the coke – but also the cement powder, sulphuric acid, the battery acid [that are added], and then doused in gasoline. And that scared the life out of them. Now it may be a bit cruel for a 15-year-old to see, but no disrespect, if you can start talking about contraception and sexual education at 12 then I think at 15 they need to understand.”
He says he and his wife Tana – who’s Montessori-trained – have been very disciplined with them. No music festivals, at least for now, “until they’re in a smart enough group that they’re not going to be influenced and persuaded”.
Does he think he’s a good dad? “You’ve got to ask them. I’m a fair dad and I’m an honest dad.”
The horror of his own childhood is something he’s written of extensively: an abusive alcoholic father who beat up their mother. “In many ways that’s been a huge advantage for me, on how not to be a dad. What you’ve done and how you treated me is going to set me up to do the opposite and it can only benefit.”
The Ramsay family
In fact, nothing about the extended Ramsay family is uncomplicated. His father-in-law, Chris Hutcheson, has just come out of prison, where he was serving time for hacking Ramsay’s emails, the culmination of a ten-year-long bitter feud. Neither he nor his wife visited him in prison but, he tells me, there’s been a breakthrough. “Tana had lunch with him here on Friday and I’ve met him for breakfast. He did some stupid mistakes that he’s put his hand up and accepted and I’d like to think that we’ve all moved on.”
I’m trying to work out how their marriage, which has had its ups and downs, survived the imprisonment of Tana’s father. Ramsay admits it wasn’t plain sailing. “Until the truth came out it was very testing for Tana and me because I think there were moments where she thought, ‘Was that Gordon or was that my dad?’ It was a hard pill for her to swallow. Knowing her father was out to destroy us as a family. But she’s had it out with him. He’s laid his cards on the table. He’s apologised to all of us and I like to think there’s a line in the sand now.”
I’m about to go on and ask further questions when his publicist steps in and gently but firmly reminds me this is off-topic – we’re meant to be talking cocaine and cooking, not family bustups. Then something remarkable happens. Gordon Ramsay cuts across her and says to me, “NO, go on.” I get the sense of a man so confident he has nothing to hide that I momentarily forget what I was going to ask.
“About the kids?” he prompts me. “Oh, yes,” I say, “Thanks. So will they still have a relationship with their grandfather?’ A wry smile. “Yeah, I mean they’ve got to. But if my daughters approach me in the next ten years and say, ‘Hey, Dad, my boyfriend’s a chef and I want to invest in him setting up a restaurant,” it’s going to be a very polite no. With a big capital N and a big capital O.”
He’s learnt that business and family don’t mix. So how does the businessman with 31 restaurants view Brexit? Will a curb on EU migrant labour be OK for the industry?
“That level of influx of multinational workers in this country has sort of confirmed how lazy as a nation we are – when individuals from across the seas are prepared to come and work twice as hard for less money. If anything, it’s a big kick up the ass for the industry, and it’s going to get back to the modern-day apprenticeship. So not only do I welcome that kind of change, but I think it’s going to put a lot more emphasis on homegrown talent, which I think we need to do.”
Ramsay in Columbia
Our time is running out, and I’m keen to put my mind at rest about one question. All those cuttings I’ve been reading about rows with other chefs: the Marco Pierre Whites and Jamie Olivers of this world. I don’t want to sound gullible, so I say, ‘They’re all confected, aren’t they, these rows? Sort of fun publicity?’
And I see a shadow fall across his face. “It was fun,” he says, but then describes how he felt Oliver crossed the line. “Jamie turned round and said [in a newspaper], ‘I’ve got five kids, he’s got four kids.’ To judge someone else’s family on the amount of kids you have, that’s… that’s…”
He tails off, speechless. I have the urge to laugh at something that seems so nakedly alpha male. Until I realise why it’s hit so hard.
It came after what he describes as “a shit year”. He and Tana lost a baby at five months through miscarriage, his daughter had a collapsed lung and he ruptured his own achilles. What Oliver actually said was that as both of them were parents they shouldn’t be squabbling in public, but that’s not how Ramsay read it. His hurt remains palpable, and he launches his own blistering attack on what he describes as Oliver’s hypocrisy.
“It’s all very well to spout off now about sugar tax and supermarkets. None of that was spoken about when he was label-slapping with Sainsbury’s for ten years. And no disrespect, but we’re chefs, not politicians. When you breathe that stuff down the public’s throat and say, ‘I’m leaving if we have Brexit’, then, I’m sorry, the door stands open. Stand for what you say. Sadly, the only time he opens his mouth is when he’s got something to promote.”
He tells me he will never talk to Oliver again until he apologises to Tana. “Boys will always fight and butt heads but Tana was mortified, I mean really mortified.’’
“When Marco turns around and says he made me cry when I was 19, you know, he made me cry in such an amazing way. He helped shape the guy I am today because he pushed me to the absolute limit. Whether you’re an athlete, a lawyer, a journalist, when you have a mentor who’s that good, [then] yeah, I had no issues with crying because I knew what I was becoming. What he was giving me.”
The figure looking back at me right now is a man who’s – broadly – exactly where he wants to be. He remains intensely workaholic – throwing extreme physical endurance in there for good measure – and a man who’s unafraid to admit that family life, even for the most loving and devoted, can be messy and awkward and complicated.
For the last hour, sweary Gordon has barely been seen, and I’ve had the thoughtful, intimate reflections of a man who’s witnessed death, drugs and disaster first hand and has a lot to tell.
But that, of course, is all before I dare to ask him about food fads, and yes, whisper it quietly… seeds.
Interview by Emily Maitlis
Gordon Ramsay on Cocaine begins on Thursday 9th October at 9pm on ITV