Most of us know chef Gordon Ramsay from his TV appearances; giving hell to contestants on Hell’s Kitchen or roasting restaurateurs on Kitchen Nightmares. Watching either show is a stark example of schadenfreude – German for ‘enjoyment taken from the misfortune of someone else’ – it’s painful sometimes but you can’t tear yourself away.

Ever since 37signals introduced me to Gordon and his show, I’ve enjoyed watching Kitchen Nightmares, not just because it’s entertaining, but because you can learn so much from it. Gordon’s not just a one-trick pony who’s getting famous on being egotistical, loud and overbearing, he’s also a great chef and entrepreneur.

Wanting to learn more about why Gordon does what he does, I bought his autobiography Roasting in Hell’s Kitchen: Temper Tantrums, F Words, and the Pursuit of Perfection. After reading it, my respect for Ramsay increased ten-fold – he’s gone through a lot to get where he is today but most people won’t see that in his TV shows.
If you haven’t gotten a taste of Gordon’s bitter medicine yet, sample the highlights in this video!

“I was Often Afraid and Ashamed, and Always Poor.”

Chef Gordon Ramsay, recipient of 12 Michelin Stars, an Officer of The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, owner of some of the best restaurants in the world, this immensely successful man by anyone’s accounts, says on the first page of his autobiography that “…as a boy, I was often afraid and ashamed, and always poor.”

What?

In fact, as I continued reading, I discovered that Gordon had nothing going for him right from the start. His family was poor, he had an abusive father who’d give his poor mom a beating, and his childhood dreams of making it as a professional soccer player was crushed when he smashed his knee cartilage.

Not exactly the expected star to a sterling career.

But that was what got Gordon started on a career in the kitchen.

I latched on to the idea of catering college because my options were limited, to say the least. I didn’t know if the football would work out. I looked at the Navy and at the Police, but I didn’t have enough O levels to join either of them. As for the Marines, my little brother, Ronnie, was joining the Army, and I couldn’t face the idea of competing with him. So I ended up enrolling on a foundation year in catering at a local college, sponsored by the Rotarians. It was an accident, a complete accident. Did I dream of being a Michelin-starred chef? Did I fuck!

“I was Gutted. My Eyes Filled Up.”

But his unrelenting work ethic was already evident. When he went to see the famous Marco Pierre White for a job, he had to give a month’s notice at his previous place while Marco wanted him to start immediately. The solution? He worked from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. at one, then work for Marco until 2 a.m. the following morning and did that for an entire month.

And working in the kitchen was – to me, literally – roasting in Hell’s Kitchen.

Breaks were out of the question mostly…One day, he (Marco) was going out for lunch with Albert Roux. That meant we had to do lunch on our own, something that really excited me. However, he said that he was going to make the sauces for that evening’s dinner when he came back from lunch. I thought to myself: oh, fuck, that means he’s going to do the sauces just as we’re going to slip out of the door for fifteen minutes. So I decided to do the sauces myself. I was so proud of them: the morel sauce, the red wine Hermitage sauce, the Madeira sauce, the fish velouté. About five minutes past twelve, just before he went out, he came to say goodbye. That’s when he saw the sauces.

“What the fuck is going on here?” he said. “Who finished those sauces?” Steve Terry clammed up. Tim Hughes disappeared into his pantry. So I put my hand up.

“Marco, it was me. I finished them. I’m just about to bring them to the boil and cook them out for twenty minutes.”

The next thing you knew, it was like Baghdad. Plans were raining down on us. We hid behind the sorbet machine. He went mad. I mean, fucking mad. Finally, he threw the sauces themselves at us. Not only did that fuck up our fifteen-minute break; it put us in the shit for sauces that night. I was gutted. My eyes filled up. There was nothing bloody wrong with those sauces. He didn’t even taste them.

“It was the Bottom of the Bottom.”

I don’t know how many people could have endured working in that environment. But Gordon did and that was part of how he was forged – but the tough times weren’t going to end just yet.

Gordon stayed with Marco because he wanted to learn from the best. And he never relented in learning, even when he had to take a demotion. After training with Marco and then at Le Gavroche, Gordon went to Paris where his salary – low enough as it was – plunged straight down to the national minimum wage.

It was the bottom of the bottom. Miles worse even than being an apprentice…Everyone was ignoring me. Even the kitchen porters had no respect for me. On my first day, somebody nicked my socks.

No one was interested that I’d come from a three-star restaurant. All they knew was that I was a ‘rosbif’ and, as such, I should learn my place.

Gordon Ramsay’s Secret Recipe

It’s really easy to hate Gordon Ramsay. All you have to do is watch an episode of him at his worse on Hell’s Kitchen or Kitchen Nightmares, swearing profusely into people’s faces and throwing food at them for good measure.

But a man like Gordon is complex. You can’t just sum him up in a word (a word like ‘asshole’ for example). He’s gone through loads beyond what I think most of us reading this would bear, and he’s pulled himself right from the ranks of poverty to extreme success. He’s done it all through intensely hard work, as I found out from his book, which is a great read about one person’s triumph over impossible odds.

Reading Roasting in Hell’s Kitchen I’ve gained a profound respect for the man. I may not agree with what he’s doing all the time on TV, but at least now I understand where he’s coming from. He may behave like an absolute tyrant to the people on his show, but there’s no mistaking at all where that fiery passion and the secret to his success comes from an absolute, no-holds-barred dedication to excellence in his craft.