They came for dinner, and to see and hear from the restaurant’s superstar owner. For a handful of diners, however, Gordon Ramsay’s recent Master Series Dinner at the Vegas Uncork’d festival also involved a test.
After the beet salad had been cleared, and as the beef Wellington was setting in the kitchen, the celebrity chef and his team randomly selected several diners and ask them to step in front of the restaurant’s showpiece open kitchen. He then divided them into teams for blindfolded taste tests — a frequent challenge on his TV show.
Before it began, Ramsay asked the first contestant, Angela, a series of questions.
“On a scale of one to 10, how good is your palate?”
“Do you smoke?”
“And what’s the worst thing you’ve ever had in your mouth?”
The room erupts in laughter. And it’s suddenly obvious that Hell’s Kitchen, Ramsay’s fifth Las Vegas endeavor, is more than just a restaurant.
This building, located on Las Vegas Boulevard, is as much theater as dining establishment. That long, open kitchen is its stage. Flashes of neon through the windows dress the set as dramatically as the pitchfork-shaped chandeliers or the flames on the video wall. And the open main dining room offers the audience/diners brilliant lines of sight for the entire show.
There’s little doubt that show will one day be an episode or two of Fox’s “Hell’s Kitchen” — almost certainly a season finale, very possibly broadcast live. On a typical day, however, it’s a team of chefs preparing dishes that should be familiar to anyone who watches that show. Keep your eyes open and you might recognize a celebrity on the line — specifically season-10 winner Christina Wilson or last season’s champ, Michelle Tribble. But if you’re lucky enough to be here on a night like tonight, you’ll see this theater’s true star demonstrating why he’s a world-class entertainer worthy of the world’s brightest stage, Las Vegas Boulevard.
Several decades into the celebrity chef phenomenon, few have demonstrated their talent at each of those distinct skill sets as well as Ramsay. His resume includes a whopping seven Michelin stars held currently, and a string of TV hits in both the U.K. and the U.S.
“It’s very rare you get to the top of both mountains,” Ramsay says of his success in both showbiz and fine dining.
But the Ramsay most Americans never see is more than just a hard-working chef and TV star: He’s a husband and father of four. And he hopes the lesson his children take away from his success is that career isn’t everything.
“Watching their father work hard, and enjoy his passion, and not burn out is crucial,” he explains. To do that, he makes sure that family time is not optional, despite his busy schedule.
“We do three weeks on, two weeks away,” he says of work-life balance.
When he gets longer breaks from his TV schedule, he and the family hunker down for more extended vacations together. In April, it was skiing before the kids’ exams and the Master Chef Jr. finale. The next big one is just around the corner.
“We’re down for the summer, down for August, and that will be a house in the south of England, in Cornwall. And we’ll disappear. It’s on the beach, vineyards in the background. I have no interest in opening a restaurant down there. It’s log fires, surfing, swimming and walking the dogs.”
A FAMILY OF CHEFS
So who cooks when the Ramsay clan get together? It depends.
“I have a family of chefs,” the patriarch explains. “Matilda is our youngest. She’s 16, and she’s amazing. (But) they all cook. They all cook brilliantly.”
He says his wife, Tana, does 70 percent of the home cooking: “When we’ve got friends or family around, or weekends, then I’ll jump in, or we’ll all divide and conquer. But Tilly, Tana and myself — we predominantly are the ones who cook.”
He’s quick to add that the kids all have goals outside of the culinary world. His son, Jack, wants to be a Marine. One of his daughters is interested in fashion, another criminology. But he’s convinced their love of the kitchen has been essential to their emotional growth.
“When Jack is stressing out over his exams, and he’s (expletive) up something with algebra, I say to him, ‘When are you going to use algebra? Don’t worry about it.’ And then I see him in the kitchen 40 minutes later, and he’s putting together a spaghetti and meatball or he’s doing a version of his own burger. It’s that educational part of (cooking), and giving them that confidence early in life, that gets them over hurdles, really big hurdles.”
PAYING IT FORWARD
The chef firmly believes cooking can provide other kids the same outlet it’s provided for his own. For that reason, he has little time for naysayers who think his hit show “MasterChef Junior” is exploitative of its young contestants.
“I get upset when I see them cry,” he concedes. “But I think it’s good that they get it out. Then you see them after. You pick them back up. They keep their aprons. And then they bounce back.”
You’ll rarely see Ramsay beam as proudly as when you ask him about the progress of past contestants on his shows — not just the “Hell’s Kitchen” winners, whose photos hang on the wall of the new restaurant, but those who have yet to achieve fame. There’s Alexander Weiss, who won “MasterChef Junior” at age 13, and has gone on to work with Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud before entering college or culinary school. There’s Katie Dixon, a top-10 finalist on “MasterChef” who’s now running a vegan/vegetarian restaurant and teaching yoga in Mississippi. And there’s Gabrielle Lewis, who was prepared to return to his job at Chipotle to support his family when he was eliminated on “MasterChef.”
“I said, ‘No you’re not. I’m going to sponsor you and send you to culinary school for the next three years. I don’t care what it costs.’ ”
Today, Ramsay reports, Lewis is at the top of his class after his second year.
“And I know one day he’ll do the same for a young kid that he’ll spot. When he’s in his 30s, he’ll see this young, determined bugger that has potential but no door.”
It might be this role, as an educator and mentor, that Ramsay takes most seriously.
“I got helped as an 18-, 19-year-old,” he explains. “I got doors opened. Someone saw something in me. And if it wasn’t for that unselfish attitude back then…”
The chef lets the sentence hang unfinished. It’s obvious he’s more interested in looking forward than back. For now, in Las Vegas, that’s Hell’s Kitchen, and his desire to bring the TV show to this restaurant later this year or in early 2019. But the chef says he’s not finished with Las Vegas yet.
“Maybe another project in 2019,” he teases. “Yeah, there’s definitely room.”