Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay is making himself at home in DC—dining out at Moon Rabbit and gushing over crab hummus at Albi, making milkshakes with Mayor Bowser, and settling in at the Wharf where he’ll operate two restaurants by next year. His first, the fast-casual Gordon Ramsay Fish & Chips, just opened with plenty of fried seafood and chicken, taco-like “fishwiches,” and sticky-toffee milkshakes. Next up: Hell’s Kitchen, a massive, two-story restaurant jutting into the Potomac River. It’ll serve Ramsay signatures like beef Wellington and smoking cocktails starting early next year. Lastly, his London-born all-you-can-eat slice joint, Street Pizza, is headed to Penn Quarter.
We caught up with Ramsay at the Wharf’s fancy new Pendry hotel, where he talked about quitting Kitchen Nightmares, TikTok, and getting political (or not).
You’re going big in DC with three restaurants. Why DC and why now?
“I remember being invited to the White House back in 2008 for the Inaugural Ball with Mr. Obama. And for a Brit, that’s quite a big deal. I’ll never forget his opening monologue. I’m like, this guy is running one of the most powerful countries in the world. And he’s charming and he’s witty and he’s fast. And then we went to this amazing Michelin-star restaurant, the Dabney. It had just opened, like, four days—the chef was going to kill me—and that was the beginning of the love affair.”
What’s your favorite—or most dreaded part—about opening new restaurants?
“I just went through the plan [for Hell’s Kitchen] this morning, tweaking, and honestly it’s a dream, a real dream. You think sometimes that you get that level of success, and it’s all systematic. But I treat it like this is our first.”
What is it like opening these restaurants that you greatly care about when you’re also the Kitchen Nightmares chef and people are looking for every flaw?
“It’s a double edged sword for me, because the minute there’s an environmental health issue or a cracked tile, it’s front page news. We don’t enjoy that. I think it’s easy pickings when it’s ‘Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares Comes Back to Bite Him.’ There’s a certain level of expectation, and I think that’s harder for the staff. But it’s also very painful for me, because I want it right. We’re not perfect, but we’re going to look for perfection on a daily basis. So it’s hard because they turn to you and say, hold on, you fix restaurants for a living! And TV is just one side of my business.
We started Kitchen Nightmares back in 2006. When you go in and give these places a prescription on how to fix them, they get super popular. Then they go back to their old ways, because they’re not controlled with the cash, and they get carried away with the excitement. When they’re successful, you don’t get praised. When they close, you get blamed. So you’re screwed either way. I had to stop because I said, well, what’s the point?
You have to be careful how you impart knowledge, because some of the staff is young, and it’s their first job, and some of them want to be you. And they want the truth.”
What do you say when someone says ‘I want to be you—I want the TV and a restaurant empire and Michelin stars?’
“Somebody interrupted at dinner last night. We had a beautiful dinner at Moon Rabbit. A guy came up and asked for advice. He’s quit his accounting job at a prestigious bank, and he wants to become a chef. I said: ‘Find your favorite restaurant, knock on the back door, and go spend time in there.’ It’s not a business where you can tiptoe. You need to be in it. You need to eat, drink, sleep, breathe it. You need to absolutely own it. That’s crucial.”
You wear so many hats—TV personality, chef, restaurateur. What is your favorite occupation?
“Being a dad and instilling confidence and discipline. What these kids had to endure over the last two and a half years has been brutal. That disconnect socially. I went into overdrive. No one ever said in my career, ‘You’re not traveling. The world is shutting down.’ And that said, it was the best two years of my life. The best two years. It’s an attribute to where they are now. I’m so happy. Jack is off as a Royal Marine commando. Tilly’s back at university studying for a degree. Meg’s entering the Metropolitan Police Force and following her fashion dreams. And Oscar’s plain havoc.”
What’s something that would surprise people about you?
“I’m a very caring individual. So I want to give, and then sometimes you give too much, and it comes back to bite you on the ass. But you learn from that, don’t you?”
You mentioned going to Obama’s inauguration. DC is very political town. Are there certain politicians you’d love to host, or certain ones you feel weird about walking in the door?
“No, I stay out of politics because customers don’t want to hear that political bullshit in your restaurant. They come to break bread and they want that neutral ground. I get slightly concerned when chefs start thinking they’re going to become politicians. You need to stay Switzerland. I had an extraordinary moment back in the early 2000s after winning my third [Michelin] star and Tony Blair asked if I could come cook lunch for him and Putin, and repeat the lunch for the first ladies upstairs. Just the hard time I got for doing that. And then I think of José Andrés and his incredible work. It’s never going to be political. It’s getting more funding to help that cause [World Central Kitchen].”
What do you wish you had more time to do?
“I took up triathlons for my 40th birthday to get super fit. I wish I had more time to improve my time and train harder, because I use it as an escape. It’s a way of relaxing for me, because it’s not like just going for a run. You got the discipline, the swim, the bike, and then the run. I use that sort of athleticism as a way of spending more time out, focusing, and readjusting.”
Have you had any amazing meals—or duds—in DC?
“I haven’t had any bad experiences. We are so lucky. The chicken last night [at Moon Rabbit] with the feet. Beautiful. I’m fed up with culture trying to be destroyed because it’s ‘unethical’ to serve a chicken with feet. No, it’s not, that’s crucial. We take a lot of life. You’ve got to stand up for the purpose and the culture.”
You mention people criticizing restaurants—whether it’s a celebrity venture or serving chicken with feet—and for a while in the pandemic, it was kind of taboo to criticize restaurants. Where do you think the role of criticism stands today?
“There’s sort of juxtaposition of the old style food critics with four or six weeks lead-in and who want to be totally anonymous. And then there’s a wave of a social media that has absolutely elevated food globally. Every phone’s a critic, I say. When chefs get slightly anxious of customers taking their close-ins— that’s their prerogative. They’re paying for it. I love it when they go viral with those shots“
And you’ve found your own TikTok fame.
“The TikTok stuff is because I’ve got three very high-energy daughters that love to dance. If you said to me five years ago, do you know you’d have 35 million followers on TikTok? I’d never believe you. But look at the food on there now—it’s beautiful. We just finished filming Next Level Chef last week for Fox in February, and that’s where you’ve got social media chefs, domestic chefs, and pros all [competing] in the same arena. And the skill across the social media chefs is off the charts. Because they’re not governed by any critic or any guide.”
Hell’s Kitchen is going to be a big opening for you. If you could invite three guests there for dinner, living or dead, who would they be?
“That’s a tough one! The first person would be a lady called Norma John. She was my first cookery teacher at Stratford. I wasn’t academically strong with English and math at that time. One thing that I absolutely fell in love with was her classes. I got a bit of a ribbing from all my friends because it was a girly thing to do to cook at the age of 15.
My mum, because that was a lady who when as I was growing up, she had three jobs and was putting food on the table. And she taught me the respect to leave nothing. We still instill that now.
The third person, I’d say Tana—as a wife, she’s been so supportive. We met when I was 25, she was 19. We would still go out to the same restaurant we started dating in.”
Where is that?
“Le Caprice in London [now closed]. It was just a cool little spot—Caesar salad, fish and chips, and we share a creme brulee. We laugh about the first time we had dinner there. She was trying to put this delicious tartar sauce onto her fish. And while she was doing it, she dropped a whole spoon on her leather trousers, and managed to scrape it up without me knowing until we got home. And I said, what you did with that tartar sauce—that’s incredible.”