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A Cautionary Tale

January 7, 2010

By Monsieur Anton


Gordon Ramsay was living big.  He possessed a restaurant empire of twenty restaurants spanning the globe’s largest, most exotic markets.  Television shows?  He has had successful programs in both Great Britain and the United States, earning him upwards of $12 million.  Cookbooks?  How about 23 of them, translated to eighteen languages earning him almost $28 million in England alone?  Ramsay has endorsements deals for all sorts of cookware.

By all accounts, Gordon Ramsay was a huge success.  In addition to his restaurant and media empires, he accumulated 12 Michelin stars.  For the uninitiated that is roughly equivalent to winning 12 Oscars.  Add it all up and you’re talking about a personal fortune of $80 million and worldwide celebrity.  Top of the world, eh?  Not when it threatens to all come tumbling down.

With all apologies to Ramsay’s humble beginnings as the son of a failed Scottish musician, he was living the American dream, even if it was on the other side of the pond.  After blowing out his knee, he gave up on a soccer career and turned to working in restaurants, and then to culinary school, followed by a stint working for famed chef Marco Pierre White.

As Ramsay’s culinary star grew, so did his larger than life persona.   After gaining a not undeserved reputation as kitchen tyrant he was approached by television networks looking to cash in on his made for TV personality.  The television shows took off, and so did Ramsay’s celebrity status.  With more media exposure came more restaurant opportunities.  With more restaurants came more media opportunities.  The supernova that was Gordon Ramsay took off.

There was only one problem.  At some point you stop being a chef, and start becoming a personality.  People are under the illusion that when they go to a restaurant, they are eating food that famous the chef created.  When going to The French Laundry, they expect to be eating Thomas Keller’s food.   While dining at Spago, patrons are under the impression that Wolfgang Puck himself prepared their dinner.  When at Aureole, they expect that their food was touched by Charlie Palmer himself.  Upon being seated at their table at Gordon Ramsay’s in Hollywood they listen for the famous rants of the British mad man himself.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.  While theses chefs, all masters of their crafts, opened these restaurants, and set up the menu, it’s not often they actually cook there, let alone step foot in there on a regular basis.  Such are the travails of the celebrity chef.  They take on so many projects, because there is so much demand for their brand that they are taken away from the very thing that built their empire; their passion for food and cooking.

Do you really think that Ramsay has the ability to personally oversee (let alone cook at) restaurants as far reaching as Dubai, Paris, New York and Tokyo?  That is why he finds himself in the situation he’s now in.  While jet setting about the world promoting his “brand,” Ramsay’s restaurant business had fallen into disarray.  Taxes weren’t being paid.  Staffs were becoming bloated.  Sales were down.  In short, the Ramsay restaurant group had expanded to such an extent, that all the accolades and Michelin stars in the world could not cover the debt.  Facing bankruptcy, he slashed staff, closed some locations, and sold many of his holdings to the Blackstone Group of London in exchange for a consulting fee.

Obviously this is sad stuff, almost along the lines of a Shakespearean tragedy where the arrogant king is humbled by powers greater than himself.  That would be of course if it was an isolated occurrence.   If we squint our eyes and look very closely, we can see the danger of it happening right here in our very own back yard.

At first glance Michael Symon is nothing like Gordon Ramsay.  Whereas the prim and proper Ramsay has become famous on television for screaming profanity, the down home Symon is known for his genial laugh.  While Gordon has made his mark by making classic French sauces lighter, Michael prays to the altar of pork fat.  While there are many differences between the two, their ambition binds them.

It is ridiculous to say that Michael Symon’s business celebrity has become as cumbersome as Gordon Ramsay’s, but on a smaller scale there is a similar danger.  In Cleveland, Symon is a restaurant god.  He has put Cleveland on the culinary map, and our city’s fine chefs such as Zach Bruell, Rocco Whalen, Jonathon Sawyer and company have followed suit with fine dining establishments of their own.  But make no mistake about it, Symon is the not only the standard bearer of the North Coast’s culinary renaissance, with his many restaurants and Food Network shows he is the most ambitious as well.

Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Michael Symon.  In the few chances I’ve had to meet him, he was just what his media personality portrays; a real nice guy and a very talented chef.  I wish nothing but the best for him, but I fear for him as well.  We Clevelanders are a hard bunch.  We love to build up our heroes almost as much as we love to knock them down.  At some point with his rapid expansion throughout the region, Symon is bound to experience adversity be it due to the economy, or the fickle nature of the market.  It is at this point we will see if Symon is able to weather the storm.  We will find out if it was his charm or his food we really fell in love with.  While I’m inclined to think it is the food, Symon would be well advised to go ahead with the future growth of his local empire prudently and surround himself with people who will look after his holdings with the same passion for excellence that has served him so well.  It’s bad enough that our Shakespearean king Ramsay has fallen on his sword, we don’t need our local prince doing the same.

Chef Gusteau says:  A very poignant and sobering analysis from Anton.  Luckily, I don’t believe Chef Symon has forgotten his roots, and what made him successful in Cleveland.  He remains well grounded, and surrounds himself with quality people.  His success also hasn’t seemed to go to his iconic head, either.  Ramsay’s downfall was signified by the sale of his personal Lamborghini.  Chef Symon drives a Ford Explorer and a motorcycle.  And to continue Anton’s Shakespearian theme, Chef Symon has avoided the one major poison that Ramsay has fallen prey to…hubris…the killer of kings.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. alan glazen permalink
    January 8, 2010 8:56 am

    Honestly, I feel this analysis is an enormous stretch of reality. Symon is the same guy I met 20 years ago or so, and his new enterprises are friendly, not the least bit pretentious. I don’t think he has it in him to become egomaniacal like Ramsay. We Cleveland boys are cut from different stuff, and in Symon’s case, add a little pork fat, and you remain true to your roots.

    • January 8, 2010 11:25 am

      Alan,

      This article was not about judging Symon as a person. In the few times I’ve met him, he was quite charming. It’s also not meant to judge his cooking. He is a very talented chef. I don’t even judge Ramsay, though Gusteau likes to). What it does caution, is the nature of todays celebrity chefs to spread themselves too thin, thus taking them away from the kitchen and the very talent that made them so successful. I wish Michael nothing but the best.

  2. January 8, 2010 9:07 am

    I agree with Alan. I feel like, much like the local media, you’re trying the find the “Cleveland connection” to a national/international story. If anything, he’s stayed true to his roots by continuing to open restaurants here in NEOhio/Great Lakes region than expanding too rapidly into NYC or other markets.

    • January 8, 2010 10:55 am

      I appreciate what you are saying…and to Chef Symon’s credit…he knew that his restaurant in New York (called “Parea”) was stretching him too thin, which must have been one of the reasons he resigned from it in 2007. And Alan, I wouldn’t be surprised if Chef Symon has a tatoo of Ohio above his heart…right next to the one tauting “Pork Rules!” -Chef Gusteau.

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