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Gordon Ramsay insists he isn't mean. He is simply unable to tell the little white lies that the rest of us do.
"I'm too blunt," he admits. "I can't pretend. I have to get straight to the point. That's all."
That now-familiar Ramsay critiquing style was on full display during a recent taping of the upcoming second season of Fox's MasterChef, when a contestant — who also happens to be a UFC fighter — attempted to reinvent Japanese cuisine for a less sophisticated palette by rolling braised chicken in rice and calling it "redneck sushi."
"I told him, 'That is absolutely disgusting … an embarrassment to sushi,' " Ramsay says. "He started frothing at the mouth, tensed his muscles and picked up a cooler and threw it. But what am I going to say to him? I've got be honest."
A staple of the Scotsman's competitive cooking programs, which also include Fox's Hell's Kitchen and Kitchen Nightmares, is the slow boil of his infamous temper. But if the fire-and-brimstone chef can be counted on to erupt into paroxysms of f-bombs by the second act, it's only because there isn't a false note in his repertoire.
"He's real and raw," says Mike Darnell, Fox's president of alternative entertainment, who introduced U.S. viewers to Ramsay in 2005 with the American incarnation of the British series Hell's Kitchen. "He's not just a great television personality. That's how he is when the cameras aren't rolling: tough and crazy."
All of which makes for compelling — and addictive — reality programming: MasterChef was last summer's top-rated new show, Hell's Kitchen has been broadcast TV's No. 1 reality show for the past four summers, and Kitchen Nightmares has lifted Fox's Friday-night average by 150%. Ramsay has extended his deal with Fox through 2013, and the network recently picked up Hell's Kitchen for two more seasons. The ninth cycle will bow in July with the 10th slated for 2012, while the second season of MasterChef — featuring the aforementioned contestant — premieres June 6.
To cash in on his transcontinental stardom and growing media empire — which includes more than a dozen shows in the U.S. and U.K. and a valuation estimated at more than $100 million — Ramsay formed the production company One Potato Two Potato in 2008. It's a joint venture with the U.K.-based Optomen Television, which last year became part of All3Media group and is run by Ramsay and Pat Llewellyn, Optomen's managing director. In 2010, the company opened a Los Angeles outpost to capitalize on Ramsay's growing interest in producing. But he still makes his home in England with his wife Tana, a former schoolteacher and author, and their four children: Megan, 13; twins Jack and Holly, 11; and Matilda, 9. His intense bicontinental lifestyle means that his time is scheduled literally years beforehand.
"It gets a little bit scary when you know where you're going to be 18 months in advance," he says. "But it's also quite nice because your life becomes organized."
Many of his ambitions extend beyond the kitchen-mayhem milieu, including a reality project he's dubbed Owned by America, which provides start-up money to build a community-owned business. He also has multiple ideas for daytime syndication including a how-to-cook-a-gourmet-dinner-with-$20 instructional show for daytime. Cooking, Ramsay says, "is still a craft. But cooking on TV is nowhere near as hard as slaving over a stove 18 hours a day and cooking lunch and dinner six days a week, let me tell you that. It's a dream."
"I eat porridge every morning because it makes me feel Scottish … it's humble. If I don't have it every day I feel like I'm getting pretentious." — Gordon Ramsay
For all of Ramsay's culinary success, his foray into cooking was somewhat accidental. In his 2006 autobiography Humble Pie, Ramsay describes a hardscrabble childhood with his long-suffering "mum" as the family's anchor while his "hard-drinking womanizer" of a father could not hold a job. This necessitated several different addresses in Glasgow and various cities in England before the family, which included a brother and two sisters, finally settled in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. "As a boy, I was often afraid and ashamed and always poor," he writes. So his childhood aspirations inclined toward more manly pursuits: He wanted to be a professional soccer player. But a trial in the mid-1980s with the Glasgow Rangers left him with a blown-out knee. So at 19, he enrolled in a local Stratford college to study catering. He worked in several restaurants before landing in the kitchen of chef Marco Pierre White at Harvey's in London. After three years, he found his way to Paris, where he trained under Michelin-starred chefs Guy Savoy and Joel Robuchon before reuniting with White in London where White helped set him up in his own restaurant called Aubergine.
The 1998 Channel 4 documentary series Boiling Point shadowed Ramsay as he broke with the restaurant's management (taking most of the kitchen staff with him) and opened his own establishment on Royal Hospital Road in Chelsea. It was through Boiling that viewers were first acquainted with Ramsay's now-infamous temper. In one scene, he was accosted in front of his restaurant by a camera crew he suspected was from the U.K. reality show Bosses From Hell. The crew's female producer denies it, but Ramsay asserts on-camera: "She's got hairy armpits, and I don't believe her. Full stop."
Llewellyn first met Ramsay in 2004 after she'd launched cooking shows with Jamie Oliver (The Naked Chef) and Clarissa Dickson Wright and Jennifer Paterson (The Two Fat Ladies).
"His people asked me, 'Will you go to a meeting with Gordon Ramsay?' I remember thinking, 'Oh my God, I don't know.' I was curious and scared," she says. "But he's quite underestimated and really a magnetic personality. It's palpable when you spend time with him."
Seven years later, Ramsay has charmed network executives, diners and more than a few viewers. But he still clings to his humble beginnings even as he continues to ascend the gilded ladder of TV stardom in Los Angeles, the land of egg-white omelets where carbohydrates are anathema.
"I eat porridge every morning because it makes me feel Scottish," says Ramsay, who travels with Scott's Porage Oats — the box features an illustration of a man in a kilt and white tank top, his muscles bulging as he holds a shotput aloft.
"Porridge is humble. If I don't have that every day, I feel like I'm getting pretentious. Ask anyone in Glasgow if they would like an egg-white omelet, and they'd beat you up. No, I keep it real. And I stay with porridge because it makes me feel like I'm keeping me feet on the ground."
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