The first golden cat went missing on the Monday. By Friday afternoon, you knew the place was going to be a hit. Casual theft of this kind is a side effect of every successful restaurant in town, after all. Bibendum, down on plummy Sloane Avenue, used to churn through hundreds of chubby, Michelin Man ashtrays a month for most of the eighties.
Chef Tom Aikens almost came to physical blows with a hedge funder in 2004 when, after a £600 dinner, he accused her of stealing a silver coffee spoon from his eponymous two-Michelin-starred Fulham restaurant. “I’m standing there with my Celine dress and Cartier bag,” the customer screamed as Tom barred the exit. “Do I look like the sort of person who would steal a spoon ?”‘ Short answer: yes.
Over at Quaglino’s, during its louche 1990s resurrection, it was the art deco, Q-shaped ashtrays that went for a five finger discount — 25,000 of them, apparently, wandered up that grand staircase in the space of a decade (but then they were designed by Sir Terence Conran himself and did double up, rather nicely, as salt-and-pepper dishes). At Virgin Atlantic it was always the very sweet engine-shaped pepper pots in the business class lounge that went astray (in a typical quirk of Bransonian flair, the company eventually began engraving the words “Pinched from Virgin Atlantic” on the base.) Rihanna likes to steal glassware from Nobu, apparently.
At Sexy Fish, it’s the little metal koi carps that tend to find their way onto ghastly people’s dressing tables. The giant pepper grinders at moule-and-beer emporium Belgo in Chalk Farm were snaffled away for sport during the 2000s — the yuppies wore special overcoats for the occasion.
Down in Grosvenor Square, though, it’s the cats. “They’re being fucking stolen!” Gordon Ramsay cries as he picks up the ornate little figurine sitting on the table in front of us — “Loads of them, every single day! And at £12.50 a fucking go, too!” Well, you can hardly blame the punters. The cats (chopstick holders, really) are darling little things: beaming and portly, weighty and golden, two arms aloft like a toddler begging to be lifted joyously into the air. Ramsay tells me they went through 16 rounds before settling on this final design. In fact, I have one on my mantelpiece at this very minute. I tap it on the head each morning for luck.
Not that anything here has been left to luck. There’s simply too much at stake in this new venture, which steps into the ritzy spot down near the old US embassy that used to hold Maze. Anyway, Ramsay has always preferred sheer graft to flagrant hope. This is the man who has 15 restaurants in London and another 23 overseas. He’s won 16 Michelin stars in his time and still holds seven of them. He’s got a black belt in karate and better abs than you. He’s cheated death in Iceland and slept in the park in Mayfair. (More on that shortly). Luck? Where we’re going, we don’t need luck.
Fierce and giggling, determined and outrageous, Ramsay sat down opposite me in the Tokyo-noir depths of Lucky Cat for seared scallops in sweetcorn hot sauce (truly lovely) and Lake District sirloin (which I got in trouble for eating with my hands.) It’s the end of opening week, and at one point, Ben Orpwood, Ramsay’s protege and the executive chef at Lucky Cat, sidles over to say hello. He looks tired but happy, like the father of a newborn who secretly adores the shrill of the baby monitor at 3am. They should both be very proud, I tell them, sauce on my face, like an awkward work pal at the buffet of a Home Counties christening. This is a terribly handsome baby.
So week one’s done. Have you been full every night? Yes — 6,500 reservations before we opened. That’s a first for me. And that’s over the summer with a depleted government fighting about what is happening between now and October. It gives me a bit of confidence. But this project has been a long time in the making.
Why Grosvenor Square? That park for me was the most amazing park. I used to sleep in it. When I was working in Le Gavroche I’d have just 50 minutes off between service in the afternoon and that was it — straight back in. I was working incredibly hard for Albert Roux in London’s only 3-star at the time. I used to really worry about getting into a deep sleep and missing service. It was quite hard as a 21-year-old getting your arse kicked in one of the toughest professions anywhere in the whole country. So this place is quite important to me.
Did you have a favourite sleeping spot? Yes, it’s still there — there’s a massive oak tree over in the corner.
One day they’ll have a blue plaque there… Fuck! Hopefully not for a long time. Let’s say a few decades at least.
It’s a pretty competitive time to open a restaurant in London… There’s a real cut and thrust. The most exciting thing for punters is that they’re spoilt for choice. The worry for restaurants is that they can’t afford to be old news. You move it or it moves you. And I want to move it. This is a business. I haven’t slapped my name above the door and given the chefs a few recipes. This is a big multi-million pound commitment and my balls are on the line, and Ben Orpwood’s balls are on the line. There are quite a lot of balls on the table here. But transferring these guys from chefs into businessmen is a very important move in their thirties. Otherwise they’ll be working for other people all their lives.
Do you see something of yourself in Ben? Very much so — the same DNA. That talent for capturing that individual flavour. If you go back to Marcus Wareing and Angela Hartnett, Claire Smyth, Jason Atherton — they have all gone on and done exceptionally well. That level of unselfishness can come back and bite you on the arse — sometimes they want to take you down! But I’ve got so much out of the industry so that’s okay. I’m the happiest chef in the world — but I am not fucking done yet.
Would you ever retire? What the fuck would I do in retirement?
You could have a chat show. ‘Gordon meets…’ A chat show? Fuck that, no.
Do you still get nervous when opening a new restaurant? I think it’s a mixture of nervousness and excitement. Without nervousness there is no edge to the cooking, there’s no edge to the design, no jeopardy.
How has the dining scene changed in the 21 years since you first opened a restaurant? The pomposity has gone. Those £400 to £500 tasting menus have all gone. I went to Paris recently and you can’t get an entrée, a main course and an appetiser for less than €170 in those places. People spend that money to go across the Atlantic — not for some fucking turbot that’s been studded with truffles. That’s what’s gone from London now. It’s a cool place to be.
What was the first restaurant you went to that really left its mark on you? We never had access to restaurants when I was a child. But I would say that the first one once I was working was during my time at Aubergine in Chelsea. I went off to El Bulli to spend a day with Ferran Adrià. I flew into Barcelona and took a 90 minute drive around this mountain thinking — where is this restaurant? And then there was suddenly this big, modern architectural glass box in front of me. The water is right there and its a beautiful place, more like a lab. Adrià was cooking way before his time — way in front of anybody. But it wasn’t sustainable as a business. It was losing €750,000 a year.
What’s the reaction been to Lucky Cat so far? We’ve been open a week and the knives are out already — or should I say the claws are out. They’re saying: “I’m going to get you, you little bastard. You can’t have 14 restaurants and not cook. Where’s your chef’s jacket?” But it brings in an atmosphere that makes it a bit more electrifying.
Do people say that to you — that you should be cooking? Sometimes. I was on a plane on Thursday night after busting my arse off and some guy asks me whether I was going to be at The Savoy Grill on Sunday because it’s his wife’s birthday and she loves the Wellington.
Well? Are you free on Sunday? Hang on — fuck off Joe. Sunday is my day off and I am not cooking your wife’s Wellington.
The restaurant’s called Lucky Cat. Do you think in this business you make your own luck? There is an element of truth in that. But in business you learn so much more from your mistakes. Not a degree or a diploma or an honours degree. Let’s not underestimate that it’s a tough climate out there for anyone, for any business. Only the good survive, you make your own luck. It’s no different from Usain Bolt training every day for 364 days before that nine second Olympic sprint.
[At this point some more food sails into view, with a beaming Ben Orpwood in its wake. We stuff some pillowy bao buns with smoked beef and daikon and yuzu pickle and a flick of chilli oil. “Ben, you’re a fucking feeder! You’re making him fat, Jesus Christ!” Gordon says. “It’s short rib pastrami,” Ben says. “We make it using peppers from all around Asia. Rather than just black pepper we added different spices.” There are worse ways to inflate the old BMI, perhaps.]
What’s the best thing on the menu? It’s unfair to say I think. The shiitake mushrooms with truffle are beautiful. The beautiful dumplings are amazing. We have exceptional monkfish. The duck is amazing and so is the soft-shell crab curry.
Do your chefs here work the same sort of hours as you did at Le Gavroche? No. I wouldn’t want to put them through that — they would burn out. The service is way more intense in terms of numbers and everything is so much more structured. If you didn’t want to do the hours at Le Gavroche you didn’t come back Monday and they didn’t give a shit. There were five more guys there waiting to do your job. If you are passionate about something you don’t watch the clock, you just go.
Would you want your children to follow you into the restaurant business? No I don’t think so. Tilly is the most natural cook. But she wants to be a doctor. Here is the thing — I am very protective of my staff, and I don’t want them to have to deal with Ramsay’s kids in the restaurant. It’s fucking unfair.
If they want to become anything in the industry, go and learn your craft with someone else and come back and offer something new. Don’t copy what I am doing. What about the pressure on the staff? They’ll want to tell them off but they can’t because it’s Ramsay’s kid. No fucking way. Rip into them and teach them a lesson in life. Brutal honesty — you can’t half bake your way to the top. Right now, Lucky Cat is the Manchester United of kitchens. If you want to play in the Premier League you have to cut the mustard really early on.
This interview first appeared in our Sept/Oct issue, subscribe here…