Gordon Ramsay talks about scratchy towels and being an 'unselfish' boss
Gordon Ramsay takes on the task of berating and shaking up clueless hotel owners on "Hotel Hell" tonight (two night season premiere Mon. Aug. 13 at 8:00 p.m. PT, Tues. Aug. 14 at 8:00 p.m. PT; regular series time will be Mondays at 8:00 p.m.) Ramsay will travel to San Diego, California; Couer d’Alene, Idaho; Cambridge, New York; Milford, Pennsylvania; and Winter, Vermont to fix the bad, the bedbug-ridden and the downright stinky. In a conference call with journalists, Ramsay talked about what he likes (comfortable rooms), what he doesn't (scratchy towels) and why we all need to complain more.
What made you want to branch out into doing hotels?
I think on the back of the ups and downs and the… I suppose the laziness that I started witnessing even coming back from a long day at work or even a holiday with the kids. I always found there was something not quite right within the hotel. And then, of course, the fortunate positions of these places, because they’re landmark addresses and big buildings, they think that they don’t really have to work as hard as they should do because of their position. So, partly the stuff I’ve experienced and also -— scratch beneath the surface when you see a pristine hotel room. You can find problems anywhere.
What’s the biggest mistake you see hotels making?
The biggest mistake is when they start becoming systematic in terms of they see a bedspread, and they think it’s new and it looks great. Just because it looks neat and tidy, it doesn’t mean it’s clean. The worst scenario with hotels is the fact they’re open 365 days a year. Airplanes can’t even fly that long. They need to be reassessed and repositioned and re-engineered.
Hotel rooms are the exact same; they take such an abuse. You think of seven nights a week, four weeks a month, 12 months a year, 365 days a year -— these things are relentless, so they take their toll, but they never, ever stop and completely transform those rooms properly.
Have you ever had a really bad hotel experience that encouraged you to want to do this?
I think just on the back of the experiences I’ve experienced myself personally, and I have hundreds of e-mail over the last couple years -- in fact, into the thousands -— stating it’s all very well fixing restaurants, but there are hotels in dire straits that are ripping customers off.
I think the one thing that we never do enough of… is that we never complain. Every hotel is up [for] negotiating and bantering those prices down. Like restaurants, the sad news is with hotels anybody can buy one, and I’ve come across some very arrogant, inexperienced owners of hotels. Because they’ve got the money, they think that they’ve got the right to dictate what they should be serving to the public because they bought the place. That’s not always the case.
Did you find that the attitudes were different depending on which geographical region you were in, or was there any particular area you found to be more distressed than another?
I think it’s been harder -— more so than ever this year —- for everybody in the hospitality sector, but I didn’t really see a difference in terms of location, whether it’s in San Diego or upstate New York. What I did notice more than anything was the fact that when these places are so isolated in the way that they are off the beaten track, and they’re in a small provincial town, then they think that they are almost like historic landmarks that customers will just travel to because they’re en route to a skiing resort or en route to a Disneyland stay. They think because there’s no big hotels within their area that they can do as little as they need to do to get by because the customers are driving past on a daily basis. They take their position for granted because of the landmark address, and they think that’s good enough to draw customers in. Well it’s not, quite frankly, at those prices.
Did you find that the attitudes were different working with these hotel owners?
I found the attitudes a little bit more disconcerting, a little bit more arrogant, and almost like they were a cut above the rest of them -— you’ll do as you’re told, and I’m an owner, and what I say goes. So because they buy antiques, they thought they had the right to dictate his favorite recipe on the menu, something like $47 [in] upstate New York. It was more expensive than my lunch menu in the middle of Manhattan in New York. So yes, to be honest, worse than chefs, and I think pretentious beyond belief.
When you’re talking about balancing high standards for 365 days a year, what are things that you do to ensure that yourself and things that other hotel owners can do to ensure their own high standards and quality?
Every day I have reports, up to 20, sometimes 30 individual reports whether it’s a coach house stay at the York & Albany Hotel in London —- a little boutique hotel -— whether it’s an early supper at … or The Narrows, or even a steak last night in Vegas. So I have mystery shoppers and mystery sleepers that on a daily basis, seven days a week I spend over $100,000 a year on paying for complimentary meals in order to get the good feedback I need on a daily basis to handle the volume of customers we deal with.
We do make mistakes. There’s no two ways about that. But what I can reassure is that we can nip those mistakes in the bud. Nothing festers. Nothing gets out of control. And the bigger we become, I think the more important that we focus on that customer feedback instantly. It’s not like waiting for a food critic to come in and eat; it literally is five minutes after their experience. It’s viral. We get to deal with it. And we nail it immediately.
Going from saving a failing restaurant in "Kitchen Nightmares" to fixing an entire hotel is a big undertaking. Could you talk about some of the challenges you faced while increasing the scale, and how you go about identifying what those core things you should tackle are?
One hotel in particular was in San Diego, and there’s a young entrepreneur that’s bought it for millions, and he got Pininfarina - as you know, they design Ferraris -— and they had all this hi-tech spec furniture that just looked ridiculous. It was so far futuristic it just felt uncomfortable. But I said to him, “Look, why would you spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for a designer that designs Ferraris to furnish your hotel?” He said, “Well, I have a Ferrari, and I love driving them, and they’re unique.” I go, “They’re unique for you, but the furniture is impractical. You don’t sleep in your Ferrari, so why would you get a bedroom designed by a Ferrari designer?” And he couldn’t really answer the question. He had a bar, a nightclub, a restaurant, room service, banqueting, and 60 rooms. He was completely out of his depth -— I mean, really out of his depth, no experience. I mean no disrespect, but it’s like people buying restaurants; sadly it’s the same with hotels. You can just go and buy a hotel. There’s no certified measures that you need to take in order to obtain a hoteliers license. So I had a bigger team, and I had some secret, undercover footage that I had as a backup if I was ever to use it -— necessary in order to make sure that they were wrong and wrong and wrong every time they stepped into it.
You mentioned your backup team. Is the first time that you step foot on the property and meet the owner, is that when we see you in the show, or do you go and visit them ahead of time?
No. No. When you see … is literally the first time, but I have a backup team, obviously -— a research team -— and I have members of the production and members of the public actually staying there, and then I have a wealth of support from a hospitalities organization as a consultancy package that I leave them with, whether it’s the re-modernization of their Web site, whether it’s a repositioning of their sales. I have a huge team, much bigger than we did on "Kitchen Nightmares" because the problems, as you can imagine, are so much wider.
Will we see you do any kind of followup at the end of the season with these and see how they’re doing?
We’re treating this one a little bit like the U.K. version of "Nightmares," so filming over a much longer period, and obviously everyone’s working so hard on there. There will be ones I’ll be visiting that hopefully they’ll let me in, of course.
Do you have a show idea that you haven’t been able to do yet but you would like to do in the future?
I’ve worked very closely with charities, and Scottish spina bifida has been a charity close to my heart for the last ten years, so cooking with disabled kids has been so unique, and to give them that little bit of magic across a day—autistics as well. I do a lot of that. I’m setting up a kitchen, almost like a pressure camp, for these guys to release that kind of frustration and take it out on food —- I would like to have a look at next time around. And “Junior MasterChef” has been a big phenomenon in Australia, a huge phenomenon in England...
Can you talk about some of the small touches that either make or break a hotel?
Inside the wardrobe when you hang your clothes up when you’ve just been in transit and you’ve traveled in a suitcase, you want a decent hanger, a proper coat hanger. I find that so frustrating. Towels -— so many towels are small and unfriendly in terms of slightly rough. Those little attention to details -— the bed, the way the bed’s made. Is it made with a bit of love, attention? Is it smothered with three or four covers -— looks neat, but no one sleeps with that stuff. The first thing you do is pull it off.
I hate when they fantasize the bedrooms, when they put too many cushions on there. You can’t sleep with all those cushions on there. Less is more, and the more relaxed and the more appealing it is, then the better the stay. I like things to look comfortable, and I hate the corporate side of things where everything has to be left in the same place seven days a week, otherwise you’re potentially fired. That kind of stuff is just so unfriendly, so cold, in hotels. It’s so stark and so unnecessary, and they’re scared to change things up because all 400 rooms must look like that because we have an identity. And it’s not really identity, it’s a cold front, and they forget the importance of that warmth.
Having such a long time maybe you have a better sense now of what your work has done -- if it has indeed turned places around long term. Do you have some record?
Yes, we do. We have a good, above-average rate, and five out of the six are working brilliantly. One, sadly, has entered foreclosure. That was due to substantial loans, and that was really beyond my control that I really didn’t even discover they were in that much debt. So yeah, five out of six is not bad.
What do you think makes a good boss, and what’s it like really to work for you?
It’s completely different than what you see on "Hell's Kitchen." To ask my staff -— you’d be best asking them because I’m not going to sit here and blow smoke up my backside talking to you as a journalist. I never do that. I’m only as good as my team, and I’m always asked, “Well, who does the cooking when you’re not there if you’re such a hands-on chef?” And I say, “Well look, it’s the same people that do it when I am there,” because I look at business two ways: There are people in life that get to the very top and keep the ladder down and allow their team to climb, and there are people that get to the very top in business and pull the ladder up so no one is getting anywhere near them.
I’m of the first instinct in terms of I want that ladder positioned comfortably, and the more successful I become, then the more successful my team becomes. I will expose them and put them in those positions, and they have to grab the reins with two hands and run with it. I can’t force them to be successful. All I can hope for is they listen and they learn. Sometimes even when they leave the nest and they come into competition with me -— I’ve done everything I’ve needed to do in this industry and came into it on the back of the upset from soccer and a bad injury and didn’t have a pot to … in, and I climbed my way up from the bottom, got my … in France, and came back with a vengeance.
So, I’m an unselfish boss, and I think that’s the key when I’m brutally honest. We don’t run Royal Hospital Road, my flagship restaurant, like you see in "Hell's Kitchen." We are a dedicated, 100% unique team that strives for perfection on a daily basis, and that place functions with or without me the same standards.
The secret of a good boss is leveling out your staff. No one calls me Chef Ramsay. No one calls me mister; it’s Gordon, and I never, ever expect them to do what I wouldn’t do. I think when people say bistro cooking,… cooking, American-Italian cooking, fine dining, Chinese, Japanese -— I’ve been there. I’ve tasted everything from the … end of Cambodia to a floating village living with a family in Vietnam, and I’m still learning. So I think that’s what I take my inspiration from. I still push myself, and I think "Hotel Hell" has done that even more on a much bigger scale, and that’s the difference between a hotelier and a chef.
I think the hotelier is a little bit more arrogant [than the restaurateur] because they’ve sat in their little kingdom with their moat around them, and they think the village or the town locally aren’t good enough to grace their floors, so they pitch to businesses in Paris, New York, and they forget what’s on the ground. There’s a big difference there.
Sometimes I worry about your blood pressure.
Do you know why I keep fit? I worry about it as well, to be totally honest. I’m preparing for an Iron Man; I keep myself fit; and I suppose—yeah, I eat like a horse.
So how do yo persist and keep dedicated to really helping these people?
Sometimes I need a release, and do you know how I get a release? I go for a run because running is relaxing. I don’t get stressed out; I just get this built-up frustration I need to release. So my release is going for a run. I’ve taken that run to twelve London marathons, six ultra marathons in South Africa, and I’m currently training for my first-ever Iron Man in Lake Taupo in New Zealand, March 2013. So, my frustrations are getting bigger; the idiots are getting worse; and I still cannot believe that these individuals are running big concerns, big hotels with big bills, big amount of staff dependence on them, and the idiotic positions they put themselves and their staff in. Frustrates the … out of me.