On the driveway of Gordon Ramsay’s huge house near Wandsworth Common, South London, are five cars. All have personalised numberplates and are clean, new and expensive looking. There is a 4x4 and a slinky sports car and ... well, let’s just say that although Ramsay has taken a mighty bashing, personally and financially, in the past year, it hasn’t reached as far as his cars or home.
“Yeah, but it’s been a kick up the arse,” he says almost as soon as we have settled in his vast kitchen. “It’s been a shit 12 months. I got to where I am by busting my arse and then, suddenly, it all turned around and bit me on the arse. But, you know, I wasn’t the only one. No one saw the recession coming and I got caught up in it all.”
That is why, in the midst of a difficult year, Ramsay disappeared to India. “I just had to get away,” he says. “It was me and a rucksack and a month of being on the road going back to what I love doing best — cooking.” He asked his wife, Tana, if he could go and, just as his business empire was teetering on the brink in mid-2009, boarded a plane and flew to Delhi to film Gordon’s Great Escape.
“It was humbling,” he says. “One minute I was all over the newspapers, the next I was on a continent where no one really knew who I was. I’d had enough, really. I thought it was a good idea to escape and I’ve been fascinated by Indian cookery ever since my mum took me for a curry when I was a child. It wasn’t running away. I could see the way everything was going. It was about getting back to something that excited me.”
In Gordon’s Great Escape, Ramsay travels across India, eating and cooking, and embracing vegetarianism on an ashram. “I loved it,” he says. “I now apologise to all vegetarians for being rude about them. I love them. I loved being on an ashram. I thought I would hate it, but I could’ve stayed there for a long time.”
The programme could also go some way to rehabilitating Ramsay as a chef and a person rather than the slightly comical reality TV character that he was in danger of becoming. He cooks vegetable curry almost continuously on a long train journey. He sweats profusely as he digs a vast hole in the desert to roast a goat for a feast. He makes kebabs for the most discerning set of wedding guests that he has probably ever encountered. It’s a one-man show about him meeting people, charming people and getting back to his cooking — someone who can seriously cook rather than just shout.
“I learnt so much,” he says. “I haven’t sweated that much in years. I felt like Shrek most of the time, constantly putting my foot in it and getting things slightly wrong. I cooked street food in Calcutta. It’s hard to beat the food that is already on offer. You can get anything there. It’s simple and fresh and the street is packed, but I tried bringing some different flavours into my food and we sold out. I can’t tell you how good that felt.”
It certainly does seem more of a personal journey than merely a commercial idea (although it isn’t always easy to separate the two: Ramsay has recently taken to leaving his home prominently displaying a copy of Ramsay’s Great Escape when he thinks he might be papped). “Yeah, it was just me getting back to what I am good at doing,” he says. “It was like learning again; it was a very simple way of being, and it made me realise how superficial life can be.
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