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Closure for Gordon Ramsay

FOR a man phoning from the beaches of Mauritius, Gordon Ramsay sounds subdued.

The closure of Amaryllis restaurant in Glasgow, he says sombrely, is the "perfect ending" to the loss of his friend and Amaryllis head chef, David Dempsey, last year.

The closure announcement last Wednesday set tongues wagging about Ramsay’s reputation, the vagaries of the Scottish restaurant trade, and the fine dining inclinations, or lack of them, of the average Glaswegian.

Ramsay’s concerns reflect a much more human story. "To be honest, I’m grateful it’s the final chapter. David’s death has been a devastating blow and I think of this as the perfect ending. I think Amaryllis can rest in peace and I think that guy will rest in peace. We need never reopen it."

Amaryllis was never just a business. It was Gordon Ramsay’s triumphant return to the city of his birth, his chance to show Glasgow just how good the local boy had done. But it was also about establishing his talented but troubled young protg, Dempsey, in his own restaurant. Dempsey died last May, falling to his death after breaking into flats while under the influence of drugs. Ramsay was devastated. "I loved the guy," he said in an interview with Scotland on Sunday last year. "I’d been behind him for eight years, funded his career."

Dempsey was "the inspiration" behind the launch of Amaryllis. He earned Glasgow’s only Michelin star there but Ramsay admits that when Dempsey died, it was hard to keep his own emotional investment in the restaurant alive. "I felt the place didn’t deserve the star any more because David was no longer with us. David was that star."

After Dempsey’s death, bitter words were exchanged between Ramsay and Dempsey’s family. The family publicly questioned whether Dempsey had taken drugs. Ramsay, who has an addict brother and is fiercely anti-drugs, believed the facts spoke for themselves and that Dempsey should be laid to rest with quiet dignity, not a public brouhaha. The demise of Amaryllis now severs the final cords.

"I am just glad that I am not involved in the saga of David’s family any more and I can finally lock the door," he says.

It has been a bitter-sweet week for Ramsay who has been on a family holiday. The day after Amaryllis closed, the Michelin stars were announced. His restaurants picked up seven stars and he now has more Michelin stars than any other restaurateur in the world. But he could not crack Glasgow.

Ramsay admits that in the three years Amaryllis traded, he lost 480,000. "We got off to a brilliant start but then the honeymoon period was over and we got down to brass tacks. I didn’t open Amaryllis to make huge amounts of money, that wasn’t the ambition.

"But it was just haemorrhaging money in the end. There comes a point where you have to put your own reputation aside, and your personal feelings, and think of business."

To add a pinch of salt to his wound, he is currently filming a television series about how to resurrect failed restaurant businesses.

His London restaurants, though, are still hugely successful. And ironically, even Amaryllis was fully booked for the next six weeks - but only on Friday and Saturday nights.

"I don’t know any chef who can run a business on two days a week. Wednesday is not a good night to go out and eat in Glasgow and spend 65 to 70 quid. It’s not their agenda and we felt the effect of that. I can’t complain about that. That’s their budget and finance. Amaryllis became a special occasion restaurant. Every customer was celebrating a birthday or an anniversary or a hot date and it was forgotten that we were a mainstream restaurant too."

Ramsay worried the quiet week nights were damaging standards. "In London you thrive on being busy. The busier you are the more active you are and the more consistent. At Amaryllis, on three nights we weren’t busy and we weren’t consistent. I felt the star was being compromised."

He also suggests the culture of catering in Scotland is different from London. Chefs in Scotland, he says, want to work by the hour and if the restaurant closes at 10.30pm, they want to be out the door by eleven. It’s not Ramsay’s way. Cooking is his passion, not just his job. "It has to be in your blood," he insists. "We’ve got exciting young chefs in the group and I don’t need to be let down by those who don’t aim for perfection."

The restaurant’s location at 1 Devonshire Gardens in the West End of Glasgow was "beautiful and historic", but the rent was not cheap and it did not have a good passing lunch trade.

Ramsay’s cooking relies on high quality ingredients and he claims it was impossible to make a profit on his 18 lunch menu and 35 dinner menu. "People don’t go out to lunch unless its 12 for three courses and I am not a chef that can operate brilliantly on that," he admits. "I have to be honest - if you want three courses for 12, you are talking to the wrong chef."

The accusation was made last week that Amaryllis was too snooty for Scottish tastes. Ramsay takes the criticism seriously.

"I got a bit frustrated when I went to Amaryllis before Christmas and the manager and one of the chefs were getting irritated by customer demands," he says. "One had dietary requirements and the other wanted a bowl of ice on the table. I pulled them both aside and I said, ‘The minute you start thinking you are more f***ing important than the customer, it’s time to change your job.’"

He is careful not to make any suggestion that Amaryllis was too sophisticated for Glasgow. "I would never be detrimental to the people of Glasgow because they have given me such support. I was born in Johnstone, my parents were from Port Glasgow. I love the place; I love it dearly. I feel more relaxed in Glasgow than I do in London. But is Glasgow ready for fine dining? I’d relish the challenge to open up in Glasgow again but I wouldn’t do fine dining, not a three or four course dinner. We were setting the criteria too high and that’s my fault."

Instead, he would opt for more informality, as he does in his American-inspired Boxwood Cafe in London. The Boxwood is one of six Ramsay restaurants that were nominated last week for this year’s prestigious Tio Pepe Carlton London Restaurant awards.

"You can get soup and a lovely navarin of lamb, or lamb stew and parsley dumplings, and you can be in and out for twenty quid," explains Ramsay. It’s an approach he can see working in Glasgow.

But the public go to a Gordon Ramsay restaurant in the hope that it will be Ramsay himself cooking their dinner. Can a Scottish restaurant work if the public know he’s in London and it’s not going to be him behind the kitchen door?

"There’s a percentage think like that but I can’t be in two places at one time. And if you’ve spent a lot of money on an Armani suit, and you are really proud of your suit, you don’t go up to the cashier and say, ‘Was it Georgio who stitched it?’"

He doesn’t feel disillusioned. "I gave it a bloody good shot for three years and it’s been tough but I am by no means cynical or bitter," he says.

He adds: "If something came up in the West End or in a fantastic place in Edinburgh, I would relish it. As long as I have a hole in my backside, I will not give up on Scotland. I’ll be back. And when I come back, I’ll be twice as strong."

 
 
 

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