First off, I have to make one thing clear: I’m not a chef. I’d like to be, of course; who wouldn’t these days? The industry’s come a long way since the years of Fanny Craddock and the Muppet Show’s Swede, to the point where now, the kind of guy who might once have been accused of being tied to his mother’s apron-strings can reasonably look forward to his own TV series by the time he’s thirty, to say nothing of the book deals, the rave reviews and the international jet-set lifestyle. Look at Jamie Oliver, for example. Well, you look at him; I can’t, really, without imagining a pig shitting on his head. A pig in a clown costume. Which is laughing while it’s doing it.
The Pozzo dei Soldi was a lovely little place in Soho where my ex-wife and I (I’m not getting into this, but the break-up was terrible) had been going for years. We’d had our first date there in 1985, where I introduced her to the rigatoni al forno and the amazing prosciutto. In 1989 I proposed to her with Giulio, the owner and head chef, looking on, and we’ve been back for our anniversary every year since. In 2003, I’d put rat poison in her carbonara (result there, incidentally) – but I probably shouldn’t be telling you that.
Anyway, seeing as I was ready, after twenty high-achieving, cutthroat years, to resign from my position at Goldman Sachs, when I heard that Giulio was in trouble with various creditors, I naturally offered to step in. A place like that, in that location, with thirty years of goodwill behind it, was a solid-gold investment opportunity, surely?
Well ‘gah’ I suppose. It had taken me just over a week to realise that there was something rotten in the state of the Pozzo, and it wasn’t just the food. Though that that had gone off a bit in recent years too. There was a family of rats living in the wine cellar, and Giulio was, it turned out, an inveterate lush, obsessed with hard drugs to the extent of being totally unable to even put together a basic ragu; his idea of sourcing local ingredients was … well this was Soho. And his wife Francesca was even worse; first night in she’d pulled up her sleeve, showed me her track-marks, then collapsed on the kitchen floor, babbling about Madonna. Or the Madonna, I suppose it might have been. Either way, it was worrying. And about the second chef Alberto’s leisuretime antics, I simply refuse to comment.
So the goose that laid the golden eggs had turned out to be an impotent drone of a gander, and I wasn’t too happy, I was more sad, really. Problem was, I hadn’t a bloody clue what to do about it. This went on for a while. Until Francesca, presumably after an especially heavy, night-off session, mentioned a series called Kitchen Nightmares, presented by Gordon Ramsay. The premise was that the blustering cock himself would descend on a restaurant that was going arse-up, fire the staff, rip out the fixtures and change the menu, and hey presto, in four weeks it’s gone from haemorrhaging cash to turning people away. And it gets a primetime advert on national TV into the bargain. Well it had to be worth a shot, so I gave the producers a call.
Long story short, they decided the place was perfect, (a perfect disaster, that was) and filming could begin in a month. They were going to make it their Easter special, and Gordon Ramsay was going to be our redeemer. The first few days went all right, I suppose. To get the lowdown on Ramsay, I’d watched a few episodes, so I knew well enough to play the jilted bride, and stay out of his way while he bollocked the kitchen.
And Ramsay, to be fair, was no slacker. He bonded with the waiters, he flirted with the girls, he called Alberto an arsehole and promoted Louis, our work-experience fuck of a sous-chef to a position well above his station. Of course, there were a couple of hitches, such as Giulio threatening to kill himself when Gordon ripped out the original Seventies décor and went at the walls with a bucket of Farrow & Ball, but he saw sense eventually. And fuck him, actually. Fuck Giulio. If the stupid bastard had been a bit more business-smart, none of us would have been in this mess in the first place.
On day three, the name was changed (without my consent, naturally) to Paparazzo. ‘Paparazzo?’ I wondered, staring furiously up at the new sign. ‘It’s funky,’ he said. ‘Modern. Cutting-edge. This the twenty-first century, my friend, not fucking 1973.’ Next, he threw out all the pasta, in much the same way as he’d evicted the rats, and created a new menu of what he called ‘pan-Continental-Tex-Mex-Asian-fusion’. Which wouldn’t have been so bad if he hadn’t also insisted we use fresh, organic, locally-sourced ingredients.
‘Where, Gordon,’ I asked ‘am I going to get British-grown jalapeno and organic octopus?’
‘Borough Market’ he replied, with a strange look in his eye ‘They’ve got everything there.’
‘Right.’ I sighed. ‘Well, you’re the boss.’
Tellingly perhaps, he did not disagree, but all the same, I’d say the real trouble didn’t start until the second week of filming, on the night of Paparazzo’s grand re-opening.
I arrived there late, because I’d had a few whiskies the evening before, after a crisis meeting with my now-hated bank manager, when he’d informed me they were about to foreclose, because of interest from elsewhere. The first sight that greeted me was a weepy Francesca, heading into the Ladies with a meaningful look.
‘Francesca,’ I said, having followed her in there. ‘It’s the re-launch tonight. If you OD on camera we’ll never hear the end of it.’
She rolled her smoky, pinned-out, Latina eyes. ‘Dave, I do anything … But please do not make me speak to that son of a whore again. He insult my work, he insult my family, and he has a face like a drunken pig.’
‘Yes, but money talks, and right now it’s saying that we need Gordon to pull our arses out of the fire, I’m afraid. Capisce?”
She glared at me darkly, crossed herself, and left.
As did I, heading into the kitchen, where emotions I supposed, were bound to be quite running high, as they’re supposed to in a working restaurant. But even so, should Giulio have been standing there trembling, apparently about to set about Ramsay’s head with a squid-stuffed turkey, basted in red pepper sauce? Well, no. Thinking about how all this was going to look on television – ghastly, of course, there was no way round it - I leapt into the fray.
‘Erm, could you chill out guys? Don’t get blood on the walls anyway, that new paint’s bloody expensive, ha ha! Now, what’s all this about?’
‘He say my melanzano taste like a toddler’s shit, the fucking bastard. How do he know what that taste like, eh?’
‘Mate,’ said Gordon ‘You fucking know it’s true … He’s a fucking liability, Dave!’ he continued, turning to me. ‘He shouldn’t even be here, the knob! His noisettes de veau look like someone’s got their fucking cock out on them! Tell him!’
‘Come on Giulio,’ I cajoled. ‘You’re a bit old for this now.’
‘Fuck you! My father die in his kitchen, age eighty-nine! Face down in a pot of linguini!’
‘Congratulations,’ I said, at a loss.
‘Shit on this,” said Gordon, knocking the bird from the junkie cook’s shaking hand, hitting him hard in the jaw and then wrestling him, facedown, onto the stove. ‘Come on big boy,’ said the bringer of nightmares to a million British kitchens. ‘Where are your fucking bollocks?’
‘Dave,’ squeaked Giulio into the hot-plate. ‘I no longer put up with this; if he stays, I go!’
'Well if he stays, I fucking go,' countered Gordon.
‘Hang on guys,’ I said desperately, ‘Can’t we just, you know, take five and think things over?’
Everyone looked at me like I’d suggested they blow Gary Rhodes. Then Ramsay frogmarched Giulio out of the kitchen. After that, things went rapidly downhill.
The re-launch, of course, was a glowing success. After the departure of Giulio and Francesca, an energised Gordon stepped into the breach, both helming the kitchen, and, perhaps more importantly, drawing on his PR’s list of contacts to make Paparazzo’s opening an event that was truly worthy of its name. The glitterati of theatreland attended in style: Jason Donovan, Martine McCutcheon, Christian Slater, it was a night to remember.
None of which, sadly, was enough to save the place. Deprived of the oxygen of the Ramsay name, and serving up food that was really pretty awful (why, I sometimes wondered, had Gordon suggested that menu?) Paparazzo shut down in the dog days of February, notoriously tough in the restaurant trade.
So all that remained was the follow-up interview, when the Nightmares team checks back on the place. We’d been closed for a week then, so I still had the keys, though already there was a sign outside that read ‘Under New Management’. So after a couple of grams of coke and a consultation with my old pal Johnnie Walker, it seemed the only thing to do was confront Gordon man-to-man, in Paparazzo’s kitchen.
To give him his due, he was reasonably conciliatory; often he lays into Nightmares failures for being fucking lazy, for screwing the pooch of a great opportunity, and so on, but the time he limited himself to observing that some people just aren’t cut out for the restaurant biz. I was eyeing a meat cleaver at the time, and as he made this last observation, it suddenly occurred to me how much more interesting his wrinkled, pink head might look if it was steaming on a platter, with an apple in its mouth.
I picked up the cleaver and advanced towards him. ‘Paparazzo?’ I seethed ‘Whale-meat enchiladas? Dean Gaffney at the opening? You must think I was born yesterday, you cunt!’
‘Showing some bollocks at last eh? But come on Dave,’ blustered Gordon. ‘All’s fair in business and war. I’ve always fancied a little bistro in Soho. And you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.’
‘But I’m not making an omelette, Gordon,’ I said. ‘Roast pork was more what I had in mind. With extremely fresh and locally-fucking-sourced ingredients …’
I think, as I lunged at him with the blade, and the first lovely jet of blood went splattering onto the kitchen wall, I was actually slavering.
‘You’ll never get away with this, big boy,’ Gordon croaked, his face now the off-yellow shade of factory-farmed chicken, as the film crew looked on, totally aghast. ‘The cameras are rolling!’
‘Oh come on, Gordon,’ I said, as I belted him about the side of the head with the end of the cleaver, forced him back onto the stainless steel counter, and set about slitting him open for offal, ‘It’s fucking brilliant publicity for the new place. Right?’
© Quintin Forrest, 2008
Tries to Cook and Eat Gordon Ramsay was read by Paul Clarke at the Liars’ League “Fight & Flight” event on Tuesday 8th April 2008.
Quintin Forrest is working on a novel about matters that are not easily put into words. This is why he feels he must write 100,000 words about them. The title of his story refers to a chapter heading in American Psycho, which he believes should be a set text in schools. This story was originally published under the pseudonym Francois Castile, but he now feels able to come out as a Ramsayvore.