How Gordon Ramsay Built His Name into a Billion Dollar Brand

Will the real Gordon Ramsay please stand up?

Then again, he doesn’t have much time to sit still.

There’s the Gordon Ramsay who’s the host of four network TV shows, watched by millions of viewers every week.

There’s the producer who’s president of One Potato Two Potato, giving notes behind the scenes and coming up with ideas for shows that turn into hits around the globe.

There’s the restaurateur who’s owner of 24 eateries worldwide and holder of seven coveted Michelin stars.

There’s the marathon runner and the Ironman triathlete who just competed in the Kona World Championships. He’s got three more slated for next year, perfectly scheduled between production cycles of his shows, naturally.

And then there’s the devoted husband to Tana and father of four: Megan, Jack, Holly and Matilda.

So how does he balance it all? “The secret of my success is that I take nothing for granted,” he tells Variety over late morning lattes at the Soho House in West Hollywood.

“I go into every restaurant, every program, as if it’s the first day. And I give 110%. Because it’s not that money that turns me on. I find that side slightly embarrassing. It’s wonderful and it’s nice, but it doesn’t make you a better chef. The fundamental crux of a successful chef is being true to what you do.”

Talk to those who know him best, and one word comes up again and again: perfectionist. It’s a title he wears proudly.

“He’s a perfectionist; he detests bullshit — and can spot it from a mile away; he learns very fast, both from his successes and from his few mistakes,” says Simon Andreae, executive vice president of alternative entertainment at Fox. “It also helps that he has a world-class palate.”

“He’s a perfectionist,” says Paul Buccieri, chairman of ITV U.S. Studios Group. “When you have to run a restaurant, and people are putting their hard-earned money down for a night out, he wants to create an experience, and make that experience the best it can possibly be. It’s not just getting them in the door, but having them come back.”

“He’s an extreme perfectionist,” says Adeline Ramage Rooney, vice president of original programming at One Potato Two Potato, who’s worked with him for a decade. “He’s not like you and me. He’s not happy with one network show; he wants five. He doesn’t have just one restaurant; he has 20 all over the world. He’s at the top of the game. But he balances out that brilliance with human flaws. He swears all the time. He gets into public spats. He wears his heart on his chest. And he’s absolutely fearless.”

Ramsay’s ascent to culinary stardom is all the more impressive given his humble beginnings. “We didn’t have a glamorous cuisine,” he says of his childhood in Scotland. But he learned his way around the kitchen from his mother, a cook in a tea shop, who’d feed him comfort food. “It felt so luxurious because it was homemade,” he says. “I laugh when I see people playing with food. I mean, God Almighty, you’d get clipped around the ear!”

He had hoped to be a soccer star, but those dreams were dashed because of an injury. (“I still can’t let go of the early days of my career when I was destined to play soccer, and that didn’t happen,” he says regretfully.)

So cooking was his escape route — but given his family’s limited resources, he almost didn’t make it to culinary school. “My career officer said that I was going to become a hotel manager,” he recalls. “That scared the shit out of me.”

Yet given his famous tenacity, he persevered, and eventually landed a job in a hotel restaurant — where, he says, he learned how not to cook.

“I saw so many short cuts done badly,” he says with a grimace.

He went on to London, where he learned from the greats: Marco Pierre White (“he taught me how to put food on a plate”), Guy Savoy, Joel Robuchon. Working in those high-pressure kitchens served him well. “It’s competitive, and you have to be on your game,” he says.

In 1998, he finally achieved his dream of opening his own restaurant in London, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, where he earned three Michelin stars.

“I felt vindicated, I suppose, like an actor who gets an Oscar or an NFL player who has a Super Bowl ring,” he says. “I just felt like that journey was worth it. And now that I’ve won them, how do you keep them?”

The eatery, which now holds three stars, also holds a special place in his heart. He took his whole family there for the first time last year for his daughter’s 16th birthday.

Recalls Ramsay, “When we got home, Meg asked for a word upstairs and said, ‘I totally understand now. Growing up and only seeing you on weekends, I didn’t quite understand. But I really get it now.’ ”

He pauses, the proud father taking stock of what it must mean for his kids. “We kept them away from that because that’s not the food I grew up with,” he says. “But that was nice to hear from her.”

Clearly it’s all pressure he puts on himself, but does he ever slow down? “I thrive on it,” he says. “I think pressure’s healthy.”

That pressure’s not just on him, but on his staff as well. Having his name above the door sets a standard that he holds to everybody who works for him. “The power of the brand I want to equate with quality,” he says. “I’m always asked, ‘You’re such a hands-on chef. Who does the food when you’re not there? (The answer is) the same people who do it when I am there. You need to equate that level of quality, and then drill a team to make sure that they deliver.”

Chef Christina Wilson learned that lesson during season 10 of “Hell’s Kitchen,” which earned her the job as head chef at Gordon Ramsay Steak in Las Vegas (she’s now the executive chef at Gordon Ramsay BurGR at Planet Hollywood Vegas).

“He oversees every plate that hits the table, and this is where that signature standard of his is most important,” she says. “He is the type of man who will tell you something one time and expect that you will get it. If you don’t, he will find a way to make sure you don’t forget it the second time around. And if you’re dumb enough to make him tell you a third — well, I simply can’t fault him for what name you’ll be called.”

Onscreen, he’s cultivated an impression of a bit of a bully in the kitchen. But in person, he’s completely charming. Does he amp it for the cameras, or is it just the heat of the competition?

“That’s a good question,” he admits. “I turn into a different beast when I’ve got a chef’s jacket on. I’m not very good at just saying, ‘Try a little bit harder next time. Hold my hand and win this quarter million dollars.’ Do you have any idea in the real world what kind of chef you need to be to earn a quarter million dollars as a prize? I didn’t have a pot to piss in for 10 years. So I bring that kind of discipline into it. I don’t think the contestants realize how lucky they are. They don’t have it that bad.”

Hard to imagine now, but his TV career almost didn’t get off the ground.

“I had a fly-on-the-wall documentary (‘Boiling Point’) for 12 months, which was the scariest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life because I was a fucking nut job,” he recalls. “I made a mistake when I kicked Joan Collins out, literally two days after opening.”

But two years later he was back at it again with “Faking It,” turning “everyday Joes into pros.” After a month’s training at Ramsay’s side, a “greasy little fucker out of a burger van” won a major chef’s competition.

That soon led to more shows with ITV in the U.K., including a show the execs wanted to call “Ramsay’s Restaurant Rescue.” Recalls Ramsay, “We were filming the first restaurant, and I came to the producer and said, ‘This place is a fucking nightmare.’ So I was like, ‘That’s it. ‘Kitchen Nightmares!’ ”

America soon came calling in the form of then-Fox reality chief Mike Darnell, who kept him waiting for 2½ hours for their first meeting. “Bang, all of a sudden, the room just lit up,” says Ramsay. “This man was just full of character and witty, funny, smart, clever. He’d ask you a question, knew what you were thinking before you even answered. I’d never seen anything like that. The more real we kept running a restaurant, the better it became.”

He’s had a long, successful run on Fox: “Hell’s Kitchen,” now in season 13, is hitting 200 episodes and counting; “MasterChef” is going into its fifth season; its spinoff, “MasterChef Junior,” debuted to hit ratings in 2013 and is back for season two Nov. 4 while season three has been greenlighted; and “Hotel Hell” recently wrapped its second season.

He made the decision to pull the plug on “Kitchen Nightmares” after season 6.

“I’m not very good at being cancelled,” he says. “So before anything cancels, I’ll take it down first. And that’s not being derogatory to Fox. It’s just having the confidence to come back in two years’ time, with a new, fresh idea.”

That’s Ramsay the producer talking. As the head of One Potato Two Potato, he’s always working on the next big TV show. “I love being creative,” he says.

“Hotel Hell” was his concept, says Ramage Rooney, who was kicking around the idea of doing a makeover show when Ramsay suggested taking it to Fox.

“I never thought in a million years Fox would take another show from Gordon,” she says. “But he doesn’t get reined in by thinking about the negative.”

Bravo recently bought OPTP’s “Best New Restaurants,” set to debut in 2015. “I’m excited about that, because restaurants need that help,” says Ramsay. “When you spotlight a little gem, and it becomes a pillar in the community, then it’s brilliant news.”

He’s also lending his support to an up-and-coming star named Matilda Ramsay, age 12. She has a new show in the U.K., and she’s looking to bring it to the U.S. Like father, like daughter, indeed.

A foodie herself, she’s quite competitive with her dad for the title of best chef in the family. “Although he’s tough on the outside, he’s quite mushy on the inside,” she says, adding reluctantly, “and quite a good cook as well.”

Wonder where she gets that competitive gene from. “Everyone says, ‘Ah, he’s just a TV chef,’ ” says Ramsay. “No. I’m the fucking real deal. I’ll cook anyone under the table. Put a blindfold on me and give me a box of ingredients, I’ll still kick your ass.”

His favorite food to cook, he says, is fish — naturally, because “it’s about perfection,” he says. “Cooking meat is easy, I can tell you exactly the temperature with my eyes closed. But fish is completely different. There’s only one temperature — and that’s perfection.”

Though he watches what he eats himself — he’s constantly in training — he does have his cravings. When he finished his most recent Ironman, the one thing on his mind was a burger.

“I remember crossing that line, and everyone said, ‘You want to go and lie down?” I said, ‘No. I just want to go and eat an amazing Kobe beef burger.’ ”

So he ordered a feast when he got back to his hotel: tomato soup, grilled cheese, burger and fries, and blueberry cheesecake for dessert.

“And bang, I woke up four hours later,” he says. “I’d completely collapsed, and everything had solidified. I was like, ‘Shit. Was I really going to eat all that?’ So I went back to porridge, oatmeal. So that’s the one thing that I always return to, comfort food.”

Given everything on his proverbial plate — his restaurants, his shows, his production company — what does he want his legacy to be?

“I was the first-ever Scottish chef to win three Michelin stars, and I want to see the next Scottish person win three Michelin stars,” he says. “I’ve done so much — sat underneath bull sharks, shitting myself for a shark documentary because the fins were going missing and everyone was depleting the stocks. So if I can find the next person and give him or her that level of success, I’m pushing daisies a happy bunny.”

More TV

  • Gary Levine and Jana Winograde Showtime

    Showtime, HBO Broaden Scope as Parent Companies Aim to Grow Their Audiences

    For years, the halo around premium cablers such as HBO and Showtime has been integral to their branding. Their parent companies in a past life — Time Warner and CBS, respectively — seemed to be content with the tens of millions of subscribers each had accumulated. But now, shepherded by new corporate owners — AT&T’s [...]

  • Josh Brolin Dune

    Josh Brolin to Lead Amazon Drama Series 'Outer Range'

    Josh Brolin has found his next role. The “Avengers” and “No Country for Old Men” star has signed on to play the lead role in “Outer Range,” a thriller which received a series order at Amazon. The show was announced as part of the TV overall deal that Amazon signed with Brad Pitt’s Plan B [...]

  • Hilary Duff Lizzie McGuire

    'Lizzie McGuire': How the Disney Plus Revival Ground to a Halt (EXCLUSIVE)

    Disney Plus does not seem to be figuring it out on the way when it comes to the “Lizzie McGuire” revival. Production on the show halted in January after the firing of original series creator and revival showrunner Terri Minsky after just two episodes were completed. Her unceremonious exit has led many industry insiders to [...]

  • mort marcus ira bernstein

    Listen: Why Debmar-Mercury Is Betting on Nick Cannon, 'Schitt's Creek' and Syndication

    They put their homes up as collateral to finance the business in its infancy more than 15 years ago. Today, Debmar-Mercury co-presidents Mort Marcus and Ira Bernstein are getting ready to launch not one, but two new first-run series in the fall, adding to a roster that includes “The Wendy Williams Show” and “Family Feud.” [...]

  • Bob Chapek Disney CEO

    Why Wall Street Is Unhappy (for Now) With Disney's CEO Change

    We all knew the end was coming. Bob Iger had promised, time and again, that the end was coming. But the rather abrupt announcement Tuesday afternoon that he would relinquish his longtime role as CEO of the Walt Disney Co. — and that theme parks head Bob Chapek would succeed him at the top of [...]

  • Camila Maria Concepción dead

    Camila Maria Concepción, Writer on 'Gentefied' and 'Daybreak,' Dies by Suicide at 28

    Camila Maria Concepción, a trans Latina writer, actor and activist who worked on the Netflix series “Gentefied” and “Daybreak,” died last week by suicide, her representative confirmed to Variety. She was 28. She was most recently a staff writer on the zombie series, and served as a writers’ assistant on “Gentefied,” the recently-premiered bilingual show [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content