Wherever he goes, Gordon Ramsay sees knives. Today they are at a photography studio in Clapham, a halo pointing inwards towards his head. At other times they are in the hands of rival chefs, or being sharpened by tabloid newspapers, or being stealthily drawn by financial institutions. Of late, Ramsay has employed two methods of self-defence: kick boxing ("I've had the shit kicked out of me for the last 18 months so why not?") and eating out. He says that in January he ate out 47 times, sometimes three meals a day in London and Paris. By eating out a lot he hopes to learn what other restaurants are up to ("chefs are very bad at gauging the customer change because they've always got their heads stuck inside a sweetbread") and finding inspiration for the next phase of his career, which involves a moderate image change and a quest to once again become the hottest chef in the country.
He was hoping to spend January in Los Angeles on a new television show, but his arteries told him otherwise. In December he went into hospital for the routine chef's operation – varicose veins – and was told that varicose veins were not really the issue. A valve in his groin had twisted, sending blood the wrong way. "A real pain, but I kept it all hush-hush, and it's turned into the most amazing experience. Last week I did three Michelin-starred restaurants in Paris, and at La Tour d'Argent I thought I was going to have a heart attack. It was just a slab of duck breast on a plate with blood sauce, and I could feel my arteries closing down – that wasn't the way forward." He books under the name Gordon, not Ramsay, so as not to scare the chefs, but he still finds he has to wait 15 minutes longer than other diners for each course, so eager is everyone to impress. At Hotel Le Bristol he encountered a chicken dish for two costing €260. "I'd get stabbed in this country if I charged that! Even if the chicken had its arse wiped every day by the farmer and they said its feathers were shampooed by John Frieda – I'd be shot. Even if the chicken was delivered by the Queen's driver and had this little Armani dressing gown on before it got taken to the slaughterhouse."
We are in the back of his chauffeured BMW heading towards Knightsbridge. Behind us at the photographic studio there is a trail of devastation, two assistants needing hospital treatment for knife cuts (pure accidents, no Ramsay anger involved). At the shoot Ramsay had seemed a little subdued, and thought only of food ("I'm going to fine any of my chefs who put asparagus on the menu before May"), but in the cosseting of the car he became a different person. "I was a crazy fucking psycho!" he reasons, when asked about his reputation. "If anyone even bruised a chive I came down on them like a ton of bricks. It's been tough, but am I about to crack and fall on my arse? Am I fuck! But I don't want to continue at this pace. There's a need for pressure, because that's what makes me really tick. But I'm more excited about jeopardy than pressure. The risk element, the dangerous element. There's something quite stupid about that."
I ask about the swearing. "Fuck!" he said. "When you saw those two Kitchen Nightmares condensed into one – last year when they had those 298 'fucks' – I wasn't proud of that. There has come a time when, at the age of 43, I'm getting a bit tired of the foul-mouthed bully chef. But I've never tried to get the Great British blue-rinse nation to start falling in love with me. I don't want a radical change where I have to put a woolly hat and scarf on and go round every Women's Institute and improve their Victoria sponge or show them a much better recipe for spotted dick."
The swearing has limited and expanded Ramsay's audience in equal measure, but recently there have been other things to tarnish his reputation. Allegations of a long-term affair tested not only his marriage to Tana Ramsay, with whom he has four children, but also his television appeal. The rapid over-expansion of his restaurants in the past three years in Versailles, New York, Los Angeles, Florida, Cape Town, Sardinia and Prague (he also has outposts in Dubai and Tokyo) had left Gordon Ramsay Holdings (GRH) struggling to pay back £10m loaned from the Royal Bank of Scotland and a tax bill of £7.2m (figures released in January 2010 show that six of his newer restaurants had combined losses of £4.3m for the year ending August 2008).
Ramsay says that auditors proposed bankruptcy, but he found this prospect "fucking unthinkable". Instead, he and his principal backer (and father-in-law) Chris Hutcheson restructured the debts, and in several restaurants, GRH became consultants rather than owners. Ramsay's critics, who have become gleefully vocal in the last year, seemed reasonably happy at this come-uppance, sensing some sort of natural justice after years of arrogance and shouting at people (something they would not have felt with Jamie Oliver).
"What have I learned?" Ramsay wonders in the car. "I've learned that outside the UK I'm not going to hold the baby with the liabilities coming out of my own pocket. One reason I lost €1.3m in Paris is because the French have become fucking lazy. They want to work 32 hours a week and they call themselves uniquely talented chefs. We do that work in two days over here.
"No one saw the recession coming," he continues. "The UK businesses were solid as a rock, but the issues we had were in Paris, New York and LA. For every pound we were making here we were losing two pounds abroad. But if I had the choice not to have done New York or Paris, going out there and putting a stake in the ground and showing the French we could cook as well as them, it was a big ballsy thing to do and I never regret that. And I would never have denied Angela [Hartnett] the York & Albany or Murano, of which she's a large shareholder. My problem is I've been too fucking generous and I haven't been selfish enough."
Hartnett has been with Ramsay for 15 years, and has noticed changes. "He does see the broader picture now," she says on the telephone from her Murano kitchen. "I'm very passionate and I love my job, but I'm not going to live or die by a piece of carrot, like he used to do. I could never get my head round that." She has also detected a transformation in society to which Ramsay has adapted. "People don't like the aggression so much. They no longer want to see him or Simon Cowell make people cry."
Ramsay's mea culpa follows a regular pattern: acknowledgement, charm offensive, joke using expletives. He has already forgiven himself for his excesses and extravagance, but have we forgiven him? It is clear that there is also some image realignment going on at central office – a cleaner, evidently kinder and more considerate television image is emerging, an image that even his former employees suggest is rather more fitting to Ramsay's true character. It is instructive comparing the last episodes of The F-Word (where he gently chastises his celebrity trainee chefs to "stop eating all the food yourself!" and "hurry up!") to the foaming diatribes he used to deliver on Boiling Point and Kitchen Nightmares ("Hey arsehole, what the fuck were you thinking about? It tastes like gnats' piss! You wouldn't serve that to a fucking pig! You fucking donkey! Why don't you fuck off home?") Soon he may even start to concentrate on charity work.
In the car, Ramsay foresees happier times ahead. He was buoyed by the news that reached him the previous week of five diners at his Royal Hospital Road restaurant who had spent £25,000 on wine. He says it was a personal credit card. "They were celebrating something, we didn't ask, but when someone's spending that amount on wine we don't charge for the food. Just out of respect really."
Free food? It almost makes it seem a secondary consideration. These days Ramsay does very little cooking beyond the television studio. He tells me that he recently made a Thai curry and a spicy pasta arrabiata for his children, and, in salivating detail, of his dishes for his new restaurant. "I've got an amazing slow-roasted veal sweetbread that's lined with Madagascan vanilla, and we're serving it with the most amazing little baby scallops. I'm having a braised oxtail that can knock the socks off any fillet of beef. I'm turning a mackerel into tasting better than any tuna-related item."
But there is a problem: Ramsay's empire is now so vast, and the demands on his time so great and varied, that he can't possibly give his customers the passionate attention he lavished on them when he cooked at Le Gavroche and La Tante Claire, or at Aubergine, the first restaurant in which he had a financial stake. In the next few months he has a cameo in a film called No Ordinary Trifle, the reopening of the Savoy Grill, a new Maze in Melbourne, a new series of Hell's Kitchen and a mentoring-style version of Masterchef in the US, another under-wraps UK series, continued endorsements of knives and foodmixers, and a Comic Relief hook-up for his Seriously Good cooking sauces.
Bill Buford, the editor and food writer, has observed this time-poor dilemma in Ramsay's restaurant in New York's London hotel. "The London works well enough," he writes in an email. "The food is good, it held on to its two Michelin stars, the service impeccable. But it doesn't have any heat, it's not referred to in the press, no one talks about it, the ONLY person I know who has been there in the past year (a chef) was extremely disappointed, and that's mainly because Gordon is not there, and has no comparable authoritative, authoritatively imaginative person to take his place."
Buford profiled Ramsay for the New Yorker when his restaurant opened in Midtown three years ago. It received mixed reviews, critics confusing the showman and his art, disappointed that the firebrand from television had not also delivered fireworks on their plate. Since then, Buford suggests that Ramsay may have settled for a formula. "It's a very sophisticated food city," Buford says. It wants to be surprised. It knows the dishes that are current, they rapidly become part of the ordinary culinary commerce of the city, and it quickly spots imitations and laziness. It wants to see a dialogue between the kitchen and the diner, some back-and-forth, improvisation, play, taking nothing for granted. It is also very suspicious of French cuisine, and the French chefs who have made a success in the city are in their restaurants every night, even if they are also responsible for 20 other venues throughout the world… Gordon can't compete, because Gordon's not there."
Jay Rayner, the Observer's restaurant critic, wonders about Ramsay's ability to maintain the excitement he engendered when he was younger. "Everybody I talk to agrees that Gordon's a great chef, and that he's rejuvenated the London food scene over the past decade. But the business failures and the scandals have tainted him a bit, and the food he makes isn't ahead of the game any more. A lot of people who go to Royal Hospital Road are neophytes, always looking for the cutting edge, and Gordon isn't that any more. That raviolo he does with lobster and langoustine has been on the menu since Aubergine began, and that tarte tatin he does is fabulous, but it was invented by two sisters in 1898."
Things may be about to change. Ramsay's car stops outside Petrus in Knightsbridge, his latest slice of jeopardy. The restaurant is due to open at the end of this month, but when we visited it was still a place of drills and overhanging wires. It would be difficult to overstate the importance of Petrus to Ramsay's reputation, and not only because he has invested £1.8m in it.
This is the third reincarnation of Petrus, and the fate of its rebirth is now inextricably bound with the rebirth of its owner. The success of its first appearance in St James's Street and its second at the Berkeley hotel was credited largely to Marcus Wareing, the chef from whom Ramsay split acrimoniously in 2008 after 15 years together.
Ramsay retained the Petrus name after a legal battle, while Wareing established Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley, maintaining his two Michelin stars and recently being named Time Out's Best London Restaurant. The new Petrus is just around the corner from the old, something that fills Ramsay with joy. "Can you imagine how I felt when they phoned me to say they'd found this site? I would have paid double!" Later he adds that he doesn't consider himself to be in competition with Wareing. "I actually feel sorry for Marcus – he's dreamt this big explosion up. But I've got nothing to say – I wish him all the best." And just after that he added, "And Heston is setting up at the Mandarin Oriental, Hyde Park. We can all have a fight in the street at four in the morning." Wareing declined to comment for this article beyond a statement that he considered all competition healthy. After the split he told Waitrose Food Illustrated that under Ramsay he felt "constrained, confined and trapped," and he offered his former best man some advice: "Put a gun to my head, shoot me, put me in a box and bury me because if you don't, I'll come back and come back. I'll never give up until I get where I want to go."
Others who have worked with Ramsay have also laid in. Michel Roux Sr, under whom Ramsay trained in the 1980s, now finds his behaviour "appalling… That guy is not better than anyone else; he's a good chef but certainly not one of the best we have trained. When you've got 5,000 or 10,000 people paying to see him do a demo, I'm thinking the world is mad."
At one demonstration in Melbourne last year Ramsay appeared to be less of a chef than a stand-up comedian. He told his audience of the quest to find a man willing to earn £1m for sleeping with Susan Boyle, and received a week of abuse for comparing a local television presenter to a fat pig (even Kevin Rudd, the Australian prime minister had a view on that – describing Ramsay's comments "as reflecting a new form of low life"). Similar flak followed his more recent behaviour in India, where he made fun of vegetarians and mocked the spiritualism of an ashram. "That was just me being me," he says. "I would have done that if the television cameras had been there or not."
Ramsay takes a little tour of the Petrus building, declining the offer of a hard hat. The look has become a trademark: tight T-shirt, bullish bearing, blonde highlights. His enthusiasm sweeps all before it. "I feel like I'm 26 again," the 43-year-old says, "like when I started Aubergine. I'm over every detail, I've never been so excited opening a restaurant." He walks downstairs to the large kitchen and chef's table, and talks to his site manager about the possibility of opening at the end of March. "But the opening is the easy bit," he concluded. " The worst thing would be inconsistency, and being a little frigid and scared to let it go. The critics aren't going to be on my side on this one – that's pretty obvious. They'll be kissing Marcus's arse. I've got to look beyond that."
What can the critics do? "They can poison their pen. It's very hard when you eat out every day for a living, and a new restaurant comes along and you haven't got that same vigour that you had 10 years ago. I'm not critic-proof, and I still take it personally, but I take it less personally now. They could pan it, but we'd have to serve some really shitty food."
Petrus will seat fewer than 50 customers, who will sit around a centerpiece of a large glass temperature-controlled pillar containing 2,000 bottles of wine. The designs suggest an atmosphere of refinement devoid of stuffiness, the decor lighter and less red than the last Petrus. Jean-Phillippe Susilovic, Petrus's restaurant director, has also noticed a change in his employer. "He's listening to us now. Before he wasn't. You feel like you're part of something. Is he actually listening to you from the time you start to speak until you finish? No. But he will pick something out."
After his inspection, Ramsay walks to the Boxwood Café, his remaining restaurant at the Berkeley. He makes a quick tour of the kitchen before settling at a table, and he is approached by a waiting staff so eager to please ("Anything else for you? Anything else?" one woman asks nervously when he orders a cup of tea) that Ramsay is forced to say: "That's all thank you– just look after the customers, love".
It is time to answer the question about his chin. Last year he had his strange and deep diagonal scars filled in by a cosmetic surgeon, a move intended (it was thought) to make him look slightly less threatening on US television. Apparently there was another motive.
"I've got four children, and they've become 'Dad, why have you got so many wrinkles on your face when Clementine's daddy has no wrinkles?' The lines were pretty horrific, like Scarface, and I was never embarrassed by it but my children helped me become more paranoid about it. You've seen the articles: craggy face, map of Wales, ugly, deflated rugby ball. There's only so much shit you want to take. I woke up in the morning and Matilda was trying to squeeze pound coins in there. In LA it was all 'Omigod, when did you go through the windscreen?' You put up with it, but then you get fucking sick of it. I listened to what Simon Cowell said, and he said, 'Get it done, it'll make you look more…' "
It took four minutes each side, lasered not Botoxed. "No one noticed until I mentioned it. When you don't say anything you're classified as a liar, so you can't win. It's got me more shit in the past six months… Am I going to have any more work done? Of course I'm not going to have any more fucking work done. The amazing guy who did it said to me, 'Let's get one thing right. I am not, under any circumstances, ever going to touch that forehead.' "
The chin business didn't affect Ramsay's real business. But last year another blow hit him rather harder. The Sun ran a story on its front page claiming that Ramsay supplied his gastropubs with 'boil-in-the-bag' food that had been prepared in bulk in advance in a central kitchen. So much for fresh ingredients. What really jarred was the perceived hypocrisy: there was Ramsay in the papers describing ready meals as his idea of food hell; there he was on television berating the little guys about cutting corners and short-changing the customer; and here was Ramsay doing it himself.
Ramsay was filming in "fucking Mumbai" when his publicist called him with the news. "Of course I was furious," he says. "It was cheap journalism and shambolic reporting. There's not a chef in the country who doesn't have a sous vide machine [a vacuum-packing slow-cook system that enables food to retain freshness and enhance flavour]. Whether you're at the Fat Duck or Royal Hospital Road, we pre-cook things three days before. We're trying to establish a different standard in these pubs, so of course it's going to be seen as boil-in-the-bag to a journalist from the Sun. The fascinating line was 'and his food factory was in the middle of a council estate in Wandsworth'. So who buys the Sun and lives in Kensington High Street in a £5m apartment?
"You open up and you look defensive, like you've got something to hide," he continues. "I've got nothing to hide. I can give you 150 chefs' names that would love an outside central kitchen. I've never released the names, but we supply Michelin-star restaurants with puff pastry, stock, chocolates. I've raised the bar for the standard of what was created. We have restaurants that don't have proper kitchen facilities that we supply 90 per cent of the food. I've so proud of that. Am I taking pork chops and cooking them a week before, freezing them, and boiling them in the bag? Am I fuck. Can you imagine if I had the situation that Heston had with his food poisoning? If that was at Royal Hospital Road my bollocks would be hanging off the end of Nelson's Column – game over for me."
Why is he judged by different standards?
"I give a lot of flak out, so I open myself out to that level of criticism. That's what I've come to terms with. It's hurtful. I apologised to the few customers that complained about their experiences of 'boil-in-the bag'. Why didn't you complain at the fucking time, then? One lady wrote in to say that her mushy peas were too mushed. Sweetheart, do me a favour, fuck off. Do you know what I mean? Forget [my] corporate brand, Fuck Off!"
In January, Ramsay received another call from his PR with more bad news. It was Michelin time. While his restaurant at Royal Hospital Road had retained its three stars under head chef Clare Smyth, his restaurant at Claridge's had lost its only star. This followed the departure from the kitchen of his long-term ally Mark Sargeant, co-author of many of Ramsay's books, and was seen as an important part of his empire for 13 years. While the majority of Ramsay's team remain fiercely loyal, Sargeant's departure a year after Wareing's hinted at unhappiness in the camp.
Sargeant now runs the Swan restaurant at London's Globe Theatre. After leaving Claridge's a year ago he continued to work for GRH as a consultant, but severed all ties in December. Like Wareing, he felt he had to break away to test himself; unlike Wareing, he left on good terms and still suffers mild withdrawal symptoms. "I especially miss his kids, I was like an older brother to them, going to the cinema." Had he sensed the pressure Ramsay was under before he left? "Yes. You get a glimpse of it. There's this look in the eye and you can just tell. But it's very quickly gone."
Ramsay only speaks highly of "Sarge", but regrets that he didn't install Claridge's current head chef Steve Allen earlier. "On the day we lost [the Michelin star] I had an amazing meeting – we put 190 staff in the room, closed the door and I let rip for 20 minutes. The first thing I did was congratulate them for having 97 covers booked for Monday lunch. The stars mean a hell of a lot. All that shit about handing them back… Marco talks complete baloney. They're not ours to hand back – they belong to the restaurant not the chef."
Ah, Marco Pierre White, his mentor and chief sparring partner – no interview would be complete without a dig. "I piss myself when I see Marco on Hell's Kitchen," Ramsay says. "Everyone's asking me, 'have you seen it?' and I say 'No'. But of course I fucking had. I watched it and I sat there and I pissed myself. He wouldn't let go, he wouldn't get upset. It's like, 'Be you. Don't be scared'. I don't mask over it, so people see it. That's hard for a lot of people to understand."
"Gordon's a unique man," says Bill Buford. "Great guy, very smart about food, exceptionally able staff, exhilaratingly driven, exhilaratingly without bullshit… a piece of history, unlike anyone else you will ever know in your life, but what's the mission? What makes him run? (Or another way to think of him: does he make food and also run the making of the food as a business; or does the business run him? I would love to learn that he is disappearing for a year, to cook by himself, and reconfigure the way he makes food, but it could never happen, the business is too big.) Good food is uniquely made, and it's hard, almost impossible, to reproduce unique food, by definition, especially when it is reproduced in what is effectively a chain. It requires more than discipline and recipes. It needs a philosophy. Gordon has Gordon; Gordon isn't a philosophy."
For which, perhaps, we should be grateful. At the end of his morning he considers the immediate future. "What do I want? Peace and quiet. I'm having my ball bag tucked up in six months. I want a nice firm ball bag that looks like a satsuma as opposed to a pig's bladder.
"What do I want? I want that heartbeat back that we had at Aubergine. A lot of people come into this industry with a kind of greed, but I didn't find that - I found the passion first and the money came. So whatever happens, I'm never going to lose focus on that level of passion."
There is another question, the only one Ramsay can't yet answer: have we lost our passion for him? Petrus may go some way to regaining lost ground, although once again he will barely be in its kitchen. His television programmes will present a slightly kinder man, and a slightly humbled one, which will be accurate depictions. He may even hold his tongue, revealing other talents besides rage. He is joking about the satsuma op, but he seems increasingly serious about everything else.Petrus opens on 29 March, 1 Kinnerton St, London SW1. Tel: 020 7592 1609
He's supposedly amassed a $54 million fortune in the past year alone.
But, despite his financial success, TV chef Gordon Ramsay insists his children won't get a fat inheritance when he relocates to the great restaurant kitchen in the sky.
In an interview with the Telegraph , the 49 year-old reveals that his offspring - Matilda, 15; Jack and Holly, both 17, and 18-year-old Megan - won't get their hands on his hard-earned money because he wants them to avoid becoming spoilt brats.
"[The fortune] is definitely not going to them, and that's not in a mean way; it's to not spoil them,” he said.
"They haven't worked anywhere near hard enough for it."
Instead, he and his wife, Tana, have agreed that their kids will get a 25 per cent deposit on a flat, but they refuse to buy the whole property.
So, in an age of almost-impossible property prices, how will the Ramsay children succeed on their own? Your guess is as good as ours, but here's our theories...
Tilly Ramsay, 14
The teenage Matilda is already a TV star, thanks to her CBBC reality series. And, just like her father, she's also got an interest in cooking.
In a recent interview with MailOnline , the 14-year-old said her talents even surpass her dad's.
"Who's the best cook? Definitely me!" she told the site. "Dad's the sous chef, I'm the head chef. He likes to steal my recipes, too, so I don't tell him what my secret ingredients are."
Thus, chances are she'll follow in Gordon's footsteps and become a television chef in her own right.
And, chances also are, he'll be thinking of retiring when she's ready to hit the big time, which means it could be a perfect excuse to pass on The F Word baton.
Jack Ramsay, 17
Although he looks the spitting image of his father, Jack won't be copying his career.
Instead, it looks as though the teenager is likely to join the armed forces.
Speaking to the Daily Star in 2016, Gordon said: "He is obsessed with Bear Grylls and the Marines, and going in and becoming an officer.
"It is respect I think. Life is tough and you have got no idea what it will throw at you. Your mind needs to be set and focused."
He added: "There is something unique about a defence for your country. That is a real job.
"When you see the way that they are together and what happens to these forces, the devastation of losing someone from the platoon, it is pretty grim. But the bond is unique and magical."
Let's just hope he doesn't end up on kitchen duty...
Holly Ramsay, 17
Although she keeps a relatively low-profile, Holly - twin sister of Jack - could soon become a fashionista.
The aspiring designer has apparently been influenced by Gordon's friendship with Victoria Beckham and has desires to work for a similar label before creating her own start-up.
But she'll need to develop a thick skin. Speaking to the Daily Mail, Gordon recently confessed that Holly was upset by Twitter trolls who said she looked excessively dressed-up for a family night out.
"Holly wants to go into fashion," he said. "Comments like that can make them obsessed about their appearance.
"It's how eating disorders can start. We were almost counselling them afterwards. People shouldn't write these vile comments. They shouldn't be judgmental."
Megan Ramsay, 18
The eldest of the Ramsay brood, Megan also appears likely to shun showbiz in favour of a more conventional career.
It's not clear where her interests lie, but in 2016 Gordon posted on Instagram that his daughter had received an acceptance letter from Oxford Brookes University.
He said: "Congrats Meggie on your offer from #oxfordbrookesuniversity hard work pays off. Proud dad."
Cheekily, he also showed his love for the institution's food, saying: "Ps I heard the food is good."