Numbers say a lot about Chef Gordon Ramsay.
The mighty Scottish-born chef with a fiery temper who has become his culinary calling card has 51 restaurants in his global empire and, count them, seven Michelin stars. His Gordon Ramsay North America restaurant business includes 11 restaurants spanning Las Vegas, Orlando, Atlantic City, Baltimore, Lake Tahoe and Kansas City. His TV cred includes around eight US series, including “Hell’s Kitchen,” “MasterChef,” “Kitchen Nightmares,” “Gordon Ramsay Uncharted,” and his latest fare, “Next Level Chef.”
So, opening a 5,000 square foot restaurant in Chicago, in the midst of a pandemic, in the midst of one of the most devastating two years for the culinary industry worldwide, says a lot more.
The restaurant, Gordon Ramsay Burger, opened in December on the tony corner of Ontario and the state, with little fanfare, truth be told. But word spread quickly, and the late-night crowd was robust.
The fast-casual restaurant is its second in the United States; the first is in Las Vegas, a city Ramsay calls “a tough city” for anyone looking to get into the business.
“Everyone thinks Vegas is easy,” Ramsay said during a recent Zoom chat in Chicago. “Vegas isn’t easy. Vegas is one of the most competitive cities on the planet and all the top chefs desperately want to be there. So when we opened Gordon Ramsay Burger at Planet Hollywood in 2012, he didn’t was not about making gangbusters and opening one every week. [elsewhere]. It was about consolidating, building something incredible.
It’s the same game plan Ramsay is following for his Chicago debut. It’s about building consistency, quality from scratch, literally.
“When Chicago came it was perfect. … I feel more at home here. I feel more connected. I’ve studied Chicago a lot. He just has that energy – come in and make our first big burger [restaurant]here without trying to open something that has 500 seats which must be a theme park.”
The Chicago location, designed by Boston-based Sousa Design Architects, seats 120 diners under its impressive wood-beamed ceiling. Floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides give guests stunning views of the bustling North River. A huge Union Jack cements the attitude.
“Chicago reminds me so much of my own upbringing,” Ramsay says of why he chose the city for his latest venture. “It’s a hard-working city that prides itself on eating well. I think of amazing chefs like [Alinea’s Grant] Buy, and [restaurants]like Girl & The Goat, and then the neighborhood feel that Chicago brings. I just feel more at home here. I feel more connected. … The location here, it’s just a very very cool corner. I like energy.
That he’s all about the utmost consistency when it comes to every dish that comes out of one of his kitchens is an understatement. Ramsay apologizes for being a bit late for our conversation as he was leading a taster at Pass Cuisine, a kitchen helmed by Executive Chef Javier Fuentes. Consistency comes up several times in the conversation. This is the main reason, he says, that the menu only has eight burger choices (one of which is a vegan option), two hot dog offerings, a handful of entrees, two salads, two desserts and three varieties of fries.
“I’m much better off trying to get seven or eight burgers on the menu than if I had 15 burgers on the menu. This level of consistency is impossible with 15, 20 burgers. …It would be an absolute nightmare in the kitchen. [The menu has] limited options, but they are some damn good options.
These options are offered at River North prices. Buffalo chicken wings will set you back $15. Shakes are $9. Its Devonshire Butter Burgers (made from a mixture of chuck and brisket) cost between $15 and $17. And these “Hot Dawgs,” as the menu proclaims, are $13. Some foodies have taken to social media to express their disdain for the awards. Ramsay takes it all in stride.
“If it’s too expensive, they’ll tell you. If it’s undervalued, they’ll tell you,” Ramsay says. “… Customers vote with their feet. Everyone with a phone is a critic, and I can take that. … But I listen carefully; I watch carefully and we adapt. But I don’t think we are overpriced. … What we have are standards. I think $13 for a hot dog is damn good, especially [since]the thing is so long that you can take half of it. Is it value for money? Absoutely. Is it too expensive? No. I fully believe in quality, and therefore I just don’t want a hot dog.
Ramsay also believes passionately in Chicago’s world-class culinary scene, which is why he chose to open in a difficult environment for the industry and in the Windy City in particular. He also sources as much locally as possible, hoping to significantly support local businesses.
“This industry needs to remember how exciting it is to break bread, to sit with the family in a restaurant enjoying a great burger. So yes, it’s a huge risk, a huge outlay… but you have to bounce back. We must. [The industry has] to come back stronger than ever. I am convinced that what we have done [here]and the magic created within those four walls does that. If we start helping stimulate the rebound of this industry in Chicago, then yes, long may it continue.
Ramsay reveals his investment in Chicago is meant to be a long-term affair.
“I think it’s more humble to enter the Chicago food scene and open a Burger than to enter with a 10- and 12-table fine dining restaurant. [restaurant],” he says. “I’m starting at the bottom and working my way up. But we have exciting plans for other restaurants here.
He doesn’t elaborate, only adding “I like to step on the ladder at a time.”
And when it comes to Chicago’s feud between ketchup and mustard over a hot dog, Ramsay isn’t necessarily taking sides. His Standard Dawg offers both mustard and homemade ketchup.
“I was stuck between a rock and a hard place,” Ramsay laughs. “And I thought, f- – – that. I’ll put some mustard and ketchup on a hot dog. You can’t win every day. The proof for me is in the tasting. If this dog is delicious, it doesn’t need to be covered in ketchup or mustard. To each his own, as my mother would say.