You might be sick of the snow by now, but chef Gordon Ramsay—who’s in town to promote the opening of his first Chicago restaurant, Gordon Ramsay Burger—is loving it.
“We’ve been dying for snow in England,” he said. “So to see snow coming in to land yesterday, I was so excited. … It’s so nice to be back in Chicago.”
Gordon Ramsay Burger, which opened in December, slings Ramsay’s signature butter-basted burgers and ketchup-topped hot dogs from a 5,000-square-foot space at the corner of State and Ontario in River North. It’s the second location of the burger chain in the U.S. (the other is in Las Vegas) and part of Ramsay's ever-expanding empire of fast-casual restaurants worldwide.
Curious about how everyone’s favorite cantankerous TV chef is faring in Chicago? We chatted with Ramsay via Zoom on his second day in the city, getting the Michelin-starred chef’s take on everything from ketchup on hot dogs to the state of the restaurant industry.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Chicago’s a great city for burgers. Why should people try yours?
There’s something quite unique about a competitive city that houses so many great gourmet burgers. I’m not saying mine’s any better than the next. I just put something together that is delicious, from the chopped brisket short rib to the basting of the Worcestershire sauce butter to the uniqueness of the bun. Going back to 2010, when we first started developing our first burger at Planet Hollywood in Vegas, and just that amazing blend—the basting of that beautiful Devonshire butter, the creaminess over the flame—that was something unique. Everyone thought I was mad opening a burger [restaurant] in Vegas, one of the most competitive cities everywhere on the planet.
I have to ask about the hot dogs, which have ketchup on them. That’s obviously controversial in Chicago. Did you consider nixing it for a local audience?
That’s a really good question. Listen, we’re the new kids on the block. If I put it on, I’d be criticized. If I left it off, I’ll still be criticized. So either way, I’m fucked. I decided to put mustard and ketchup on, that way you get the best of both worlds and that’s your choice. But listen, the dog is the most important thing, right? And then you have your own personal choice in terms of what you want to smear that with. I’m not a massive ketchup lover—if I do, I want spice or a little bit of heat. It’s a tough call, so I decided to go with both mustard and ketchup and become a little bit Switzerland in Chicago. Otherwise they’d have me with my balls upside down out on that lake.
You don’t take your hot dog with ketchup, then?
Depends on who I’m with.
[Chicago is] a very feisty, determined city that breathes quality.
Have you had any particularly memorable dining experiences in Chicago over the years?
I remember years ago, during my first foray in Chicago, I was here for the American Cancer Society for an amazing dinner with a phenomenal group of chefs. I remember going to the opening night—would you believe it?—of Blackbird. And then I think about the story of Grant Achatz, just what he's done and how prolific he's been. Having a chance to film with him last year with Master Chef, you really got to understand the sort of determination this city gives to chefs and the audience they have. It's a very humbled audience that absolutely loves great food, and when they're loyal, they're with you for decades.
Last night, even, just going around the neighborhood and going to Girl and the Goat, that amazing Japanese restaurant Momotaro… just the atmosphere, you know, what's happening in those different areas. So, yeah, it's a very feisty, determined city that breathes quality.
If you could collaborate on a menu with any Chicago chef, who would you choose?
Wow, tough question, because then you're making me pick favorites. You get me into someone’s shit when you ask me that. I'd have to go with Grant [Achatz]. I just love the way that guy's mind floats with foods. To be between his ears for a service—him on the fish, me on the meat behind the line—I think that would be absolute fireworks.
How has the pandemic affected your perspective on the dining industry?
Yeah, it's been devastating. And it was a huge blow. We saw certain businesses rise in the pandemic and our industry was on his ass. We've never, ever been told to stop for that length of time. So mentally, for our young girls and guys in the group [Gordon Ramsay Restaurants], the first thing I did was I started Zoom [calls] on a daily basis to help motivate them. I turned this around and said, ‘Look, this is a grassroots moment. This is a moment where we stop and we start growing again. And so let's get creative. We're going to use every ounce of cash. We've got to continue developing cool new ideas. And I want all of you to start thinking about opening a brand new restaurant.’ They looked a little bit puzzled, but that's what I'd looked at in terms of wanting to rip off the band aid. Let's do things that we could never have done before. Let's get super creative. When we came out of the pandemic the first time around, it was a double-edged sword, with the excitement of customers wanting to break bread and chefs desperate to create new ideas.
I think that pause was healthy, if I'm honest, because you travel a thousand miles an hour, and you're gonna get caught up with it. I wanted to get back to the excitement of creating new ideas without being under pressure to fit them in when you're already super busy. And so creatively, I think we put together the most amazing sort of combination of new ideas and dishes and menus over the last six months that we ever have over the last 10 years. And then the flip side of that, if there's one thing that's been a bit of an advantage, the pandemic has helped to get rid of a lot of the crap. And so what has opened up has been good, and I think not just in Chicago, London—everywhere we have better standards. And restaurants are more focused and never take customers for granted. But we've given them more exciting ideas, creations than we were pre-pandemic.
You sound pretty optimistic.
We have to be. I opened my first restaurant at 27. The last devastating blow for me was in 2008 when Lehman Brothers crashed, and it sent the whole industry into a spin. But if your costs are in control, and your margins are on point, and the creativity and the football is there, you're going to survive this. So I was never gonna be put off by [the pandemic] and I was never going to sit back and start worrying about developing and coming back stronger. Someone has to do it. Someone has to be at the forefront. So I've never worked as hard as I have over the last 18 months ever, but I've just had a lot of time to recalibrate, think smartly and come back stronger.
One last question: Chicago-style hot dog, Italian beef or deep dish pizza?
Wow, so naughty. I’m going to have to stick with the hot dog.