So, this is how it feels to experience a medieval Tuscan village that has existed on a hillside in some form for almost 1000 years! My view from the courtyard of Castel Monastero encompasses a string of buildings that meander along the edge of a quaint piazza. The bricked courtyard is paved in a herringbone design, which radiates toward a well that sprouts an antique ornamental wrought-iron frame. Were it not for the glass of rosé and pickled caper berries on the table in front of me, which is being lorded over by a contemporary canvas umbrella, the illusion that I have time-traveled would be hard to shake.
The ring of stone buildings includes a diminutive church where mass is still heard on Sunday mornings. The façades of each of the buildings show their different eras: some are built from orderly ashlar masonry, others are made of over-grouted stacked stone, and the newest are slathered in terracotta-colored stucco. This is likely because the historic property has had a number of lives since its inception in 1044 when it was founded as a monastery. During the twelfth to the early fourteenth centuries, it was a private residence for the Berardenghi family. The Florentines tried to take it from them without success in 1208, though it was captured by Guido di Montfort in 1270 to be used as a bastion against the city of Siena.
Prior to the historical restoration carried out by the resort’s current owners, it belonged to the noble Chigi-Saracini family. They used it as a country house for hunting and for making wine from the vines that flourish on the hillsides within Castel Monastero’s acreage. I spied their leafy rows as I entered the compound to carry out an assignment for a magazine. I am to interview the popular Chef Gordon Ramsay, who heads up the cookery program for the retreat. My first event is an early evening press dinner in the La Cantina restaurant, and I am taken aback as I enter its vaulted tunnel because the period character of the space continues the irresistible ruse that I’ve stepped back in time.
The barrel-like room was once the workspace where casks were filled with crushed grapes, the thick stone walls perfect for keeping the cellar cool and the sloped floor made of stone pavers ideal for rinsing the spillage out when each workday drew to a close. The meal is phenomenal, the entrée of local venison prepared in the Tuscan style a particular treat. Listening to the international contingent of journalists gathered around the long table, I marvel at the variety of languages I hear floating up to the apex of the arched tunnel. The Europeans disappear en masse for a smoke and I realized I’m quite tired from a full day on the train.
Mellow after the delicious food and wine, I excuse myself early and hurry back to my room. As I open the window to let the crisp October air flow into the space, I am surprised that the field of ragged sunflowers I see in the distance is just as magical in the moonlight as it was when the afternoon sun lit the petals of the flowers. They glow heartily even though they are far past their prime and I drop off to sleep reminded that Mother Nature’s color palette is the most powerful there is. I awake refreshed and the interview with Chef Ramsay goes well, his thoughts about the tiny village mirroring my own.
He had asked me if I’d heard the church bells that morning and I said I had; that I had moved to the window as they began to chime, watching as the parishioners filed into the courtyard. Among them were several nuns, their starched pale habits glowing brilliantly in the early sunlight. “I suppose no matter what happens after me, after you, this place is still going to remain the same,” he had said. “It is steeped in history and still part of the village. They make those who live here as important as the visitors so that the locals can hold onto their rituals, like the church service on Sundays. The personality of place is being nurtured and preserved.”
I thought I’d share my full interview with Ramsay, as it is so authentic, it’s one of the best celebrity interviews I’ve ever had the good fortune to conduct.
SH: Has anything surprised you about your career?
GR: Yeah, all the crap I get! Behind all the shouting, aggression and swearing is a passionate individual who is very focused on getting it right. I think I’m the luckiest chef in the world and I love food so much that I never stop; I literally never stop. I went out last night in Sienna and I tasted rabbit prepared in a way that I thought was inspirational, and I will use that. I suppose I’m like a magpie: I love traveling all over the world and picking up these shiny little bits of magic that are put out in restaurants—not just food but service as well.
SH: Is there anything you are particularly excited about right now?
GR: I recently came back from Vietnam where I was filming for my new show called Gordon Ramsay’s Great Escape—it’s almost like Tony Bordain meets Planet Earth. I thought about the global domination of supermarkets because here I was in Vietnam living with the locals, and buying fresh vegetables and meat twice a day—in the morning for lunch and in the afternoon for dinner, spending 75 cents to a dollar per person per day. I cooked with no dairy—no cream and no butter—and everything was fantastically fresh. The experience was a huge eye opener.
Sometimes when you’re traveling at this pace, you don’t take anything for granted but you forget what it’s like right when you’re at the very beginning of your career. I had a limited budget. It was a fascinating time because I was stripped of everything—from my exemplary knives to my chef’s jacket—and I was just there in tee shirts and shorts in 100 degrees, living locally, which I recommend to every chef in the world.
I always get asked about striving for the highest level of perfection and I say to other chefs, “Come out of your comfort zones. Become vulnerable. With the base of knowledge and excitement you’ve got about food, the level of creativity multiplies ten-fold the minute you become vulnerable because you act on instincts.” There’s a huge soul-searching dilemma going on when you haven’t got the most amazing chopping board, you haven’t got fresh ingredients arriving on your doorstep delivered by artisan producers, you haven’t got the most amazing baked bread twice a day, and nobody is making ravioli and tortellini for you: get out of your comfort zone and become self-sufficient!
After Vietnam, I went straight to Cambodia and that was seriously mind-blowing. It had nothing to do with Michelin Stars, Zagat, the Good Food Guide or food critics, and yet some of what was served in these villages was better than you could get in Cambodian and Vietnamese restaurants anywhere in the world—it was exquisite, I mean really exquisite.
SH: Speaking of Michelin Stars: you have what is becoming an embarrassment of riches, no?
GR: I’m very lucky to have an amazing team. I suppose the criticism we come under is that I can’t be everywhere at once. Well, I’ve never portrayed that I cook in all of these restaurants. There are two restaurants bearing my name: Gordan Ramsay at Claridges, which means an awful lot to me, and Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in Chelsea. Next year we celebrate ten years at Claridges and we have so much talent behind it: from Angela Harnett to Mark Sargeant to Marcus Waring to Mark Askew to Claire Smith to Jake Hamilton—these are thoroughbreds who’ve been with me for ten years. When they leave the nest, it’s a natural level of progression where it becomes a right of succession. It’s almost like in government in that you’re roosting the nest with food, and you’ve got peers and prodigies that are coming back to stamp out their own sort of uniqueness. What’s wrong with them going further afield? This level of succession has always been my forte: always, always.
SH: Do you think it’s your passion that allows you to foster people to this level? I ask because I would think some chefs would be a little more selfish than you’ve been in supporting people to go out on their own?
I’m an over-generous guy and so when you’re in the fold it’s anything and everything. I’ve always believed in sharing and the level of manners that my mum taught me from an early age. It makes no sense to compare chefs for their styles: I love Robuchon; love what he’s done for formulaic menus, but I’ve got a different style of setting up a business and my menus are different. Clearly Robuchon has the same menu in Paris as in Tokyo as in New York as in London. What I want to do is to support the chefs that are driving my restaurants behind the scenes, backing me up for years. At some point, they’ve got to go out and take the next step on their own. I enjoy financially backing them—personally but quietly—and unfortunately that always gets misconstrued in the press because it’s said that another chef leaves Ramsay, but we know what goes on “hand on heart” behind the scenes. I know how important it is for these guys to strike out and become individual, and I’ve never been anything less than caring as a father figure to push them to the extreme.
And I’m not done yet. That’s what I constantly tell myself. It’s not that I want to spend 16 hours a day behind a stove; I’ve done that! I’ve served my apprenticeship and I have the fascination of that next new discovery. I have a series of new restaurants opening—the new Savoy Grill, which we’re all incredibly excited about; the Bread Street Kitchen in St. Paul’s Cathedral; and the restaurant in Borough Market opening up in September 2011 ahead of the Olympics.
SH: Your energy is quite remarkable. To what do you attribute your virve?
GR: It’s a vibe for me: I’m more nervous when I stand still.
SH: How has being a Scotsman made an impact on your sensibilities as a chef?
GR: Scotland, as you know, is not renowned for its phenomenal food! Great produce but sadly enough we don’t keep any of it for ourselves—we send it all abroad, which doesn’t make sense! I remember my early days in Paris when I was working for Guy Savoy and I’d see these amazing Scottish Langostines come through the door. The French were so arrogant they would be ripping the Scottish flag off the side of the box because they couldn’t quite believe all this produce was coming out of Scotland. I get it, because here was our country with a reputation for deep-fried Mars Bars and deep-fried pizza: it didn’t make sense. But think about it: hand-dived scallops from the west coast of Scotland were being shipped out to Paris. It was frustrating. Then when the venison arrived, it was like another stake in the ground. With fingers up to the French, I’d say, “Here we go—that’s three, four, five amazing kilos of produce that you haven’t got in your country.” So, yeah; I love that battle!
SH: Do you think the drama of your career prepared you well for television?
GR: That’s a very good question. When you’re cooking at this stake and it’s under this level of pressure, you push the boundaries and, no disrespect, but there’s never going to be a time when you politely say, “Please be so kind as to pass me the bass!” When the shit hits the fan, it’s going to hit the fan or I’d be flipping burgers or dressing Caesar Salads while high-fiving everybody and running a chain of TGI’s! I’m not. I decided to go to the very, very top so I demand the best.
In terms of the genre unfolding, there’s no script. If I give you seven identical ingredients, myself seven and Chloe seven, we’d come up with three different dishes: that’s the exciting thing about food. So chefs are notorious self-motivated insecure little fuckers: we’re always looking to please; looking for that big hug because we’re constantly striving to be the best! But when we are the best, we never realize we’re the best so we continue to be incredibly insecure!
SH: People are always surprised at how nice you are in person compared to your television personae; is that something you set out to do or is it a natural process of the show?
GR: I’ve been in Marco White’s kitchen and Guy Savoy’s kitchen and Daniel Boulud’s kitchen, and I’ve seen the shit hit the fan. I have seen them rip somebody’s head off and absolutely cane someone and then 30 seconds later, I’ve seen them glide through the dining room to shake hands with their amazing customers—like a swan with such character, and amazing elegance and grace. Then they walk back through that door and if there’s something wrong with a dish—the ribeye is overcooked or the scallops are like rubber—then they blow off. I’ve learned from the best! So if anyone tells you any different when they get to a certain age and condemn that level of ambitiousness by 35- or 40-year-old chefs, you must remember it’s how they made their names.
God bless him, Daniel Boulud—one of the most amazing chefs in the world—I would not like to ever get on the wrong side of him. But very few chefs have that brutal honesty, whether they do it in front of the customer or in front of the camera. With me there’s no agenda. My biggest problem is the brutal honesty because if there’s something wrong there and then, I’m not going to wait to see if the cameras have stopped rolling before I let go: I let go. The unfortunate thing when you get into your 60’s and 70’s, these chefs then start to feel guilty about how mean they’ve been so they start philosophizing. I’m 43 years of age; I’m not going to start thinking, “You know what: we really shouldn’t get upset at sending an overcooked pigeon to the head inspector of Michelin! We should just relax and open a bottle of Bordeaux!” Uh, no! That doesn’t quite work out, now does it?
SH: It feels to me like one of your greatest talents is nurturing people; does that come out of your nature, maybe your upbringing?
GR: From the early days when I was playing soccer, I was always the captain of the team so today’s role I play is a coach because I’m not done with cooking. I’m certainly not bored with it but I just need that level of stimulant to keep me excited about it and nothing gets me more excited than raw ingredients still, even though I look for the experience that will hit all of those notes on the back of the experience—exposure, what I’ve done for food, how many kings and queens I’ve cooked for and the amazing dinners I’ve prepared during my life. Last year was a seminal year cooking for Nelson Mandela twice in one year—once for his 90th birthday. That said, I never started cooking to become rich and famous in the first place. God forbid, if it all stops tomorrow, you’re still going to see me in my restaurant.
SH: You’re fascinating to interview!
GR: I suppose I keep it real; unfortunately, the bigger you become in this industry, the more you get baby-sat because they see me as too fucking dangerous! I’ll admit I’m a naughty boy so I just watch as they crap themselves when they are afraid I’ll say something detrimental! I’m not that stupid! Also, you’ve made an effort to be here so if I can’t talk to you in an open and honest way, then I’d rather not do the interview!
SH: Do you have a favorite dish? If so, why and who cooked it?
GR: There’s never been one dish on my agenda—there are thousands because I think there’s no such thing as the greatest soccer player in the world; there’s no such thing as the greatest chef in the world because it depends upon that particular time and temperament, and I never liked things to be set in stone—I like to keep on moving the goal post. One of the most sought-after dishes I’ve ever had in my entire life was when I sat with this family of eight on the river in Vietnam on this houseboat. It was braised pork belly done with fenugreek and star anise, and it was this amazing broth I just couldn’t, couldn’t stop eating. It was done with noodles, braised pork, their equivalent to sea spinach picked from the side of the river—it was mind blowing! I’ve come across nothing along those lines in the last four months. In six-month’s time you ask me that and it will be something completely different.
But, if I wanted to take something to bed, it would be my mum’s bread and butter pudding. When we grew up, she made it with plain bread, but as we became a little more successful, she changed to baguettes. Now she makes it with croissants—Mum’s gone up in life! She changes her recipe every decade! How cool is that? She went from bread to baguettes and now in the 21st-century she finally makes it with croissants. She volunteers for the WI, the Women’s Institute, which is an organization against domestic violence. Now when she makes it, she glazes it. We had no glaze in the first phase, then she went to brown sugar, now she has an apricot glaze! Isn’t it great that she makes it with croissants and an apricot glaze for these houses of single parents?
SH: She’s been inspired by her boy?
GR: Oh yes! It’s traveling down; food is going back down!
SH: Is she proud of you?
GR: Yeah! Well, she never, uh, overindulges. She comes to Clardiges once every 18 months or so with her neighbors but it’s tough to get her out on the town because she’s obsessed with bingo! It’s nice in that she looked after me for twenty years of my life so now I look after her—I mean, I try! We bought her a house, I try to send her on holidays or on cruises, but she’s not easy to manage! She passed her driving test five years ago on the eleventh time! I said, “Mother, it would be a lot easier if I just get a driver for you!” She said no, so god bless her that she passed it! I got her a mini for Christmas, but I think it’s so terrific that she’s real and completely unspoiled.
SH: Tell my readers what you feel makes Castel Monastero so special.
GR: I suppose no matter what happens after me, after you, this place is still going to remain the same—it’s unchanged, it’s steeped in history and it’s something that’s being brought back and put on the map but it’s still part of the local village. What I love is that it’s not a hotel, it’s a retreat; this is a gem, ever involved as part of the community where they make those who live here as important as the visitors. They hold onto that ritual; they hold onto that service on Sunday. The village is part of them. That’s not fake or any sort of put-on; that’s real. I don’t know if you heard the church bells this morning? God bless them I was sleeping above those bells! No need for an alarm clock or for any of my three daughters to ring me this morning at 8 o’clock! I teasing, of course; that’s what’s so beautiful here. The personality of place is being nurtured and preserved.
The Modern Salonnière and The Personality of Place © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist whose books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns. She is also a top writer in several categories on Medium.