Back for a third helping of his ''Kitchen'' hit, Gordon Ramsay cooks up a plan to sweeten his image

By Michael Endelman
Updated June 19, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT

This afternoon, the chef once dubiously featured on the TV show Britain’s Unbearable Bosses isn’t quite living up to his title. Gordon Ramsay — who’s notorious for demoralizing his kitchen staff and was even arrested in 1999 for allegedly beating up his pastry chef (the charges were dropped) — briskly strides onto the L.A. set of his Fox series Hell’s Kitchen (Mondays at 9 p.m.) as if he were a cheery Londoner on holiday. While servers and assistants scurry about the soundstage, anxiously prepping for tonight’s taping of the reality cooking show, Ramsay calmly sips a mug of hot, milky tea and enthusiastically holds forth on such topics as restaurants in L.A., Napa Valley wines, and California sunshine. ”Malibu is like Aix-en-Provence,” the well-tanned, 40-year-old Scot gushes. ”Next year I’m going to bring the kids over and get a tutor. I love it.”

Just hours later, with cameras rolling, ovens on full blast, and customers in the makeshift bistro waiting way too long for their entrées, Ramsay is an expletive-spewing, food-flinging demon. In other words, he’s the Ramsay we’ve come to know and love to hate. ”I am a Jekyll and Hyde,” he declares once the moment has subsided. ”I put my chef’s jacket on and it just happens! I can’t congratulate the [contestants] for making mistakes….” He goes on, vigorously rubbing his creased face in his hands: ”I’m not trying to make excuses for my management skills. I have a very assertive way. It’s wake up, move your ass, or piss off home.”

That’s more like it. The athletically built, 6-foot-2 restaurateur’s virtuosic talent for verbal abuse — and a stable of successful TV shows — has made him one of the U.K.’s most colorful personalities. And with last summer’s second-highest-rated Fox show, Hell’s Kitchen, just back for a third round, Ramsay is now a bona fide star Stateside. Plus, his gastronomic empire of 13 restaurants has given this Simon Cowell of chefs a worldwide reputation.

Then there is that other, more affable guy, the one viewers haven’t seen much of…yet. According to Ramsay, his Dr. Jekyll, if you will, takes center stage on his next Fox series, Kitchen Nightmares, due later this year. The restaurant makeover show will capture a patient chef as he generously mentors restaurateurs, some of whom are on the brink of bankruptcy.” Kitchen Nightmares will give a balance to Hell’s Kitchen,” says Ramsay, his meaty arms folded in front of him. But will his fans embrace Ramsay as nurturer? He certainly seems sincere: ”I’m really trying to help these people out,” he says.

Ramsay knows what it’s like to struggle. Born outside Glasgow, he grew up in public housing. His mother was trained as a nurse; his father was abusive and often unemployed. ”With my father, [it was always,] ‘There will be no sugar on your porridge; you’ll have salt, because (a) it’ll put hairs on your bollocks, and (b) because I told you so,”’ Ramsay recalls. Good enough to be scouted by an elite soccer squad, the Glasgow Rangers, Ramsay almost made it as a pro. Almost. A knee injury cut his career short during preseason matches (see sidebar). With no skills to fall back on, Ramsay, then just 19, talked to a career counselor, who gave him three options: the Royal Navy, the police, or a hotel management/cooking course. ”The Navy I didn’t fancy; the police, I didn’t have the proper qualifications. So I thought, f— it!”

As un-P.C. as ever, Ramsay recalls believing that cooking was for ”poofs.” Still, he dug ”the adrenaline and buzz” in the kitchen. ”It was a lot like sport: You’re under pressure six nights a week.” He apprenticed in London and Paris, reveling in the grill-or-be-killed world of high-priced haute cuisine. In 1999, Ramsay made his first TV appearance, in the U.K. doc Boiling Point, establishing himself as a bullying, fiercely passionate, and telly-friendly cook.

The original British version of Hell’s Kitchen caught the attention of the head of reality TV at Fox, Mike Darnell, who then imported Ramsay. ”The show was just okay, but Gordon was terrific,” Darnell enthuses. ”Even though he screams and curses, it’s coming from a sincere place. He’s not being mean just to be mean; he’s trying to get the people to be [their] best.”

When that doesn’t work, there are consequences. The head chef of his first U.S. restaurant, Gordon Ramsay at the London, inside a Manhattan hotel, was replaced after the eatery earned a tepid two stars from The New York Times in March. Ask him about the review and Mr. Hyde returns. ”Ohhhh…come on! The problem with [critic] Frank Bruni is his lack of consistency; he’s very childish…. The one thing they don’t understand is that I’ve been f—ed so many times! But do I bounce back!”

Who I Was Then

At 16, Ramsay was recruited to play on the Glasgow Rangers. But he hadn’t signed to the team yet when he damaged his knee irreparably in preseason play.

”I think my drive comes from the hurt from not making it in football. When I got told by my manager, ”Thanks, but no thanks,” I bawled my eyes out — for hours. It just got pulled away from me with no choice. Because I was that close, to be honest. I wasn’t brilliant, but I wasn’t bad as a pro player. I’ve got it out of my system, but [ever since] I never take anything for granted. I never think that I’m financially secure. I’m very resilient. I don’t sit there crying over spilt milk. I have a level of not just humbleness, but a downright respect for what I do that I never f— with it. — Gordon Ramsay