The No Show Chef

It took the end of the South Beach Wine & Food Festival and the arrival of the invitation for the upcoming Aspen Food & Wine Magazine Classic to come to a realization: I am tired of plastic-forking a tiny piece of something atop a minuscule dollop of something else, all while standing up. I am weary of nosing a mere sip of wine in a clunky, all-purpose festival glass while walking around. And I am just plain sick of the heat that seems to collect under non-air conditioned tents that don't even have the dubious benefits of ceiling fans to blow away the subtle stench of 5000 partygoers.

But then again, that's not why I attend such events. If I want a three-course meal served with wine in the proper Reidel stemware while jet streams of chilled air counter the humidity leaking out from the kitchen into the dining room, I can take myself out to, well, New York. If I want to encounter, over a container of heirloom tomatoes at the booth of an organic vegetable grower, such notable culinary celebrities as Alice Waters, then to the festivals I must go.

That's exactly how I met Alice Waters, chef-owner of Chez Panisse and doyenne of the promotion of small, artisanal products and local farm vegetables for use in fine restaurants -- over a bucket of sunflowers that I was delivering to the Redland Organics Booth at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival farmers' market. She wanted to buy a bunch; not recognizing her, I told her they weren't for sale. Then we were introduced by one of the festival organizers, who was highly amused by my gaffe. Needless to say, after dropping off the bucket of flowers, and then smacking myself in the head with the heel of my pollen-stained hand, I promptly appropriated a bunch to present to her at the Tribute Brunch that was being held in her honor.

What a weird, wonderful, and yes -- organic -- way to meet such a long-admired gastronomic legend. But that's what I enjoy most about these types of events. Not what or how much I can eat and drink -- and that would be plenty, my friends -- but who you can run into. The chefs and restaurateurs who attend use it as a forum for networking, a way of reconnecting or forging new bonds, perhaps with a friendly winemaker whose product they'd like to put on a wine list, maybe with former colleagues who now work in other cities. These random meetings make the best stories, and often turn out to be more educational or profitable than yet another sautéed scrap napped with a nage of this and garnished with a pan-fried wisp of that.

If the mark of a successful festival is how the chefs themselves react to it, then this year's second annual South Beach Wine & Food Festival was an undeniable triumph. Sure, it had a glitch here and there -- for some reason, Union Pacific chef Rocco DiSpirito's list of needed foodstuffs never made it to the Casa Tua kitchen where he was hosting his Saturday-evening dinner, so he was missing some important stuff. Namely, raw ingredients. But hey, that's what sous-chefs are for. DiSpirito sent them to Epicure and the dinner, according to both festival organizers and attendees, went off without so much as a delay.

The bigwig chefs who had been lured by festival founder Lee Schrager's promises of an unparalleled event were evidently glad they took him at his word. Many of the topnotch toques have already signed up for 2004. For instance Le Bernardin's Eric Ripert was "extremely happy with the organization of the event," so much so that his assistant Andrea Gluck has "already added [next year's] dates to his calendar." Likewise Dean Fearing, executive chef at The Mansion on Turtle Creek, told Schrager in an e-mail, "Put me down for the Bubble-Q event and the Sunday 2:45 Demo. The same as it was for this year! I just wish it was going to be sooner!" And "Pencil me in for next year," no-need-to-be-identified Bobby Flay wrote to Schrager. "It was incredibly impressive for a two-year-old food festival. They must be very anxious in Aspen!" Flay, who contributes to CBS's Early Show as well as his staple Food TV Network, is apparently already in talks with both outlets about specials concerning the third annual event.

Even more intriguing than the industry-professional appearances and their kind opinions, however, are their disappearances and unkind opinions. What, after all, is a festival without a little tittle-tattle along with the tidbits? Merely a good time had by all. For saving us from such a prosaic fate, fortunately, we have eponymous restaurateur Gordon Ramsay to thank.

The only three-star Michelin chef left in London, the notoriously scandalous Ramsay flew in for the festival, during which he was scheduled to give two seminars, cook a multiple-course meal at Smith & Wollensky -- for $300 per person, no less -- and interview with various journalists, yours truly included. I'd intended to ask him one question only. What do you think of the dining scene in Miami?

Ramsay gave his answer in deeds rather than words. Upon his Friday arrival, he went to his room at the Loews Hotel, got on the phone, and booked a return flight to London. On a plane back home within hours, he didn't inform festival organizers, host chefs, or even his own publicists. So his events and meetings took place as planned. He just wasn't there to attend them.

I was lucky enough to learn about Ramsay's abrupt departure from a fellow journalist an hour before I was supposed to meet him at his seminar tent. Hey, I've been blown off by folks I actually know. In the end, the problem is not so much Ramsay's conspicuous absence as it is his refusal to comment on his motives. I've heard (and read) a gross's worth of conflicting stories. Some say Ramsay, who recently admitted to serving a dish that contained chicken broth to a group of vegetarian diners, has been under attack from his nation's bulldog-ish tabloids, and was disturbed to find that several British magazines and newspaper reporters were on hand for the South Beach do. Frankly, I find the idea that he was trying to escape the press ridiculous, given that his American publicist contacted me in order to set up an interview rather than the other way around. She promised something along the lines of, "You'll like him. He's fun."

I'm not sure that's the adjective that I'd choose. Argumentative, maybe. Talented, I'd imagine, having never eaten his food, and denied the opportunity to do so recently. Deliberately controversial, for sure. Writing in The Observer, Lynn Barber notes that "Ramsay has so many feuds running on so many fronts, it's quite hard to keep track of them all but you can always rely on him for a good insult."

In fact he's been the focus of so many hullabaloos that it's difficult to believe they're anything but self-engineered. Ramsay has banned his own children from his restaurant; kicked out the Sunday Times critic A.A. Gill and his guest, Joan Collins; and blown the media whistle on a party of Bacchanalian brokers who spent 44,000 pounds on wine at Petrus, a restaurant he co-owns (Ramsay gave them the food for free after they ordered an initial bottle of Chateau Petrus for 12,000 pounds, but the publicly embarrassed brokers are still considering suing him for breach of privacy). He's also been accused, in the past several years, of being a misogynist, a verbally and physically abusive boss, a drunk driver, and a drunk in general. One of the rumors traveling through the kitchens as fast as the news that a critic is in the restaurant concerns the few hours Ramsay did actually spend in Miami. Sources tell me he was partying at Ted's Hideaway in South Beach. Owner Bob Wilcox tells me cautiously, "I can't confirm or deny it. We get a lot of industry people drinking in here. I know we used to get the staff from Smith & Wollensky a lot."

To quote Ace Ventura, "Reeaa-heeeeee-ly." But a few martinis aren't enough impetus for Ramsay to skip town -- more like they might inspire a bit of a nap -- or given the type of stimulant one could also acquire down here, a reason to shut oneself in an enclosed space with no possible outlet for another nine hours. Nikki Beach Club executive chef Brian Malloy gave me another option for Ramsay's behavior. "He walked in the door of [Smith & Wollensky] and said something like, 'Fuck this South Beach shit.'"

Was Ramsay insulted by not being paired with someone like Mark Militello or Norman Van Aken? It's not out of the realm of probability. As good and notable a chef as is David Burke, corporate toque for the company that runs Smith & Wollensky, S&W is still a steak house, and though it may dismay his detractors, Ramsay does have three Michelin stars to his much-maligned name. But if that were the case, surely he would have had plenty of time to object before the launch of the festivities. It's not as if he didn't know where he was being placed ahead of time. After all, his sous-chef arrived days before him in order to prep. And a good thing, too -- it enabled Burke to step into Ramsay's shoes without having to add so much as a little foot powder.

I've written to Ramsay's people, offering to publish a statement from the chef without editing it. Not only would I not mind hearing his reasons, I think he should have the opportunity to shield himself. Surely this former professional soccer player, whom the British press is fond of harshly labeling a "failed footballer," has learned that games are won just as much by defense as they are by offense. So far, silence has been the strategy. Too bad, I suppose -- for him. Ramsay must not be familiar enough with Miami to understand just how much we take to heart and stomach a rebel.

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