Ramsay to open eatery at MBS
IF THERE is one thing Gordon Ramsay learnt from his mega-hyped cook-off with Singapore hawkers last year, it is this: he may not be able to cook laksa, but he sure can draw the crowds even as far away from home as South-east Asia.
And that people-pulling magic will be put to the test when he opens his first restaurant in Singapore early next year at Marina Bay Sands (MBS).
The restaurant, Bread Street Kitchen, will take up space in the shopping mall section of the integrated resort which already has a celebrity chef presence in the form of Daniel Boulud's db Bistro, Mario Batali's Mozza and Wolfgang Puck's Cut.
Stuart Gillies - Ramsay's partner and managing director of the Gordon Ramsay Group - says that they are in final talks with MBS, which will be their partner in the project.
He explains that Bread Street Kitchen will be modelled after its successful London restaurant, which packs in an international crowd of some 15,000 people a month in its vibrant, theatrical space featuring multiple concepts, from raw bar to grill to cocktails.
The concept is such that it can be scaled to be as upmarket or as casual as the market dictates. "You can eat light and quick, or you can really indulge," says Mr Gillies.
So while the plan is to open one in Hong Kong first and then in Singapore, they will not be carbon copies. "There'll be a 60 per cent to 70 per cent template, but the rest will be adapted according to the local market."
But there is a greater significance to the concept of Bread Street Kitchen than just its exportability to the Asian market. Launched three years ago in London, Bread Street marked the Gordon Ramsay Group's move in an all-new business direction after a major shake-up that nearly saw the company go belly up around 2010.
After a messy split with his former partner and father-in-law Chris Hutcheson, Ramsay installed his trusted friend, Mr Gillies (who was already running several restaurants in the group) as managing director and sole partner, and the duo spent the last few years literally "cleaning up the mess".
One strategy that came out of that restructuring was to look at diversifying the business beyond just growing restaurants moulded around Ramsay's three-Michelin-star chef persona. "We needed to broaden our horizons and ambitions to incorporate what the world wants which isn't just great food but everything - noise, theatre, cocktails, music, design. People want the whole package."
That is why they have been recruiting experts from different fields to create a stable of talent to drive the next stage of growth, which is "individual standalone brands" such as Bread Street Kitchen which has its own identity, but with links to Gordon Ramsay more as a guarantee of quality than his name per se.
This is partly why they took this long to come to Asia, says Mr Gillies, speaking at the spiffy Savoy Grill in London, which is part of the Ramsay stable.
"The Asian market has always been on our radar - it was a question of 'when', not 'if'. We knew there were many opportunities - it was just about choosing the right partner - but we wanted to wait (during the cleaning-up process) until we had the resources to manage, support and control (the Asian projects) properly."
They could easily have signed up for as many deals as they wanted in the last three years, because so many people had approached them, he adds. "There was money flying in from everywhere but there was no guarantee we could protect the brand and its integrity. The deal is important to us but what's more important is protecting the integrity of the brand."
They also wanted to make sure they chose the right partner because "we would never go somewhere and think we can do as well in a foreign territory as we do in London - that would be suicide". And Mr Gillies believes they have found the right match with MBS in Singapore and Dining Concepts in Hong Kong.
Still, he admits having misgivings initially about opening a restaurant in MBS' shopping complex, until he saw how "the shopping mall culture in Europe and Asia is completely different". In London, "people literally just shop and leave, but in Asia, it's like a day out!"
Of course, he sees potential in the region beyond just the one restaurant in Hong Kong and Singapore. "Macau is an obvious one (since MBS is there); Shanghai and other parts of China; and the Middle East. And we could probably open a few more in Hong Kong and Singapore but, before that, we have to get the first one right."
He feels that everything has fallen into place now: "If we had gone into Asia four years ago, we would have had only certain concepts. We wouldn't have had Bread Street Kitchen, Union Street Cafe, London House, our burger concept - so it's good that we waited and now we're super-confident in what we have."
In fact, the company is now stronger than ever, although he expresses dismay at a recent report which said that the company had lost £6 million (S$12.7 million) in its last financial year.
"It was a provision," he explains. "It's not a loss of the business. Our Ebitda is around £5.1 million. We made a provision because we have an onerous lease in the business where the rent is far too high and we're in litigation over it.
"It was all part of the clean-up from the last few years - the legal and tax issues, the third parties we had to use, which all cost money. So the auditors said you're losing money on (the lease), so you have to make a provision or it will add up. So we put it into the accounts. It's not a loss as such, and we did explain it carefully (to the media), but it makes a nice headline."
Mr Gillies is pretty sanguine now about the crisis that the company went through in the hands of Ramsay's father-in-law. "Many businesses lose their way. Especially when the economy is good - there were really big, fat years in London from 2002 to 2006 when everyone was making money and spending money.
"Then the crunch came in 2008 and it all started to change very quickly. The businesses that survived were those that reviewed their whole structure. But it's worked out well for us. It's a better foundation now that will see us through the next 20 years because of the diversity we have developed."
This means we'll see a lot more of Gordon Ramsay in this part of the world - if not with a wok, at least in the way we dine in the near future.
THE BUSINESS TIMES