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Celebrity chefs’ kitchen nightmares

They are the chefs that made British cuisine cool and filled the country’s restaurants with a generation of aspiring food critics. But after exploiting the boom through sponsorship deals, endless television coverage and a string of high-profile restaurants, some of the most famous names in cooking are being forced out of the kitchen by the downturn.

This month, Antony Worrall Thompson, the star of Ready Steady Cook, was forced to close four of his restaurants and put his company, AWT Restaurants, into administration after his bank, Lloyds Banking Group, refused to extend its overdraft by £200,000.

This comes after Raymond Blanc, who presented the BBC reality show The Restaurant, closed one of his restaurants, Brasserie Blanc, in Manchester.

Going through the mincer
Tom Aikens: “This has been a humiliation for me. I could hardly look at myself in the mirror. I feel like a complete shitbag for what I have done to my suppliers and I completely understand their anger”
Antony Worrall Thompson: “We never thought the recession would punch us in the mouth quite like that. We would have survived if Lloyds had extended our overdraft and given us more time”
Gordon Ramsay: Says business is good
but conceded in a recent episode of Ramsay’s Great British Nightmares‘ –“It is tough out there for restaurants, including mine”
Raymond Blanc: “It is my fault that we chose the wrong location in the city [for the restaurant] ...I am not the first casualty in Manchester and there will be others too”
“Of course, I am upset about the closure – I do not like to lose,” Mr Blanc said at the time. He blamed high rent and the recession for the closure.

The pair joined Tom Aikens, who put two of his London restaurants, Tom Aikens and Tom’s Kitchen, into pre-pack administration last year. Although the restaurants were quickly taken out of administration by private investors, Mr Aikens was criticised for leaving his suppliers, many of them small family-owned businesses, holding the bag.

Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for Gordon Ramsay, the alpha male of celebrity chefs, says he continues to do well, in spite of being dogged by rumours that his global chain of 25 restaurants has run into financial difficulties. The spokeswoman for Mr Ramsay’s company, Gordon Ramsay Holdings, would not go into detail about the health of business, except to say “the group is doing very well in light of the current economic conditions” and that it is seeing an overall increase in the number of covers.

Nonetheless, the enfant terrible of British cooking conceded in a recent episode of his television show, Ramsay’s Great British Nightmares, that “it is tough out there for restaurants, including mine”. The group has had to reduce the opening times of its Chelsea bistro because of a lack of bookings while two suppliers interviewed by the Financial Times have complained about unpaid bills.

In fairness, it is not just big names who are struggling. Some 503 restaurants went bust in 2008, according to PwC, a 32 per cent increase on the year before. The trend is likely to intensify this year as unemployment rate rises and corporate spending continues to be slashed.

Already a number of restaurants interviewed by the FT say there has been a noticeable drop in customers during the week. Although business is holding up on Friday and Saturday, many are suffering from more empty tables from Monday to Wednesday nights. When the punters do come out, restaurant owners say they are spending less on wine and after-dinner drinks, where many make their profits.

However, Richard Harden, co-founder of the Harden’s restaurant guide, thinks it would be simplistic to blame the recession for the difficulties that some big name chefs are facing.

“In each case, it is tempting to say that general economic difficulties are to blame for any problems there may be, but the fact is some of these chefs have, in their zeal for expansion, traded on their names and have opened restaurants which were not good.

“They did okay during the boom time because they were propped up by City money but this is proving unsustainable with the recession,” he says.

Indeed, Marcus Wareing, the Michelin-starred chef who split from Mr Ramsay last year and went on to relaunch the former Pétrus restaurant as Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley, believes Britons have lost none of their appetite for fine dining.

“It’s all about value for money and value for money can come at £10, £50 or £100 a head,” he says, adding that he has not seen a material change in customer numbers.

“Restaurants have to make sure they give customers an experience that is in line with what they are spending. When you are spending £120-a-head at a high-end restaurant, customers expect to find the chef whose name is above the door in the kitchen,” he adds.

Still, the stakes are high for those who operate high-end restaurants. Stephen Broome, PwC’s hospitality and leisure director, says because of the high operating costs involved in running these establishments, it does not take much of a decline in sales for operators to feel cash-flow pressure.

In this context, Jamie Oliver’s expansion of his chain of mid-priced Italian restaurants, Jamie’s Italian, appears shrewd.

Even as the likes of Alain Ducasse and Nobu say they are putting their global expansion plans on hold because of the downturn, Simon Blagden, managing director of Jamie’s Italian, says the group is aiming to open five more outlets in the country this year, including one in Canary Wharf.

“People are trading down,” he says. “While there have been lay-offs in Canary Wharf, for those who are still there, they will be looking for competitively priced offerings like ours.”

For all the publicity surrounding celebrity restaurant failures, few think the recession will spell the end of the celebrity chef. The most prominent of these cooks have already made millions from exploiting their personal brands. The books, television shows, cookware ranges and advertising endorsement deals are unlikely to disappear soon.

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