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The Priory restaurant - Gordon Ramsay

 
Millions of viewers saw Gordon Ramsay tear into staff before revitalising in Haywards Heath last week. The show marked the third time that Sussex eateries have featured on Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares. The fortunes of Momma Cherri's Soul Food Shack and Love's fish restaurant, both in Brighton, were also turned around by the charismatic chef. So was the immediate success just a flamb?

When Gordon Ramsay condemned the entire kitchen soon after arriving at The Priory restaurant, owner Scott Aitchison knew he was in for a grilling.

The foul-mouthed chef took one look at the grease-covered appliances and inedible food and angrily decided enough was enough. Millions of viewers saw Ramsay wrap quarantine tape around the ovens and storm out before the production company spent 12,000 installing new equipment.

But what no one knew was that producers made him do six takes before they were satisfied with his apparently spontaneous angry exit.

They had also told Mr Aitchinson that if the restaurant was cleaned before Ramsay arrived the show would not go ahead. Mr Aitchinson, who had just taken over the restaurant, had to cancel a team he had booked to deep clean the kitchen.

However, Ramsay transformed the Priory Carvery into the Priory Grill and made it a huge success by encouraging the restaurant to capitalise on the availability of fantastic fresh produce in Sussex.


When Scott bought the carvery just two months before the show was filmed, he soon realised drastic action needed to be taken if the business was to flourish. He ploughed 300,000 into the venture and wanted to transform the restaurant - which was losing up to 5,000 a week.

In a flash of inspiration, Scott thought to call Channel 4 and managed to persuade the producer of Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares to consider The Priory. He said: "The guy wasn't interested initially because I had only just come on board the business. But I knew if he could just take a look at this place and see its potential he wouldn't be able to turn us down."

A former convent, the Priory is indeed an impressive building. It was constructed at the turn of the 20th century and was more recently converted into office space along with a bar called Bar Nun and the restaurant itself, which is in the chapel.

With its high, vaulted ceilings, dark wooden beams and stunning stained glass windows, it makes an unusual and dramatic setting. Ramsay and his crew spent a week at The Priory, putting in 16- hour days. During the show Scott was given the moniker "The Vicar" by the charismatic chef - a nickname which has stuck.

First to go under Ramsay's guidance was the entire carvery concept, which he dismissed as tired and outdated. He also pointed out the huge amount of waste it generated. Scott said: "We were serving up packet stuff and frozen Yorkshire puddings. Ramsay insisted we focus wholeheartedly on simply cooked dishes made with local, raw ingredients. Now everything is made to order from scratch."

Scott's days now often start at 3am when he heads to Smithfield Market in London to pick out choice cuts of meat. Other produce comes from Chiddingly and organic cheeses from the High Weald Dairy in Haywards Heath. Led by talented new head chef Aimi Zbinden, the new kitchen team has expanded on the basic grill menu dreamt up by Ramsay during filming.

The owner has even ditched his smart ties which Ramsay took offence to. He added: "I am much more relaxed. There were times he really annoyed me but he is so successful and you just know he is right.

"Gordon is an incredibly astute businessman and very passionate and he really helped us to turn things round."

Just a few weeks before filming in Haywards Heath, Ramsay revived Love's fish and seafood restaurant in St James's Street, Kemp Town, Brighton.

Restauranteur Allan Love, a former West End singer, became the star of the programme after several heated rows with the straight-talking Scot. Viewers saw Allan, 60, go through a rollercoaster of emotions as he faced up to the fact his business was failing and he was likely to lose his Rottingdean home.

He was losing up to 1,500 a week serving badly cooked seafood at high prices and had never tasted a dish in his own restaurant because he hated fish. But since the filming took place, the restaurant has gone from strength to strength.

Allan said: "We are crammed almost every night. I've been turning away 150 bookings a week. The only problem now is that I don't have enough space.

"The atmosphere is brilliant down here. We've gone from losing 1,500 a week to making 20,000. It's amazing."

The chef told him there was an urgent need to get back to basics, galvanise the staff and produce great, simple food. Ramsay even changed the restaurant's name from Ruby Tates - after Mr Love's granddaughter - to Love's.

Allan had ploughed so much money into the business he had even put his house up for sale to try to keep it going. Although it is still on the market he is hoping he will not have to sell up and is even planning to open up a Love's branch in London.

He said: "It was a hard week and I had to take a real look at myself, but it was a truly life-changing experience.

"The house is still on the market. The restaurant is going so well but I have an awful lot of catching up to do. I need another eight months of this before I can balance the books. I didn't realise it, but I was about three weeks away from ruin. I'd probably be under the pier now if it wasn't for the show."

Ever since Charita Jones, aka Momma Cherri, starred in the second series of Kitchen Nightmares crowds have flocked to try her "soul food". She opened a second restaurant next to her original in Little East Street, Brighton, to cope with demand - and still has to turn customers away.

Charita has become a celebrity in her own right, bringing out a cookbook, appearing on TV and radio and even adapting some of her recipes for school canteens in Brighton and Hove. Momma Cherri's Soul Food Shack shot to fame during Ramsay's first visit in December 2004, and he returned to film an update two years later after the expansion.

Charita said: "Gordon Ramsay's intervention was our salvation. I'm proud to say the big difference between Momma Cherri's and the other places on the programme was that he loved our food. "He said it was the first time he had cleaned his plate during the whole series.

We got on great and have built on all his wise suggestions for the business side." Charita was even named Entrepreneur of the Year at the Sussex Business Awards in 2006.

He might have a habit of turning the air blue, but to a struggling restaurant it seems Gordon Ramsay's touch is truly golden.


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