Gordon Ramsay’s lost two Michelin Stars – more than one misfortune

As with many awards, it isn’t the winning that is the issue – it is the keeping. To win a Michelin Star is certainly an accolade which brings huge publicity and overwhelms the reservations line, enhancing reputations and bringing business success. To lose a Michelin Star … yes, you’ll face another surge of publicity, unwelcome this time, and, inevitably, a decline in people wanting to book – and a muddied, perhaps ruined, reputation for the (inevitably) high profile chef.

Many of today’s top chefs, wherever in the world they are, use their career progression to demonstrate their competence. Cutting their teeth while cutting tomatoes in a restaurant when it gained its first, second, third Michelin Star (or AA Rosette or any other well-respected culinary award) is indeed worth including in a CV. Saying, “I was head chef (or sous-chef or commis or anyone in the brigade) at Gordon Ramsay at The London NYC, Gordon Ramsay’s New York restaurant, when it was stripped of its two Michelin Stars” isn’t. Yet it might not have been the head chef’s (or anyone else in the brigade’s) fault. Maintaining a reputation depends on standards being set, taught or explained, monitored, reviewed, renewed and re-iterated – by the person at the top.

This is not a Gordon Ramsay bashing exercise. I’m a fan, obsessively watching his television programmes, marvelling at how he gets away with his antics on and off screen, and will never forget the lunch I had at Claridge’s when he was in charge of its restaurant (and oh how I wish it had been dinner so it could have gone on for longer). But, sadly, he seems to have done it again, doesn’t he – let things slip and not only at his own expense.

Many restaurants with Michelin Stars are, as is the case with The London NYC, in hotels which have their own reputations to manage. If a hotel restaurant is failing (and there are usually many signs), it is as much an issue for the hotel as it is for the restaurateur. Who wasn’t looking – at comments from customers, or tip sizes, or bookings, or local chat, or reviews? And who allowed it to get so bad that the restaurant was stripped not of one of its two stars, but both? To play on Lady Bracknell’s words in The Importance of being Earnest, “To lose one Michelin Star, Mr Ramsay, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness”.

In this case, it is a double dose of carelessness. Late in 2009, Gordon Ramsay sold his stake in The London NYC; it had gained two Michelin Stars but hadn’t gone down well with New Yorkers; there were complications with heavily unionised staff; and it was losing money at a frightening pace; he continued to give menu and service advice – and the use of his name.

My advice is always to try to avoid a crisis – there is always something that can be done to reduce risks and it is more than disappointing that business leaders prefer not to spend relatively little on risk management even if they face spending far more on the (sometimes inevitable) crisis that follows. In this case, why did Gordon Ramsay continue to be associated with a restaurant that wasn’t working well? Was he simply dazzled by the Stars?

Leaving aside the issue that Gordon Ramsay and The London NYC failed to see this crisis coming, when a crisis blows what you say can mean the difference between protecting or damaging your reputation – for the long term.

Sitting at my MacBook Pro repeatedly Googling for a comment from Gordon Ramsay and The London NYC in response to being stripped of its Michelin Stars (nothing yet), I found a statement from The London NYC this July commenting on rumours that its two Gordon Ramsay restaurants were to close this September. The statement was given by The London NYC to Grub Street (a New York food news magazine) in July and has re-emerged in today’s UK’s Caterer and Hotelkeeper newsletter:

“We are currently engaged in ongoing negotiations with Local 6 [the hotel, restaurant, club and bartender employees union] regarding the renewal of the Gordon Ramsay Union contract. Hotel management and Union leadership have been working diligently to come to an amicable agreement. As a courtesy to our teams and the Union, we need to allow conversations to continue uninterrupted. It would be premature for us to provide information at this time, however we are confident we will be able to release a detailed update by end of this week or very early next week. We greatly appreciate your interest and look forward to sharing updates with you in an expeditious manner.”

It doesn’t say much, does it – because it can’t. As with almost every statement put out immediately after a crisis has blown, there is nothing much that can be said – because it is not known and speculating is never acceptable. But, you can – and must – say something that demonstrates a concern, a priority, a context, an emphasis, a respect for others caught up in the crisis with you – and that you are taking appropriate action. In reality, this statement – though it was given seemingly reluctantly and a little late – says rather a lot.

Now all that is needed is for both The London NYC and Gordon Ramsay to say something about their massive loss of two Michelin Stars. To minimise the damage to their worldwide reputations, they  must communicate.

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Nigella Lawson’s personal crisis affects her professional reputation

Nigella Lawson’s personal crisis is a stark reminder that businesses of all types – restaurants; food businesses; charities; companies; governments; cookery book writers, television chefs and cooks – can be affected by crises triggered by personal actions or inactions, at work or away from it. We have seen this with Antony Worrall Thompson (a shoplifting drama); Gordon Ramsay (public tiffs and rifts with his father in law, numerous other allegations about his private life); and, away from the kitchen, Chris Huhne ex-MP (and those pesky points that should have been added to his driving license).

The problem with Nigella’s crisis, however, is that she has said and done nothing to demonstrate that she is concerned about her professional reputation, and nothing to demonstrate she is in control of it. A prolific Tweeter for professional reasons, her Twitter stream ended on 15th June – the crisis broke the next day. She abandoned her Facebook comments at the same time. If you usually publicise your every mouthful, or whatever is the equivalent in other businesses, the absence of information can be very vocal.

I’m on record, in this blog and on BBC World Have Your Say, for defending people whose behaviour in a crisis has been found wanting – such as Tony Hayward’s many gaffes during the BP Deepwater Horizon drama – but only as an explanation of their inappropriate behaviour; not as an excuse for it. Nigella has reasons for staying silent and might be hugely uncomfortable with being noisy about what is, to her, her private life. But, with a profile that projects her as a domestic goddess, albeit one with the same normal traits as the rest of we ordinary domestic non-goddesses (sneaking into the fridge at midnight, taking short cuts with recipes, yo-yo weight loss and gain), being caught-out for being caught-up in a rather odd earthly relationship needs explanation.

Crises throw us off our guard. They pose situations alien to our daily lives and make us struggle to know how to cope with them. Adrenaline flows and, as anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of biology knows, it’s the fight or flight stress hormone. To protect her brand, Nigella should be fighting; instead, she has flown.

In a crisis, it is only possible to fight if you know what to do. Any business – and Nigella is a brand and a brand is a business – needs a crisis management plan – a working, dynamic, looked-at-regularly and regularly-revised protocol detailing what might happen to threaten or damage a reputation and how to deal with it. Thinking the unthinkable, and planning for it, is what those plans must do. Nigella might not have been able to predict that her husband’s volatile and offensive behaviour would play out as it did at a table outside Scott’s, but she did know about his temper and how she normally responds – she’s quoted as saying, “I’ll go quiet when he explodes, and then I am a nest of horrible festeringness”. We saw, from those graphic photos, that she went quiet when he had his hand around her throat, and his thumb up her nose, and presumably she is now in a nest of horrible festeringness. In a crisis, people need to behave appropriately to that crisis; there will be options but staying quiet and festering is seldom the right thing to do.

As a human being caught up in her own domestic, it is understandably hard to know what to do for the best. There is best for oneself in private, and best for one’s reputation. Nigella can afford good advice; she is also at the mercy of well-meaning but potentially bad advice. Turning to friends and family for moral support is essential – but it is inevitably insular. Family and friends cannot be objective about, or fully understand, the impact on a professional reputation. What Nigella doesn’t seem to have is good, professional advice about how to protect her brand. Inevitably caught up in the emotion of it all, it is hard to think on one’s feet, alone, and get it right.

Meanwhile, Charles Saatchi has been thinking on his feet – and using them. Famous for being reclusive, since the incident he’s been out and about extremely publicly. What’s more, he’s equally famous – because Nigella told us so – for not liking “proper food”.  The man who would rather be hidden, and prefers a bowl of cereal than anything Nigella might cook up, has been back to Scott’s – and been happy to be seen going back to Scott’s – where the food is decidedly proper – and seeking out or having delivered, gourmet food. What is he saying? Is it “I like the way you cook really, please come back”? Or “I can live without you, and dine just as well thank you very much”? Or is he simply being seen to be doing normal things – after behaving so utterly abnormally with his wife and in public – to salvage what he can of his reputation? He also took control, to the extent he could, by voluntarily accepting a police caution for assault. He was right to say it was a way of stopping the crisis from hanging over them and it could have been – if it hadn’t been one-sided. It would not have been right to start a tit-for-tat discussion; it would have been right, as possessions move in and out of various houses in London, to quell the speculation with facts. Nigella, as is the case for any business, needs to say something to protect her own and her brand’s reputation – and soon.

And what of Scott’s – inadvertently tied up with Nigella’s crisis? Staying silent was – unusually and exceptionally – the right thing for Scott’s to do.

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Anthony Worrall Thompson – is his reputation in the soup?

“Poor AWT” seems to be the universal response to the news that restaurateur and celebrity chef Anthony Worrall Thompson was arrested, then cautioned, last Friday for shoplifting. I’m not sure we’d have had an automatically sympathetic reaction to his plight – if he hadn’t responded in the way he did. For the most part, he got the initial stages of his crisis management right.  He:

  • apologised for the misdemeanour and his apology seemed genuine and personal, without resorting to manipulative, emotional heart-string-pulling;
  • recognised that he’s let down his family and friends;
  • said he will seek treatment – the implication being that he wants to stop it happening again;
  • apologised to Tesco;
  • got his statement out – and up on his website – speedily, avoiding speculative stories that might have turned his drama into a full-blown, long-lasting crisis; and
  • said he will try to make amends.

But has it done the trick – or is he in the soup?

It’s too early to say – as is always the case so soon after the emergence of any crisis. Will other retailers come forward and say he shoplifted from them? Will colleagues say he was light-fingered when visiting their restaurants (half-inching cutlery from the table, perhaps)? Will Tesco reveal that the cheese and wine he stole were the most expensive (good taste or greedy cheek) or the cheapest (bad taste or very sad)?

Which raises an interesting point. He has not said whether he has now paid the store for his stolen goods. In most crises involving money (fiddling expenses, fraud) repayment as reparation must be done to rebuild your reputation.

There is another aspect of his statement that misses the mark. He says he will seek the treatment “that is clearly needed”. Any therapist might pick at his wording: wanting to hear him say “that I need”, recognising that he owns the problem and its solution. Crisis management specialists might also nit-pick similarly: taking full responsibility is also a golden rule when dealing with a business crises. It seems, though, that we can forgive him – the majority of people seem to realise that his shoplifting was a symptom of a mental health issue.

So, has he saved his reputation?

Most news reports are factual – short summaries, without comments from others. Good news. BBC Radio 4’s PM programme interviewed a psychiatrist who said it could be driven by mental illness (causing low self-esteem or a need to feel in control). Good news. Twitter listed his name as trending – an exaggeration for 23 Tweets, most simply announcing the story; three or so making lighthearted jokes (Ready Steady Crook, he throws a hell of a wine and cheese party); and a couple linking to a jokey story about AWT setting up a cheese and wine business with Richard Madeley (wrongly accused three years ago of shoplifting champagne in, er, Tesco). Certainly not bad news. A few bloggers were swift to say that he’s a crook who has been treated differently because of his class – but the story didn’t have traction and fizzled out.  Not good news; lucky; it could have fuelled the story.  He has since given a candid interview to The Express which has treated him sympathetically. Good news.

Getting your response right from the start minimises the damage that could be done to your reputation – and that means being well-prepared, or prepared to act very fast indeed, to avoid speculation and unhelpful comments including on social media. If you are not prone to wearing your heart on your sleeve, making the leap from wanting to run and hide to full disclosure can be difficult to do – if you have not planned for a crisis.

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Gordon Ramsay’s silence turns up the heat of his crisis

As the Gordon-Ramsay-sacks-his-father-in-law story continues at a racing boil, I find myself descending into deepening despair.

Since Gordon published his impetuously-written letter to his mother-in-law, Greta Hutcheson, stories have emerged claiming that he also sacked his wife’s brother (Adam Hutcheson) and nephew (Christopher Hutcheson); that his father-in-law (Chris Hutcheson) has threatened to take Ramsay to an industrial tribunal for unfair dismissal; and that father-in-law Chris has snatched Petrus from the Ramsay empire.

And, inevitably, we’ve been reminded of Gordon’s past demeanours, not only by a default jogging of our memories as is typical in a crisis.

And what has Gordon said to bring an end to this farcical family feud? Nothing, given that the statement “A spokesman for Ramsay declined to comment.” doesn’t add up to a row of cooked-to-perfection beans.

Why do people think that silence is the way to deal with a crisis?

If they see it as “dignified”, they forget that journalists need words and if you don’t provide them, someone else will – with no thought for your dignity.

If they think it will stop the story from racing away, they forget that silence allows the media to speculate, and speculate they will – giving legs not only to this story but also to those from the past.

If they think it will reduce legal or insurance risks, they forget that silence affects their reputation for the long-term – the cost of which is far greater than that of short-term compensation bills.

When people say the right things in a crisis, it builds confidence, trust and support. And that will almost certainly mean their businesses will emerge with their reputations enhanced.

The trouble with Gordon is that he seems to crave attention. If he needs to make headlines, perhaps it doesn’t matter what those headlines are as long as they keep him in the spotlight. Perhaps he doesn’t mind if his restaurant business (or anything else – his marriage?) goes bust as he’ll be in the news again.

When a business is run by a talented (and chef Ramsay is undoubtedly talented) maverick, predicting the crises that might arise is virtually impossible. But, even if his crisis management plan is full of holes, it doesn’t mean silence is the only option. If he isn’t up to speaking direct to the media (he might be in emotional turmoil, struggling to keep himself and his family together), surely someone in his extensive coterie could muster something better than the unforgivable “no comment”?

Being able to draw together a few, short, circumspect words is often all that is needed to turn a crisis round. And, being Gordon, he might even get away with using his favourite f-word – as in “I’m sorry, I really f****d up”.

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Gordon Ramsay’s reputation hit again

Poor old Gordon Ramsay. One of the chefs who featured in Kitchen Nightmares USA, Joe Cerniglia, has apparently committed suicide in New York. This is ghastly news in itself. Inevitably, it has given the media (which has it in for him at the best of times) the chance to remind us that Joe’s suicide is not the first to be linked to Gordon Ramsay. In 2007 Rachel Brown, who featured in Hell’s Kitchen 2006, killed herself in Dallas.

Gordon issued a statement immediately after Joe’s death was announced – as, indeed, he should have done. But getting the communications right immediately after a crisis is only the start. Being linked, however tangentially, with the suicide of one person, never mind two, has massive implications for the formats of his shows, the selection of participants, agreements with those participants – and his behaviour during those shows.

It also has implications for his business. With public opinion widely divided (it’s love him or loathe him, with the loathers being most vocal) how many more people will decide not to eat in his restaurants, stay in his hotels, buy his books, take part in his shows – or watch them? Will his detractors criticise him even more – and what will that do to his already tarnished reputation?

Gordon was lucky that, in America at least, a clinical psychologist said (on CBS news, broadcast throughout the USA) that, while the suicides of Joe and Rachel might have been triggered by the show, they were more likely to have been driven by underlying “major problems”. Unfortunately, that’s not enough.

Gordon must now prepare not just for further criticism from this latest crisis but also for other potential crises involving individuals, his shows, his books, restaurants, hotels … his overall business. Crisis management is all about reputation management. And the bigger your reputation (Gordon’s is international) and your personality (Gordon’s is far from small) the bigger the task. When your reputation is driven by your personality, it’s almost always going to be one step forward and two steps back. Which means spending a lot more time behind the scenes, prepping. Poor Gordon.

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An apology is not an admission of guilt

When does poor customer service turn into a crisis?

I had wanted to eat in a near-local tapas bar for years. But, in the way that we eat out these days – round the corner or miles away – it was just that little bit far from on my doorstep but not distant enough to make a special journey. Going with a friend, I’ll call her Sarah, gave me the impetus I needed –  her flat is half way there so the extra journey was a shortish walk.

It was all going swimmingly. The menu was everything we hoped for; the prices were keen; Sarah didn’t want to drink much wine so, with half bottles on the menu, I could add a glass of chilled Manzanilla without feeling profligate. Ordering was a bit of a struggle as the non-English speaking (and non-Spanish speaking) waitress couldn’t answer questions – but she was charming and cheerful which added a bit of balance. And the atmosphere and decor couldn’t help but lift our spirits.

And then disaster struck. Twisted into a succulent piece of squid in its own ink was a long, dark hair. It wasn’t in my mouth but in Sarah’s. She struggled to pull it out, so entwined it was amidst the squid, and, naturally, was not keen to eat any more of it. She wondered whether to leave it or say something; I felt we should raise it – if only as neither of us now wanted to eat the rest of the squid and we’d both chosen it enthusiastically.

The waitress was confused about what to do so we nudged her into saying she’d ask the chef.  A chef duly came upstairs. You’d imagine he’d apologise, wouldn’t you. But no. His first comment was to say, robustly, that he couldn’t see how it could have happened as everyone in the kitchen has short hair and wears hats. Wrong answer. Wrong approach. Immediately, a simple customer service mistake risked becoming a crisis. Why? Because in a part of London where local gossip travels fast – several community websites bristle with bitterness – we could have posted a negative review which could have triggered others’ gripes and groans … one small local restaurant could lose a large number of local supporters: its core customers.

As a passionate-about-local-independent-restaurants-foodie I was determined not to cause trouble so suggested that, although I could see that the kitchen was vigilant (his hair was short, he was wearing a hat), perhaps the fault arose at the fishmonger or at any point along the supply chain. The chef remained implacable but, when he realised we were resolute, offered a free tapa and a new bowlful, much more generously filled, appeared.

Many people involved in managing a crisis confuse apologising with admitting liability. They are not the same. Where there is a fault, an accident or a failing, and whether the cause is a mystery or clear, a simple “I’m sorry it has happened” is what is needed. Until facts are known – and never speculate about them – no one needs to say “we did it, we are to blame, it’s our fault” or anything like that. But you should be sorry about it happening. Denying its possibility, when it has happened, makes you look churlish, at best, and devious and dodgy – or worse – at worst.

People tend to take apologies for granted, when they are granted. If what you are looking for, by apologising, is plaudits that boost your own ego you will be disappointed. It’s the other side of the coin you should worry about – being cavalier or insensitive, as that could destroy your reputation.

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