Gordon Ramsay Burger Chicago the start of something big for the fiery-tempered chef
“When Chicago came along it was a perfect fit. ... I just feel more at home here. I feel more connected,” the chef says about opening his first restaurant in town.
The numbers speak volumes about chef Gordon Ramsay.
The powerhouse Scotland-born chef with the fiery temper that has become his culinary calling card boasts 51 restaurants in his global empire and, count them, seven Michelin Stars. His Gordon Ramsay North America restaurant business includes 11 eateries spanning Las Vegas, Orlando, Atlantic City, Baltimore, Lake Tahoe and Kansas City. His TV cred includes eight or so U.S. series including “Hell’s Kitchen,” “MasterChef,” “Kitchen Nightmares,” “Gordon Ramsay Uncharted” and his newest fare, “Next Level Chef.”
So, opening a 5,000-square-foot restaurant in Chicago, in the middle of a pandemic, in the midst of one of the most devastating two years for the culinary industry across the globe, is saying a whole lot more.
The restaurant, Gordon Ramsay Burger, opened in December at the tony corner of Ontario and State, with little fanfare, truth be told. But word has spread quickly and the nighttime crowd has been robust.
The fast-casual restaurant is his second one in the states; the first is in Las Vegas, a city that Ramsay refers to as “a hard town” for anyone angling to make a go of it in the business.
“Everyonethinks Vegas is easy,” Ramsay says during a recent Zoom chat in Chicago. “Vegas is not easy. Vegas is one of the most competitive cities anywhere on the planet and every top chef is desperate to be there. So when we opened up Gordon Ramsay Burger in Planet Hollywood back in 2012 it wasn’t about going gangbusters and opening up one every week [elsewhere]. It was aboutconsolidating, building something incredible.”
It’s the same game plan Ramsay is sticking with for his Chicago debut. It’s all about building the consistency, the quality from the ground up, literally.
“When Chicago came along it was a perfect fit. ... Ijust feel more at home here. I feel more connected. I’ve studied Chicago tremendously. It’s just has that energy — coming in and doing our first major burger [restaurant] here without trying to open something that’s got 500 seats that needs to be a theme park.”
The Chicago location, designed by the Boston-based Sousa Design Architects, seats 120 diners beneath its impressive wood-beamed ceiling. Floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides provide patrons with unobstructed views of bustling River North. A massive Union Jack cements the attitude.
“Chicago reminds me so much of my own upbringing,” Ramsay says about why he chose the city for his latest venture. “It’s a hardworking city that prides itself on good food. I think of incredible chefs like [Alinea’s Grant] Achatz, and [restaurants] like Girl & The Goat, and then the neighborhood feel that Chicago brings. Ijust feel more at home here. I feel more connected. ... The location here, it’s just a very very cool corner. I love the energy.”
That he’s all about the utmost in consistency when it comes to every dish coming out of one of his kitchens is an understatement. Ramsay apologizes for being a bit late for our chat because he was conducting a tasting at the kitchen’s pass, a kitchen helmed by executive chef Javier Fuentes. Consistency crops up several times in the conversation. It’s the main reason, he says, the menu lists only eight burger choices (one is a vegan option), two hot dog offerings, a handful of appetizers, two salads, two desserts and three varieties of fries.
“I’m far better off with trying to get seven or eight burgers on the menu than I would if I had 15 burgers on the menu. That level of consistency is impossible with 15, 20 burgers. ...It would be an absolute nightmare in the kitchen. [The menu has] limited options but they are bloody good options.”
Those options come at River North prices. Buffalo-style chicken wings will set you back $15. Shakes are $9. His signature Devonshire butter-basted burgers (made from a blend of chuck and brisket) run $15-$17. And those “Hot Dawgs,” as the menu proclaims, are $13. Some foodies have taken to social media to voice their disdain for the price points. Ramsay takes it all in stride.
“If it’s overpriced they’ll tell you. If it’s underpriced they’ll tell you,” he says. “... Customers vote with their feet. Everyone with a telephone is a critic, and I can take that. ... But I listen carefully; I watch carefully, and we adjust. But I don’t think we’re overpriced. ... What we’vegot is standards. I think $13 for a hot dog is bloody good, especially [since] the thing is so long you can take half of it to go. Is it value for money? Absolutely. Is it too expensive? No. I’m a full believer in quality, and so I don’t want just any hot dog.”
Ramsay also believes passionately in Chicago’s world-class culinary scene, which is why he opted to open amid difficult times for the industry and in the Windy City in particular. He’s also sourcing locally as much as possible, hoping to support local businesses in a big way.
“This industry needs to remember how exciting it is breaking bread, sitting with the family in a restaurant having a great burger. So yes, it’s a massive risk, a huge financial outlay … but we’ve got to bounce back. We have to. [The industry has] to come back stronger than ever before. I’m confident that what we’ve done [here] and the magic created inside these four walls is doing that. If we’re at the beginning of helping to spur on this industry bouncing back in Chicago then yeah, long may that continue.”
Ramsay reveals his investment in Chicago is intended to be a long-term affair.
“I think it’s more humbling to come in to the Chicago culinary scene and open up a Burger rather than coming in with a 10-table, 12-table fine dining [restaurant],” he says. “I start at the bottom and work my way up. But we have exciting plans for some further restaurants here.”
He doesn’t elaborate, adding only “I like to put one foot on the ladder at a time.”
And as for the ketchup-versus-mustard-on-a-hot-dog Chicago feud, Ramsay isn’t necessarily taking sides. His Standard Dawg boast both mustard and house-made ketchup.
“I was stuck between a rock and a hard place,” Ramsay says with a chuckle. “And I thought, f- - - it. I’ll put mustard and ketchup on a hot dog. You can’t win every day. The proof for me is in the tasting. If that dog is delicious it doesn’t need to be smothered in ketchupor smothered in mustard. Each to their own, as my mum would say.”