Gordon Ramsay hits Brighton!
Of all his Kitchen Nightmares, one of Gordon Ramsey's most famous restaurant transformations has to be Momma Cherri's in Brighton. But Gordon's been seen back in Sussex recently so we thought we'd find out who his next victims are ...
There was a lot of excitement surrounding Gordon Ramsay's first visit to Momma Cherri's back in December 2004. You may remember the talk by your office water cooler, as by the end of the chef's stay there, the intimate 40-seater venue (which most of us had overlooked up until then) suddenly became the place everybody wanted to eat in.The Channel Four reality show with Gordon's mix of strong language, tough love and inspirational leadership certainly did the trick for this struggling business. Owner Charita Jones recently moved to bigger premises round the corner (with over five floors it's triple the previous restaurant size), and was fully booked for six months after the programme finished. Well, nearly three years after all that original excitement, the Michelin-starred chef is back in Sussex, but this time it's The Priory in Haywards Heath and Love's Fish Restaurant in Kemptown (formerly Ruby Tate's) getting the Gordon Ramsay treatment. Channel Four has confirmed that these two 'Kitchen Nightmares' will be screened later on this year, but we've managed to get a sneak preview into what went on ... and have also caught up with Charita from Momma Cherri's to see if her original success has lasted.
Momma Cherri's Big House, Brighton"The most memorable piece of advice Gordon gave me," says Charita Jones, who was first visited by the chef in December 2004, "was that even though it's a family-run business, it's not a family. If people aren't living up to expectations, they have to go". But it's clear Gordon's tough attitude doesn't come naturally to this big-hearted foster carer (Charita has fostered 33 children over the years). On the morning I speak to her she is busy preparing a 'huge feast' to take place at her home that evening as a thank you to her staff for all their hard work."It took his second visit before I followed that particular piece of advice to the letter," she admits. "I decided to release my head chef, which was really hard because we started the restaurant together." But despite finding some of his suggestions hard to take, Charita says she has no regrets about going on the show. "We were ready to close. We had no customers, no money. That's it, point blank," she says. "But I knew that if I was able to listen to him everything would be OK."I'd seen a lot of the previous shows, and in many cases the basic problem is food. That's never been my problem," she says. Indeed, in the infamous 'first meal' test, where Gordon sits down to sample the restaurant's food, he'd never before sent his plate back clean ... before Momma Cherri's, that is, and it's a record she's held ever since."The first thing I did was take a picture of that plate," she says. "I've been living off that empty plate for the last three years!"
So Charita's problems lay not with her macaroni cheese, buffalo hot wings or cornbread (a style of cooking from the American deep south), but with the management and business side of things. She was trying to do everything herself, while her laid-back staff were turning up late. A lot of the food consequently had to be pre-cooked and wasn't as tasty as it could have been. On top of that, a lack of customers had led her to follow the advice of her bank manager and raise menu prices, which had the effect of killing the business even more. Gordon soon put these things right: taking Charita out of the kitchen and letting her chefs do what they were paid for and implementing the legendary 'soul in a bowl' - a weekday �10 three-course, fixed-price menu. The idea was to let customers sample small portions of different foods during the week, and then hopefully they would return on a weekend for more."It was fantastic to be able to work with him," says Charita. "It was like being back at school. Every day I'd go to him with a list of questions. I thought - well, I've got the master at my feet, why not use him? It was like a million pound lesson that I would never have been able to pay for."However, it hasn't been all plain sailing since. "We've had success in terms of popularity, but we're still as much in debt as when we first started," says Charita. "Moving to bigger premises has just meant larger overheads. I still struggle daily to work out how to remain open. "My next step is to approach the Premiership footballers - perhaps they'll be willing to invest!"Momma Cherri's Big House, 2-3 Little East Street, Brighton, 01273 325305 www.mommacherri.co.uk
Love's Fish Restaurant (formerly Ruby Tate's)Kemptown, Brighton"I went through every emotion God created in a week," says Allan Love of the time Gordon came to visit. "It was a horrendous journey."I called him up because I was unhappy with the way things were going. We were losing money hand over fist. I had an inkling it was because we were too expensive, and in the wrong area, but it's very hard to see when you're in the middle of it."Allan is effusive as he recounts the week where Gordon came in "like a whirlwind" and "changed everything except the wooden floors". What started the week as a fancy champagne and oyster bar called Ruby Tate's (after his granddaughter) ended as Love's, a posh fish and chip joint which has been packed every night since, and that's before the programme has even been shown.Allan made the decision early on to follow Gordon's advice to the letter. "I made a decision to go along with everything he said from the start," he says. "I thought there didn't seem any sense in going through all this stress not to listen to him. I wanted to take it to its ultimate conclusion."
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But things got off to a bad start almost immediately. "Gordon was not at all happy with his first meal," says Allan. "He ordered fruits de mer and said it was mediocre and not good enough for the amount we were charging." On top of this, Allan admitted he found it difficult to take the constant criticism. "He's a tough man. It takes a lot of strength to deal with the crap he throws out, which I didn't have. I bit back."But the advice to 'keep it simple' has meant a 300 per cent increase on covers since Gordon left. Dishes such as frogs' legs, five styles of oyster and rich dressings have been replaced with a streamlined menu featuring sucstraightforward pleasures as five types of fish poached, grilled or fried, with the option of adding simple sauces such as lemon and caper butter, lime and coriander or white wine and parsley."Gordon is exactly as you see him on the TV, it's not an act," says Allan. "It was nail-biting for everyone, not just me. We all felt the tension of the cameras being on us for six days and nights."Gordon came to visit us the other day," says Allan. "He said the place was stunning and that he'd never before worked with people who'd listened to everything he'd said."I'm glad we listened. It's not just been a honeymoon period, our success has lasted."
Love's Fish Restaurant40 St James' Street, Brighton, 01273 693251 www.lovesrestaurant.co.uk