Gordon Ramsay looks incredibly fit these days. He’s lost four stone, and the superstar chef who has learned to turn fat to muscle is telling me the shocking truth about why he has chosen to shape up: he was afraid for his life, having lost his father at a similar age, and feared for his marriage if he stayed a stressed-out slob.
‘Tana was not impressed with the way I was,’ says the chef and television star who ran his first London Marathon back in 2000.
‘I was overweight, 18 stone. I looked like a sack of s***. I look at the pictures and think, “How did Tana stay around?” Because Tana has got better-looking and more gorgeous. And there she is, getting in bed with a fat f***.’
He had just won his third Michelin star but was also working insane hours, never eating properly, instead snacking on whatever came to hand as he made (and tasted before service) divine dinners for everyone else. Fitness fan Tana told him he was getting fat and Ramsay felt he had to shape up or risk losing her. ‘It was painful. I used to look at myself in the mirror and think, “Holy s***!” So it was a big wake-up call.”
Fitness fan Tana told him he was getting fat and Ramsay felt he had to shape up or risk losing her
As his fame increased with hit TV shows such as Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares and The F-Word and success brought new pressures, he hired a new personal coach and began to carve out more time to push himself harder.
Today Ramsay weighs in for gruelling Ironman endurance events at 13st 10lb. The 51-year-old explains: ‘I started focusing on getting super-fit five or six years ago when my life got super-busy. You get consumed by the work. You get sucked up. You get drawn in. All of a sudden your “me time” is zero. There was no breathing space, no down time, no time to even think straight. It all started hitting me hard. I didn’t panic, but my head was not in the game.’
He and Tanya had also started going on family holidays with David and Victoria Beckham and their children. Few men would feel comfortable sitting in their swimming trunks by the pool next to the former England football captain; and when they first became friends, Ramsay was uncomfortable about his body. ‘I didn’t have a figure. I didn’t feel that good. After working my a*** off and achieving a lot, I wanted to get in serious shape.’
Today Ramsay weighs in for gruelling Ironman endurance events at 13st 10lb
So Ramsay responded to an email out of the blue from Will Usher, a former Army captain and member of the Royal protection squad who is a champion triathlete and coach. Ramsay – ever the extremist – wanted to go straight into a 70:3 Ironman competition, which refers to the event’s 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride, and a 13.1-mile run, but Usher told him that, in his shape, he’d kill himself.
Going at a speed that works for you is an important first lesson, says Usher – who emphasises that you don’t need to go to extremes like Ramsay to get in shape, as long as you find your own level and commit to it. He put Ramsay on a ferocious military-style regime involving long-distance swimming, rowing, core strength work, three dizzying hour-long workouts on a gym bike every week and a strength-sapping Sunday race over the Surrey hills. Eventually, the chef was ready for the Ironman.
‘I asked my wife if she wanted to go on holiday,’ he says with a mischievous grin. Tana said she would love to get away, thinking he meant to a poolside somewhere exotic and hot. ‘I said, “Great. How about Staffordshire? I’ve got a great way for us to spend more time together. Let’s do an Ironman!’”
Ramsay’s wife responded in a way worthy of the famously explosive chef himself. ‘She said, “F*** off!” ’
But Tana was persuaded by Usher – and gave it her all. Ramsay says: ‘She was like this thoroughbred that just didn’t stop.’
Ramsay – ever the extremist – wanted to go straight into a 70:3 Ironman competition, which refers to the event’s 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride, and a 13.1-mile run, but Usher told him that, in his shape, he’d kill himself
There is a second, perhaps even more powerful re ason for the changes that Ramsay has put himself through in recent years: he’s afraid of dying at the same young age as his father, also named Gordon, who had a heart attack at 53. ‘That’s only a couple of years’ time. I’ve got this reminder to get fit, it’s scary. I get the fear on a daily basis. I may have not got on with him, but I still miss him. I miss everything I could have had from him if he was still alive in his 70s.’
The chef wants to be around at that age for his children Megan, 19, twins Holly and Jack, both 18 and Tilly, 16. ‘I just have to stop and think for two minutes about why I’m doing this and there it is.’ He is also aware of trying to escape the fate of other chefs. ‘I don’t want my industry to kill me. I know how unhealthy chefs are at the top level. Stress. Suicide. There’s a big downside to cooking loads for a living. It’s lethal: from obesity to heart attacks to cocaine habits.’ It’s why Ramsay no longer runs his own kitchen on a daily basis but travels the world “fine-tuning” the food being made in his name, believing he got out just in time. ‘I was scared for my life,’ he says.
And so Usher arrives at Ramsay’s house in Wandsworth, South West London, three times a week. They ride bikes in the home gym for an hour, with the trainer pushing him harder, further and faster. When Ramsay is out of the country he keeps to the same regime by linking up with his coach on FaceTime and using the new training app Zwift, which connects cyclists to each other meaning Ramsay can watch the phone screen and race in real time against Usher and other cyclists around the world – from beginners to champions like Mark Cavendish.
The chef wants to be around at that age for his children Megan, 19, twins Holly and Jack, both 18 and Tilly, 16
On Sunday mornings they get out on the road, racing over the Surrey hills for 75 miles against other members of Usher’s Ironman squad. Ramsay says: ‘Will’s a beast. Does it hurt? S*** yeah. I wasn’t built to cycle.’
Ramsay looks stronger than ever in a tight-fitting black T-shirt that shows off his forearms, although he swears he doesn’t do many weights. ‘I don’t want to look like a body builder,’ he says. But he’s a big lad – 6ft 2in and with size 15 feet. Ramsay was a Rangers youth footballer before injury halted his career. His craggy face is at odds with the haircut he seems to have borrowed from his teenage son, with a shaved back of the head and a quiff like a giant blond wing.
He picks up the ends of two heavy “battle ropes” – like those you’d see pirates working on a sailing ship – and whips them hard for 30 seconds, working his core muscles, back and shoulder girdle. Most days, Ramsay does 20 minutes of core muscle exercises like this.
As for food, his top dietary advice is to drink lots of water. He says: ‘Take a couple of glasses before you eat, it just stops you eating a third more. You feel better but eat less.’ But he believes in treating yourself if you’ve earned it in the gym or on the bike. ‘Give yourself a buzz. Mine would be a Dairy Milk chocolate.’ Funnily enough, this does not appear among the “High-Energy Snacks and Well Deserved Treats” that make up a chapter in his new book Ultimate Fit Food. There are some terrific recipes in there though, tailored for different training situations.
His “carb-loading meals for the night before” include Southern India Fish Curry; “high protein recovery meals for the evening after” include pizza with a base of cauliflower instead of dough. Is there any food he absolutely avoids? ‘No milk. Just because it’s sluggish. Almond milk with Weetabix for breakfast. Smoothie with frozen berries, yogurts. Dropping milk and cheese has made a massive difference.’
Is that advice from a dietician?
‘I haven’t got a dietician, my a***! Do you know what my dietician is? Standing stark b****** naked on the scales every day. That’s my dietician right there.’
Training long and hard gives him time to himself away from calls or messages and keeps him grounded. ‘It’s the rawness of going out with a friend who is your trainer and getting down and dirty. Soaked through to the skin in the rain, with 30 miles an hour gales and idiot drivers about to kill you on the road. The more I train, the more normal I am, the more I feel that I’m still unchanged. It’s just another little reminder of who I really am.’ His four children egg him on. Daughter Megan ran the London marathon last year. This year Jack and Holly will run it with their Mum. Jack plays water polo at a national level, as does Tilly, and is also a serious rugby player.
Are father and son competitive about fitness? ‘I want to say no, but secretly, yes. I already got warned that Jack’s going to kick my a*** in my marathon because he wants to go under 3hrs 30mins on his first one [which would beat Dad’s personal best from 2004].’
Seeing Ramsay move happily around the gym, it’s clear he sees his hard-won new fitness as a life-saver, in every sense. ‘It’s hard, what we’re doing. It hurts. But the benefits are extraordinary.’
:: Ultimate Fit Food, by Gordon Ramsay, is published by Hodder & Stoughton, out now at £25.