Friday, October 17, 2008

Interviews: Rick Sutton - Kitchen Nightmares & Gordon Ramsay

J Willy's BBQ on Kitchen Nightmares

Gordon Ramsay is a Scottish born chef and restaurateur who has been the recipient of 12 Michelin Stars. Ramsay rose to fame in England with his shows Hell’s Kitchen, The F-Word and Kitchen Nightmares on the BBC. Chef Ramsay has found similar fame in the United States with reality shows on Fox that are based on his BBC hits.

Ramsay’s restaurants are popular with the critics and public alike, which encouraged him to expand his empire to include restaurants in Dubai, Tokyo, Manhattan, Boca Raton and Los Angeles. Hell’s Kitchen is filmed in Los Angeles while Kitchen Nightmares is not based in a single geographic area. Most of the episodes to date have been filmed in the metro New York area, but the episode of particular interest for our readers was filmed in a BBQ joint in South Bend, Indiana.

Chef Ramsay and the Kitchen Nightmares crew set up camp in what was then called J Willy’s Bar and Grille. Over the course of a week, Chef Ramsay worked with the restaurant owners and employees to improve the long term viability of J Willy’s. We recently had a chance to ask a few questions of Rick Sutton, one of the owners. Although we probably took up too much of Rick’s time, he was kind enough to answer questions about his background as well as working with Chef Ramsay.

The episode is scheduled to air on Thursday, Oct. 30th (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on Fox.

Where did your interest in the culinary world come from?

I started in the restaurant business in 1975 as a dishwasher. After a couple months doing dishes I was promoted to bus boy, and I ran all the way home and burst into the house screaming "I am a bus boy now, I am a bus boy now". After working as a busboy I was hooked on the restaurant business, and I have been doing it ever since I started in 1975.

Were you influenced by one person in particular?

I have had many influences and some great mentors in my life time. I have worked with many trained chefs when I was a manager of country clubs. My biggest influences were the owners I worked for at Jake and Charlie’s in Winchester, Virginia (Rick Reynolds, Doug Tone, Charles Gaynor), The Rusty Rudder in Dewey Beach De( Jay Prettyman) and Stephen Jones who trained me as Maitre De Hotel in Bradenton Florida. I was also influenced by Chef John Folse, who is an awesome chef out of Louisiana.

What is it about BBQ that speaks to you?

We like to say we bleed BBQ. We test each and every batch of ribs we cook. After a period of time you develop a palate that can identify subtle flavors and nuances just as a wine connoisseur can tell about wine. A perfect rack of ribs is a work of love and passion. The best part is when the guest tells you it is the best ribs they have ever had in their life. Good BBQ is no accident so it is rewarding when you get some great feedback. After Chef Ramsay helped us develop our sauce I knew we had a competition level BBQ sauce with the potential for branding world wide.

How did J. Willys Barbeque House come about?

We named it after the operating partner John William Ittenbach and it was his childhood nick name. John’s sister, Linda suggested it. Before Chef Ramsay arrived it was just J Willy’s Bar and Grill; he was the one who branded us as a barbecue house, although we did serve ribs and bbq pork. We then decided to come up with a menu that was similar to every casual theme concept we could think of in an attempt to copy a mix of Chilis, Applebees, Ruby Tuesday etc. Obviously that did not work out for us, so we asked Chef Ramsay for help.

What do you serve at the restaurant? Do you have a specialty?

We have the best Ribs in the world. The special thing about J Willys is how we make the food. We make all of our food from fresh ingredients from scratch like home made. We make our food in small batches just prior to each meal period, and we do not hold anything over to the next day. It is an amazingly simple concept but it took Chef Ramsay to create a passion in all of us for great fresh homemade food.

Is your BBQ region specific (Texas, North Carolina, Kansas City, etc.) or an amalgamation of styles?

I would call it Kansas City style.

What equipment do you use for smoking?

We have our own smoker we use, it is nothing fancy. Our sauce and rub are the true keys. We make our sauce fresh from scratch and we make sure we only use the freshest and highest quality ingredients we can find. The sauce is the key and only J Willys himself has the recipe.

If you were allowed to arrange the details of your last meal, what would you like prepared and who would you like to cook it?

I want my last meal prepared by my wife. She prepares the best food of anyone I know. Her etoufee is to die for and her corn and crab chowder is out of this world. We grow a huge garden, and we raise our own chickens and eat our own eggs. So in answer to the question : Tricia Sutton preparing me corn and clam chowder made with fresh Jumbo lump crabmeat from Smith Island Delaware, corn from our garden and then one of our nice organic chickens slow roasted with some fresh herbs from the garden as an entree.

When someone decides to take the family out for a meal at J. Willy’s what can they expect?

Fresh home made food made from scratch with fresh ingredients.

When you applied to be on Kitchen Nightmares, what was the single largest concern that you were hoping that Chef Ramsay would be able to help you with?

I do not want to be the one who causes 35 people to lose their jobs, and lose my house in the process.

Why do you think that you were chosen to be on Kitchen Nightmares?

I have been blessed all my life, and this was God helping me out one more time despite the fact that I do not deserve it.

To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time that a style of cuisine that is native to the United States has been featured on Kitchen Nightmares. Did that seem to be an impediment for Chef Ramsay? Did he have a reasonable working knowledge of BBQ?

Chef Ramsay knows what great food is and what is crap. No matter what style, bad food is bad food and good food is good food. Chef knows great food

BBQ is not considered haute cuisine. Outsiders often feel that there is a lack of artistry with low and slow cooking and that it is a food for and by the proletariat. Were you concerned that Chef Ramsay would display a lack of respect for the cuisine?

Great food is made with passion and love no matter how it is cooked or what style it is. Chef Ramsay is not pretentious at all he gave us a fantastic recipe for a gourmet Mac and Cheese, and I know that is not haute cuisine. Chef looked at what he had to work with, our backgrounds and what the market needed. His personal preferences did not keep him from guiding us in a direction that would make us successful. Chef Ramsay respects great food no matter what the label.

How much time, beginning to end, was the staff of Kitchen Nightmares on site at J. Willy’s?

Approx. a week. All day and night.

Due to the nature of the situation (enforcing change), it seems that a recurring theme on Kitchen Nightmares is a fractious relationship between Chef Ramsay and at least one member of the staff. What we don’t see are the other relationships. Did you enjoy working with the crew? Did your staff and the Kitchen Nightmares staff get along?

Without the support of Chef Ramsay and FOX we would never have survived. The Chef and crew shared an emotional experience with us so there was bound to be some bonding. It is hard to let someone know the depth of debt and the heartache that you feel when you are close to losing everything. There is no choice but to bond when you share an experience like that. Chef Gordon Ramsay was very sincere about our success. Chef is all business, but we still bonded with him. When you look in to his eyes you know he wants nothing more than for you to succeed.

What was the most valuable lesson that you learned from your involvement with Kitchen Nightmares?


Where does J. Willy’s stand now? Are the recommendations and changes presented by Chef Ramsay helping you to become a more successful business?

Chef gave us a start and now it is up to us to execute. If we give each and every guest perfect food and perfect service we will never have to worry about our business again.

Is there anything that you think that the public should know about Chef Ramsay and the show that they can’t get in the one hour that encapsulates a much greater period of time?

The sincerity is something you do not grasp until you work with him. Despite all the cussing, yelling, drama, and blustering the truth is that chef is here to help first and film a television show second. Chef cares and I do not think he gets enough credit for how much he invests emotionally in turning around a restaurant

What is the future of J. Willys?

We would love to sell our sauce all over the world. If we could find someone to help us get our sauce in every retail outlet across the country we could sure use the expertise and help. At this point we know we have a great product but we need to take it to the next level. We have no idea how to get beyond where we are now as far as selling our sauce and branding it and retailing it all over.

Are you involved in the BBQ community outside of the restaurant? Do you participate in competitions or festivals? Do you do mail order?

We won South Bend rib fest and we plan on hitting the road to some of the major competitions next year. PLEASE order our sauce on line at it is the best sauce out there and we could sure use the money.

Official Episode Description:

The owners of J Willy’s Bar & Grille in South Bend, IN, are $1.2 million in debt and have called in Chef Gordon Ramsay in hopes that he can help give them a fresh start. With no one running the kitchen, most of the fare is straight from the freezer or out of a can. To start fresh, Gordon challenges the staff to spend the night cleaning out the kitchen and throwing away all the rotten food lurking in the coolers.

The next morning, Gordon brings in fresh ingredients and teaches the cooks how to make various dishes that will be featured at that night’s dinner service. However, when the inexperienced cooks get flustered, the kitchen spirals out of control and brings one customer to tears. Find out if Gordon will be able to bring the restaurant up to his standards or if J Willy’s will be forced to close their doors forever on KITCHEN NIGHTMARES airing Thursday, Oct. 30 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX.



ajdyno said...

I love watching them scumbags fall on their faces forgot to mention their drug use and bi-sexual love cooks Christian Walvord the bald cook criminal who kept a low profile in the show