One of Harry Enfield’s most memorable characters is the know-all in the flat cap (‘only me!’) who is always butting in on people engaged in household tasks, and telling them: ‘You don’t want to do it like that!’
I thought of him when I read that Gordon Ramsay has been telling Jamie Oliver the best way to run his restaurant chain. In a clear case of ‘You don’t want to do it like that!’, Ramsay said that Jamie Oliver should ‘at least have turned up’ for the opening of the new Jamie’s Italian restaurant in Hong Kong.
Unsurprisingly, Jamie Oliver has bounced back, accusing Ramsay of being motivated by jealousy, pointing out that he is worth twice as much as him and that his cookery books have sold 37 million copies, compared to Ramsay’s total sales of just three million.
Gordon Ramsay (right) said that Jamie Oliver (left) should ‘at least have turned up’ for the opening of the new Jamie’s Italian restaurant in Hong Kong
Chefs Oliver and Ramsay (pictured together in 2006) have often exchanged fraught words over the years
‘Gordon is deeply jealous and can’t work out why I do what I do and why he can’t do that,’ he says. ‘He is too busy shouting and screaming and making our industry look like a bunch of shouters and screamers.’
In recent years, chefs have earned themselves a worldwide reputation not only for back-biting but for front-biting, too. It takes only a couple of minutes in the presence of another chef to make them boil over. ‘Every time I watch his show, I want to go back in time and bully him at school,’ the bullish American chef Anthony Bourdain once said of Jamie Oliver.
Traditionally, hairdressers, plumbers, dentists and car mechanics are regarded as the bitchiest professions. ‘Tsk! Tsk! Tsk,’ they say to the hapless customer, in a tone pitched somewhere between pity and despair. ‘Who on earth cut your hair/installed this dishwasher/filled this tooth/fixed this engine?’
Perhaps chefs were always as vituperative towards each other as they are now, but in the old days their tsk-tsk-tsking remained behind closed doors.
Over the past few years, they have gained much greater prominence, emerging from behind their kitchen doors to pop up on TV shows, write cookbooks, attend premieres and generally swank around. This means that rivalries which would once have remained private are now conducted in public, and the notion of the studious chef, silently slaving over his stove, has become a thing of the past.
Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke was always regarded as one of the trustiest and most loyal of all the great commanders. It was only after he died that his diaries revealed his waspishness
Is there a single profession that is not beset by rivalry? Do heart surgeons exchange catty comments about one another’s abilities (‘I mean, did you see the way he repaired that left ventricle!’)? Are judges waspish about other judges (‘Frankly, his summing-up was all over the place!’)?
My own suspicion is that, the more revered the profession, the greater the spite that lurks within it. As Chief of the Imperial General Staff for most of World War II, Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke was always regarded as one of the trustiest and most loyal of all the great commanders. It was only after he died that his diaries revealed his waspishness.
In them, he was remarkably rude about Churchill, and he described Lord Mountbatten as a crashing bore. ‘Seldom has a Supreme Commander been more deficient of the main attributes of a Supreme Commander than Dickie Mountbatten.’
I have a friend who started off as an actor, and is now an antiquarian bookdealer. He says that everyone imagines actors are bitchy and disloyal, and bookdealers are trusty and loyal, but in fact the opposite is true: actors are wonderfully supportive, while bookdealers are invariably at daggers drawn.
In the same way, poets are generally regarded as sensitive, ethereal types, and are certainly much given to praising one another in print. But behind closed doors they are often very crotchety.
This generally emerges only after they have died. For instance, Byron accused Keats of ‘drivelling idiotism’, calling him ‘a tadpole of the lakes’, and Christopher Smart said of Thomas Gray that he ‘walks as if he had fouled his small-clothes and looks as if he smelt it’.
And the great composers and conductors have scarcely proved any better. Tchaikovsky spoke of ‘that scoundrel Brahms’, describing him as a ‘giftless bastard’, and adding: ‘It annoys me that this self-inflated mediocrity is hailed as a genius’. And the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham scored a devilish double-whammy, describing Herbert von Karajan as ‘a kind of musical Malcolm Sargent’.
Meanwhile, even the great Leo Tolstoy had a strong element of Mr You-Don’t-Want-To-Do-It-Like-That about him. He once said that Chekhov’s plays were ‘worse than Shakespeare’, adding, for good measure, that re-reading Shakespeare made him feel ‘an irresistible repulsion and tedium’. Professional rivalry makes hairdressers of us all.