Boardwalk Empire: Will Gordon Ramsay’s Atlantic City Outpost Sink or Swim?

Food Features Boardwalk Empire
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It’s 5 p.m. on a chilly Friday in April, and I’m finishing up an early dinner at Gordon Ramsay Pub & Grill at Caesars, Atlantic City’s newest celebrity chef-driven restaurant. The atmosphere is subdued; a few people are drinking wine at the bar, and a group that looks like adult versions of the Jersey Shore cast is celebrating a birthday at a nearby table. “It’s the calm before the storm,” says Chef La Tasha McCutchen, with a smile, as she stops by to see how I’m enjoying my meal. She got this prestige head chef job in a way befitting our reality show-saturated era—by winning Season 13 of Hell’s Kitchen, Gordon Ramsay’s grueling and often ridiculous TV series featuring the perpetually blustery British chef berating a group of mostly hapless and under-qualified cooks.

McCutchen had to keep her newfound success a secret for a long time—not an easy thing to do—as her season was shot in 2013 and the show’s finale didn’t air until this past December. She started her new job shortly thereafter, and has had to learn to deal with some pretty major changes from her previous life working as a cook at 3030 Ocean, a “modern American seafood” restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The head chef here is another Hell’s Kitchen alum, Paula DaSilva, who came in second place back in 2007, and presumably provided McCutchen with some tips on how to deal with Ramsay’s renowned wrath. Still, the spotlight currently shining on McCutchen can be intimidating. For starters, her smiling face is plastered on a giant billboard towering over the Atlantic City Expressway, greeting visitors speeding towards the Boardwalk and casinos. Her job now involves much more than just working behind the line, as she is the face (second to Ramsay’s, of course) of a new venture that management hopes will bring some business and much needed revenue to the struggling former Boardwalk Empire.

Times have been tough for Atlantic City as of late, with four casinos closing in just the past year, and Caesars Entertainment (the parent company of Caesars Atlantic City) filing for Chapter 11 this past January. This is a serious problem for the town once known as “America’s Playground,” as well as the rest of the Garden State. In an interview on last summer, New Jersey resident and labor economist Deborah Figart warned about the ripple effects AC’s demise could have upon the rest of the state, including reduced consumer spending and vendors who rely upon contracts with casinos going out of business. Walking around the casino floor, one marvels at the amount of people employed to keep the operation running, and the recent closures have left the populace searching for work. The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts Atlantic City’s unemployment rate at almost 12 percent, nearly double the national average.

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Flickr/William Warby

And let’s not forget about the lingering effects of Hurricane Sandy, which devastated the Boardwalk just a few years ago. According to a Reuters article, gaming revenue has decreased by about half since 2006, due in large part to the influx of new casinos in other states like Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, and Connecticut. And, let’s be honest, Atlantic City often feels like a weird, sad, forgotten gambling city, a neglected sibling to its bigger, shinier sisters. In other words, Atlantic City makes Reno look like Vegas and Vegas look like Monte Carlo.

Of course, its peculiarity is also part of the AC charm. It’s an easy car or train ride from major mid-Atlantic cities like New York and Philadelphia, drawing slot machine-addicted grandmothers and fist-pumping club kids alike for weekend excursions. But just a block away from the Boardwalk, Pacific Avenue isn’t exactly a cozy tourist destination, as check cashing joints, pawnshops, and decrepit liquor stores seem to mark every corner. Perhaps this is the real Atlantic City, not the forced glitter, sprawling buffets, and incessant dinging of the slots that fill the adjacent casinos.

Still, McCutchen’s right about the coming storm of patrons at Gordon Ramsay’s Pub & Grill. Around 11:30 that night, I take a stroll back over to the restaurant to check out the scene, and it’s popping. A couple of huge parties have taken over the dining room floor, which extends a bit awkwardly out into the lobby right next to the front desk. The restaurant doesn’t appear to be at capacity, but the place is hopping nevertheless, and this is still the offseason. The summer months are when Atlantic City tourism really gets going. Also, the food, elevated pub grub based upon some of Gordon Ramsay’s favorite dishes and British classics, is executed with great finesse. (Full disclosure: my meal and overnight stay were comped by Caesars PR, but if normal service is close to what I received, they’re doing a fantastic job.)

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The menu features lots of gastropub standards like wings and burgers, including a precariously towering “Ramsay burger” topped with grilled jalapenos, smashed avocado, and onion rings. I sampled a Scotch egg (McCutchen’s favorite), perfectly soft boiled—no easy feat, here— and encased in fragrant, crispy sausage served over a bed of braised cabbage; surprisingly light fried calamari, fritto misto-style with kale and potato chips, served with a zesty malt vinegar aioli; Ramsay’s signature Beef Wellington, cooked to a medium rare that almost gave it the consistency of seared tuna (a good thing); and a lovely sticky toffee pudding based on Ramsay’s grandmother’s recipe that offers just the right amount of sweetness.

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Opening a new restaurant in Atlantic City in its current precarious economic climate would be a gamble for anyone, but perhaps this is especially so for Ramsay, whose empire has shown some worrisome cracks in recent years. Several of his high-end ventures have closed, including The Fat Cow and The London in Los Angeles, The London in New York, and restaurants in Ireland and Japan. He’s also had an ongoing, distracting interfamilial dispute with his father-in-law, Christopher Hutcheson, who was CEO of Gordon Ramsay Holdings until Ramsay fired him in 2010 for accusations of “gross misconduct,” including embezzlement and hacking into his personal computer. Still, Ramsay owns and operates a boatload of restaurants, most now geared, like Ramsay Pub & Grill, towards a more casual experience rather than fine dining. This is a smart business decision, likely having something to do with the makeup of his fan base. At the risk of over-generalizing, it’s probably safe to assume most people who regularly tune into his Fox shows are more likely to eat in an informal setting than plunk down $150 for a prix-fixe menu in a stuffy environment. Also, burgers sell (take that, chicken sandwich).

Gordon Ramsay Pub & Grill is also an exercise in contradiction, much like the city itself. On the one hand, it fits the Vegas model perfectly, combining the allure, flash, and steady influx of patrons built into the casino model with the draw of a world-famous celebrity chef. On the other hand, there’s the whole “Atlantic City on an economic precipice” thing. The night I spent there at Caesars, though, the gambling floor was fairly packed, humming along nicely with most of the table games near capacity, even with minimum betting at $15. A stroll next door to the Mountain Bar at Bally’s (also owned by Caesars Entertainment) was a little more depressing. A live band played adjacent to the bar, covering Maroon 5 and Bruno Mars, with supernaturally peppy singers gamely striking rock star poses and exhorting the four people watching them to dance harder. The only restaurant that appeared to be open in the vicinity was a sad pizza place with awful, undercooked slabs of dough. This was a thoroughly different scene.

It’s easy to criticize Ramsay for focusing too much on being a reality television star and not enough on being the Michelin star-winning chef he has proven himself to be several times over. But that’s not to say one can’t do both, and if anyone has the intensity, drive, and arrogance to do it, it’s Ramsay. Chef McCutchen wasn’t able to comment on specifics, but she put a positive spin on how the restaurant is doing so far. “We’re doing record-breaking numbers already in the first two months,” she said. “The feedback from the people has been really good. I feel like we’re bringing a breath of fresh air back to Atlantic City, giving the people something to be excited about. I see the casinos that have closed down, but… we’re steady bumping. We haven’t slowed down.”

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McCutchen’s contract is only for a year, so she’s keeping her options open as to what she’ll do next. But right now she says her heart is in Atlantic City. The question remains whether there’s enough heart and energy left in Atlantic City to allow a restaurant like this to succeed; a question that should be answered this coming summer. In the meantime, the winner of the current season of Hell’s Kitchen is set to join the staff at the Pub & Grill, and a new season of MasterChef will begin in a few weeks. It doesn’t seem like Gordon Ramsay is worried about failure very much at all.

Jonah Flicker lives in Brooklyn, NY and covers travel, food, film, whiskey, and other spirits for a variety of publications. You can find him on Twitter @illiotgould.