A chat between Rishi Sunak and celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay about the challenges faced by the hospitality industry has been branded “a PR stunt” by chefs who said the chancellor’s decision to reach out to the TV personality was “disrespectful” to small businesses struggling through lockdown.
The chancellor posted a tweet on Thursday to announce he will be sitting down with “industry leaders and experts to hear how they’ve reacted to the pandemic” over the next few weeks, starting with Mr Ramsay – who made his name in Michelin star restaurants before becoming one of the richest and most well-known chefs in the world through his TV work.
A video of the chat between the two multi-millionaires showed them discussing the Kitchen Nightmare star’s experience with his restaurant business in the past year – and his latest venture as host of a new game show, Bank Balance.
But the sit-down has rubbed chefs and others in hospitality the wrong way, with many pointing out that Mr Ramsay laid off around 500 employees during the first lockdown in March last year – even as Mr Sunak launched the government’s furlough scheme to keep people supported while remaining in post.
Asma Khan, founder of Darjeeling restaurant in central London, said the chancellor’s post “reeked of privilege” and was a reminder to smaller businesses of “how little we count”.
She told The Independent: “It’s very upsetting, not because people want to hate Gordon or Rishi, but it is just so brutal when we can’t survive or are struggling. This third lockdown has been so hard for everybody, especially those of us in central London, which is a ghost town.
“It is so shameful that [Rishi was] talking to a hugely wealthy, privileged chef. I’m sure he has had difficulties, we all have, but to have a conversation like this is disrespectful to everyone on the ground, the small restaurant, the mom and pop shops where entire families have lost their jobs.
“I feel disrespected, I feel the pain of all the silent but dignified people, I’m embarrassed for them that they have to face this kind of reaction from the government and our so-called, self-appointed industry leaders.”
The video also sparked a sense of “dismay” in Masterchef winner and restaurateur Simon Wood, who added: “There’s a difference between thinking you’re helping and actually helping, and it’s quite clear that’s what’s going on.
“It’s a massive PR stunt with probably two of the richest people in the country talking about something they have very little connection to,” he said. “This is not a dig at Gordon, but the industry needs to be spoken to on the ground level… It’s a bit of a glossy shoot with a celebrity.”
Mr Wood spoke about his restaurant venturing into fine dining delivery boxes in order to keep his business going, adding: “[Gordon’s] view about being able to start a TV show in lockdown compared to my view that I just packed 40 boxes so I don’t have to lay my staff off is so far away from what we’re having to do in the industry, there’s no comparison, and it’s small businesses that are struggling the most.”
Damian Wawrzyniak, chef-patron at House of Feasts near Peterborough, East Anglia, asked Mr Sunak to speak to “more ordinary people” rather than Mr Ramsay, tweeting: “Can you also talk to more ordinary people? People with mortgages, families, kids in pre-school with childcare to pay?
“You can’t see issue [sic] if you will not hit the bottom of the problem and we ordinary people are at the bottom right now. We need bounce back, NOW.”
Labour shadow business and consumer affairs minister Lucy Powell also criticised the chancellor’s decision to speak to Mr Ramsay.
She tweeted: “Words fail… I’ve nothing against Gordon Ramsay but he’s hardly been the voice of hospitality over last year. From one ivory towers to another (with special iPad stand).
“Try speaking to those on the ground – I can give you a list?” she added.
As the country awaits Boris Johnson’s unveiling of his roadmap out of lockdown in England, the prime minister has cautioned that the hospitality industry will likely be among the last to reopen its doors.
Mr Johnson is expected to set out a “cautious and prudent” approach to easing restrictions, but it is understood he will not set out firm timings and will instead outline the earliest points at which various relaxations could come, dependent on how the pandemic develops.
A spokesperson for the Treasury said in a statement in response to the criticism: “Throughout the pandemic, the Chancellor has worked closely with the hospitality sector to understand their concerns and reach as many people as possible, making sure they’re aware of our £280 billion package of economic support.
“He has engaged with many figures from across the sector, including hosting several roundtables and a recent meeting with Gordon Ramsay, a hugely popular chef with a wide reach across the UK.
“We’ve supported hospitality throughout the pandemic, including through furlough, the business rates holiday, grants and the Eat Out to Help Out scheme. We’ll continue to do so.”