Local restaurants were struggling when Gordon Ramsay hopped off the train at Okehampton on an almost impossible mission to rescue a sinking Devon bistro in 2009.
The Dovecote, in the market town’s Red Lion Yard, was featured in a one-off special called Ramsay’s Great British Nightmare on Channel 4, part of a campaign to encourage people to support their neighbourhood eateries during the economic downturn.
But the world famous potty-mouthed chef almost bit off more than he could chew at the restaurant run by Mick Martin, his long-suffering wife, Mo, and their adopted daughter, Michelle. Ramsay described Mick as “easily the most infuriating restaurant owner I’ve ever had to deal with” after a catalogue of clashes aired during the two-hour show.
Appalled by the freaky psychedelic wallpaper in the dining room, Ramsay was initially impressed by the bistro’s simple menu, but he was left open-mouthed and hungry after facing the reality of Mick’s “cooking”. It started when Michelle brought the first dish to the table – duck a l’orange with a distinctive dayglo aura.
“F*** me, do I need sunglasses. What is that sauce?” he asked. Michelle replied: “I think maybe it’s the orange squash he uses.”
“It looks like someone’s dropped a f******* lemon tart on my plate,” spluttered Ramsay. Spitting out the duck, he added: “Jesus Christ, that’s worse than f****** Benylin.”
Then it got even worse. Happy to find lamb shanks on the “freshly cooked” menu, Ramsay asked if the meat was “local”. His eyes almost popped out of his head when Michelle revealed the truth – the microwaved dish from the cash and carry was pre-cooked, vacuum packed and could be kept in a hot kitchen for up to a year without going in the fridge.
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Steaming in to challenge Mick, he told the ex-trucker and burger van man: “In 21 years of cooking I have never once refused to taste a dish, but when the lamb shank arrived on the table I was told it had a shelf life of 12 months, doesn’t need refrigerating and Dad didn’t cook it. How in the f**k can you charge £11 for that?
Checking out the labelling on the boil in the bag lamb shanks packet, he discovered it was packed full of E numbers – colourings, preservatives and flavourings. “Thank f*** I didn’t eat it,” said Ramsay. “I’m surprised you haven’t f****** killed off half the population of Okehampton.” But Mick was having none of it.
Observing that “the joker that cooked this rubbish might just be beyond my help”, Ramsay watched the chaos in the kitchen during a lunchtime service. He established that Mick couldn’t cook, was running the place like he was still on a burger van, yet insisted he was doing a good job and mistakes were not his fault. When rattled, he would disappear out the back door for a smoke.
Meanwhile, Mo and Michelle were bearing the brunt of his bullish moods and were almost at breaking point, plus Mick had financial secrets he was hiding. As Ramsay delved deeper, the dire state of the debt-ridden bistro business gradually emerged.
An offshoot of the family’s popular cafe in Okehampton that they had run for six years, the bistro was Mick’s dream and he’d ploughed £80,000 into creating it and propping it up. The family were living in a tiny flat on the premises after giving up their four-bedroom house.
“The bistro was Mick’s idea. He doesn’t care what his wife thinks. Mick is more pig-headed than I thought. The family could be homeless within months,” observed Ramsay, while cooking up a plan to turn things around.
Taking a trip to the butcher’s for some good quality local meat, he showed Mick how to make lamb shanks from scratch and duck using fresh orange juice instead of squash in the sauce, for 40 local diners. But as the pressure rose in the kitchen, Ramsay noted that Mick was “running around like a blue-a****d fly” and was completely out of his depth, serving up food that was burnt and cold. Something radical had to be done.
After Ramsay asked Mick to come clean about his secret spending, he put Mo in charge of the finances as she sobbed: “I’m not going to end my days as a f****** tramp.” Then in a shock turnaround Ramsay played his ace, pulling Mick out of the kitchen and replacing him with the completely inexperienced Michelle as chef.
A tin of white paint soon calmed down the trippy horrors of the dining room. “Every time I see Mick’s wallpaper I start hallucinating. It has to go. When you try to focus on it, it comes back at you at 1,000 miles an hour,” said Ramsay.
Ahead of a busy night serving fresh dishes for a packed house, he surprised Mick, Mo and Michelle with a sign changing the name of the restaurant to Martin’s Bistro, to acknowledge that they all had an important part to play in its future. “It wasn’t about turning a restaurant around, it was about turning a family around,” he said.
Michelle did a sterling job in the kitchen, helped by Mo, and they made £2,000 in one sitting, but Mick struggled with his new front of house role, grumbling and complaining throughout the service. “I was relieved to get Mick out of the kitchen but put him in the dining room and it’s like having a wisdom tooth pulled out without any anaesthetic,” said Ramsay.
When he made a return visit to Devon a few weeks later, he found Mick’s old ways had crept back in, with cheaper fish and meat from the cash and carry back on the menu as the credit crunch bit harder. This time Ramsay had no time at all for “Mick’s bull****” as the owner dug his heels in saying buying cheaper ingredients was just as good – even though on some nights the bistro had no customers at all.
“I am going to show the stubborn old boot and by the end of the day he’ll know all about the local producers on his doorstep,” declared the chef. Rallying dozens of locals to attend a meeting in the town hall, alongside a grudging Mick, he established that people would come out to eat if the restaurant served locally sourced produce, well cooked.
A triumphant night at Martin’s saw delighted families tucking into swede soup and a hearty lamb stew for just £8.50. Even Mick was smiling. Mo had the last word, saying “I’m going to make sure that he stays positive with us. We’re a family and we’re going to stay a family.”
Martin’s Bistro did survive the credit crunch, but after reverting the name back to the Dovecote, the business eventually closed in 2015. The building is now home to a branch of Graylings – a fish and chip restaurant and takeaway.
This one-off programme – Ramsay’s Great British Nightmare – can be viewed on YouTube.
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