Food: Britain's Celebrity Chefs Feel the Heat as the Upmarket Restaurant Boom Falters ; Gordon Ramsay Has Been Threatened with a Winding-Up Order over an Unpaid VAT Bill; Marco Pierre White's Mirabelle Faces Multi-Million Pound Debts. Is All Well in Haute Cuisine?

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Gordon Ramsay is arguably Britain's finest chef, a former professional footballer turned enfant terrible of the restaurant world. He boasts an Aston Martin, a fearsome temper and is the proud owner of a British rarity - a Michelin three-star restaurant. His empire, now stretching from Dubai to Glasgow, has flourished.

But this week, it almost went horribly wrong. His jewel in the crown - the restaurant named after him in Royal Hospital Road, west London - was being threatened by Customs and Excise with a winding- up petition over the limited company's failure to pay a VAT bill. A hearing will take place on Wednesday at the High Court, although the bill has now been settled and the hearing is likely to be adjourned.

The payment was delayed by an administrative oversight, explained Mr Ramsay, for which Chris Hutcheson, his business partner and father-in- law, has received a "very hot bottom".

A Customs and Excise spokeswoman, refusing to discuss the specific case, however, said: "It is not a matter of `Oops!' you missed your VAT payment, now we are going to shut you down. The process takes quite a long time."

Whatever the circumstances behind the winding-up petition, this has been a bad week for the cheferati - previously omnipotent, loud- mouthed chefs, making their fortunes out of a burgeoning restaurant crowd looking for chic eats.

Industry watchers say the celebrity chefs have themselves to blame. In the wake of relentless expansion in the 1990s, there are simply too many upmarket restaurants to cater for a dwindling number of well-heeled diners. Worse the explosion of branded, large-scale, posh restaurants is actually proving a turn-off for diners who increasingly demand intimate, homely settings.

"There is a very strong decline in brand support - there seems to be a resistance to eating in branded restaurants at the higher end of the market," said David Coffer, a leading surveyor in the restaurant market.

Richard Harden, editor of the guidebook Harden's London Restaurants, says the "foodie" crowd is growing up. "In the restaurant business, the Eighties happened in the Nineties," he said. "In the Nineties restaurants became big and glossy, and what up north is known as `fur coat and no knickers'. There was a lot of vulgarity about."

And this has rattled some of the most prominent restaurant chains. The benchmark for disaster is Jean-Christophe Novelli, the French superchef once voted the sexiest in the world. His chain of restaurants across London went into liquidation in 1999, the result of over-ambitious expansion plans and less and less time spent in the kitchen. Bailed out by his mentor, Marco Pierre White, Mr Novelli is back running Maison Novelli in Clerkenwell.

Or take Marco Pierre White, the other "bad boy" of British cuisine. The rumour mill went into overdrive when it emerged on Tuesday that he was to quit the board of his flagship restaurant Mirabelle amid talk of a pounds 10m debt. By Friday lunchtime, after inquiries by The Independent on Sunday, he was back on the board because, as his spokesman put it, "everybody has got so hot under the collar he has decided to become a director again".

Marco may have retired from the kitchen three years ago to concentrate on his business interests, spend more time with his family and indulge his hobby of shooting, but it has not prevented him expanding his empire and lending his name to a number of restaurants. Pointing out Mirabelle made a pounds 713,000 net profit last year, he said: "My resignation from the board, although to me purely cosmetic as I have sold no shares, was a miscalculation. …