Secrets of the top tables: Why do some restaurants fail while others are jam-packed?
John Walsh asks the expert – and discovers why it's about so much more than good food
Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Friday 14 September 2012
Pity the poor restaurateur. He or she may own a string of famous eating houses, may travel the world in search of glamorous locations in which to build new ones, may have designed the waiters' outfits, commissioned the edgy murals and will suffer most in a recession. But they'll probably never be as well-known as the chef in his kitchen.
While the last 25 years saw the rise of the British super-chef (Marco Pierre White, Gordon Ramsay, Heston Blumenthal, Raymond Blanc and a glowering army of others), the chaps who raise the money, pay the bills and hire the staff remain mostly incognito, hovering in the background in their well-cut suits. You don't find restaurateurs judging MasterChef or being asked about favourite dishes. They're businessmen and women, you see, and therefore not "creative" like the chaps in the kitchen with the knives, the pans and the attitudes. But this may change, if Nick Lander has anything to do with it. In the 1980s, Lander ran L'Escargot, the popular French brasserie in London's Soho whose maitresse d' was the incomparable Elena Salvoni; since 1989 he's written a restaurant column for the Financial Times – and, having examined hundreds of food establishments (sometimes with his wife Jancis Robinson, doyenne of wine writers), he's publishing a book about the unsung midwives of lunch and dinner.
The Art of the Restaurateur (Phaidon, £24.95) begins with the claim that "chefs, in my opinion, have been elevated to an overly lofty position. They have been the main focus of the restaurant media, to the detriment of the restaurateur's profession", and proceeds with interviews of 20 key figures in the profession, to demonstrate their importance and find out what makes them successful. He's spread his net wide. In America he chats to Danny Meyer, whose breakfast cafés and barbecue restaurants (Union Square, Gramercy Tavern, Untitled) have made him New York's highest-profile meal wrangler; and to Gavin Pilgrim, who runs the Californian foodie temples, Chez Panisse and the Zuni Café. He talks to Alan Yau, the Hong Kong-born, London-reared entrepreneur behind Hakkasan and Busaba; to Neil Perry, the energetic Australian who transformed a series of run-down buildings into the glamorous Rockpool chain in Sydney; and to 16 others around the world.
Is running a restaurant an art? Lander says there's a definite art in looking at an empty premises in a run-down part of a city and envisioning it transformed, glammed up and pullulating with well-fed and voluble punters. But when you've bought your space, installed a kitchen, bought the furniture, the napery and wine glasses, found the chef and signed on the waiters – what's the secret of being a good restaurateur? For Hazel Allen at Ballymaloe House, in Cork, it's about having an enthusiastic welcome for everyone – with a glass front door and a reception desk behind it. It's about staying on your toes at the end of dinner, when the pudding and cheese trolleys (and the waitresses) are wilting. It's about having the family eat with the visitors from a communal buffet once a week and subscribing to old-fashioned notions of ambience, comfort and pampering.
Russell Norman, perhaps the most famous of modern restaurateurs, worked for Richard Caring at Le Caprice, Zuma and The Ivy Club, before starting up his empire of Venetian-style wine bars (Polpo, Polpetto, Spuntino, da Polpo, Mishkin's) across Soho in the last five years. His big secret is simple: he used to be a drama teacher at a girls' high school in Middlesex and believes that running a restaurant is about role play. His training sessions involve his staff playing at being waiters and diners and learning a 33-point sequence of service, which involves much dish-recommending, wine-glass topping-up and smiling. Other secrets of his success include: a) having a partner and Mr Fixit who scouts for restaurants that have failed in popular areas; b) refusing to spend much money on interiors, preferring antique and second-hand stuff; and c) operating a no-bookings policy, for a "relaxed, informal" vibe. But just why so many people are keen to crowd into Norman's rather scruffy little bacaros, ordering tiny cichetti snacks, and don't mind waiting 45 minutes for a table, remains unexplained.
Des McDonald, until recently the CEO of Caprice Holdings, turns out to have been the son of a Northern Irish baker. He learned to cook at Westminster Catering College, endured a tough apprenticeship in the kitchens of various bullies and drunkards and became executive chef at Caprice Holdings, created by Jeremy King and Chris Corbin, who now own the Wolseley and Delaunay. When they left, he was summoned to head office by the new owner, Luke Johnson. He became a kind of steward to Richard Caring when he, in turn, bought the company, flying around the world opening new restaurants from Dubai to California. His management expertise lies in choosing the right location, the right building and the appropriate style with his designer, Martin Brudnizki. He also believes in building a network of private dining-rooms, clubs and a catering company, and linking them with a 300,000-strong database of loyal customers – an electronic village of word-of-mouth recommendations. Welcome to the future.
Nigel Platts-Martin is the most successful restaurateur Lander interviewed – the only chap in the book who never had to close any of his restaurants. He was, Lander believes, responsible for changing the way British chefs are perceived. Not only did he discover Marco Pierre White and establish him as a scary presence at Harvey's, he gave the world Chez Bruce, The Square, the Ledbury, the Glasshouse and La Trompette (though the last two have been sold) and made stars out of his business partner Bruce Poole, and the chefs Philip Howard and Brett Graham. Lander ascribes his success to three things: his early years as a merchant banker with SG Warburg, which made him see restaurant acquisitions as business transactions; his brief legal career, useful in handling the complexities of multiple leases; and his passion for Burgundy – a bottle of Savigny les Beaune 1979 stirred him to eat in as many French restaurants as possible.
Platts-Martin learned a lot, it seems, from three years at the reception desk of The Square. He learned that customers will recommend a restaurant with a good wine list. He learned how to hustle for business (it's important to have, or pretend to have, a passion for football when speaking to the concierges of local hotels). He invented the concept of the "greeter" – the owner-proprietor who elegantly works the tables of diners to chat suavely about nothing in particular and make them feel special. But Platts-Martin's genius lies mostly in collaboration – not just with talented chefs, but with a designer, Arvind Vadgama, who knows how to install modern kitchens in venerable London buildings.
Everyone knows of Ferran Adrià, the Columbus of the gastro-voyage, and his restaurant, El Bulli. But they probably don't know Juli Soler, who was running El Bulli two years before Adrià arrived. Soler had the toughest job of Lander's interviewees: when El Bulli was at its height he was trying to manage an establishment where 48 chefs cooked for and 25 waiters waited on just 50 customers a night, bringing them between 40 and 50 dishes each for a set price of £240 a head – and the place shut down for six months a year. How could they make a profit? They didn't. They used the fame of El Bulli to support other projects, making money from books, endorsements and joint projects with Telefonica, Nestlé and Pepsi. But how did it work with such an army in the kitchen? "We [worked] in a very co-ordinated way as a family, with the same respect given to the chefs, waiters, pastry chefs, the driver, the dishwashers, the sommeliers and all the interns."
Whether the people Lander celebrates are checking salt cellars, darting an eye over newly arriving celebrities or checking a balance sheet for signs of extravagance, it's their bold willingness to take risks that impresses most. That and their readiness to make a big fuss of you in front of other people.
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