Meat master who sells beef back to Argentina

After 21 years, Zeev Godik’s Gaucho grill restaurant chain is maturing nicely - not only thriving but expanding too.

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The Independent Online

“Everybody wants to be a gaucho,” says Zeev Godik. “Whoever they are – bankers, builders or waiters.

They all dream about being the mythical creature roaming the pampas on his horse, knife in belt, wielding the boleadoras [the three balls on leather strings]  and wearing their bombachos. It’s about freedom – of being a real cowboy; not the Marlboro, John Wayne Western guy. Gauchos represent a philosophy of life.”

Real gauchos also eat lots and lots of Argentinian beef – the meat that comes from the cattle reared on more than 17 special grasses that grow on the pampas plains. And so do the wannabe gauchos.

Which is where Mr Godik – also known either as Z or Mr G – comes riding into the picture. Today he’s wearing a sharp suit and not his bombachos,  although there is tell-tale stubble on his chin and cuff-links carved with the pampas grass. Mr G is the dashing Dutchman who flew into London nearly 30 years ago to test the gaucho dream on our palates after having won over his compatriots in Amsterdam.

Well, we fell for his beef too, starting with his first Gaucho Grill in Swallow Street, Piccadilly, in 1994. The Brits now eat 600 tonnes of his meat from Argentinian cattle roaming on 45 different farms, fed only on grasses – no antibiotics or other horrors – and allowed to grow until they are two and a half years old. We like the flavour so much that there are now 14 Gaucho restaurants in the UK, others in Dubai and Hong Kong, and, most recently of all, in Buenos Aires – a case of cows to Newcastle. New ones are on the menu for Shanghai and Singapore.

I meet Mr G at one of the most gorgeous of the Gauchos – the cavernous, 120-seater underground restaurant that sits beneath the stunning glass box and bar in the middle of Broadgate in the City of London. It’s moody down here, lit only with sparkly chandeliers. There are cowhides on the wall, flashy cowhide seats – to be changed because ladies’ tights get nicked on the skins – and the tables are full of City folk, most of whom are paying for their cowboy dreams on their bosses’ expense accounts. The sexy decor, says Mr G, is the work of his ex-wife, Patsy, who is creative director and the reason he came to London in the first place.

He recommends that we eat the empanadas (baby Cornish pasties), ceviche (Peruvian marinated raw fish), sweet potatoes, the most enormous lomo (fillet steak) and, of course, chips. It is all washed down by a creamy Malbec red wine – a Patricia, for £48, which comes from the 90-year-old Mendoza vineyards in Argentina – and the airiest white wine, Torrontes, made from grapes grown at an altitude of more than 3,000m in the subtropical Salta region.

High altitude means high alcohol content. Reluctantly, Mr G has had to send back some of these wines because they were over the 14.5 per cent proof level that distinguishes wine from port for tax reasons. Even so, he has singlehandedly boosted Argentina’s wine trade, importing half a million bottles a year in total – 40,000 bottles a year from his own vineyards.

It doesn’t come as any surprise when Mr G says that the financial crisis barely dented this restaurant’s traffic, or any of his others for that matter. “There was a little downturn in August 2011 but nothing dramatic. Not even lower bonuses after the crash have had much of an impact.

“About 80 per cent of our trade here is on expense accounts. Our average price per customer is on the high side – at £70 a head, a fine dining spend. But we try to be careful, not to be too over the top. So our wines, for example, start at £30 and go up to £200.”

The latest figures, for 2013, showed sales of £56m, and earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation down slightly at £9.6m, compared with £10m the previous year. The dip in profits, he explains, can be attributed to the fact that he is always updating the restaurants and that he is busy rolling out a new chain – CAU, or “Carne Argentina Unica”. They are mini-Gauchos – more urban, with meals at £30 a head. There are eight CAU outlets, seven more are opening this year and 80 locations have been earmarked.

Mr G first experimented with his own gaucho dream when he was 22, in his first year studying film at Amsterdam’s film academy (his father was a successful theatre director). Argentina was already in the blood because he had close family there; he visited the country many times in his youth, learnt fluent Spanish and fell for the food.

Borrowing £1,500 from his father, he opened the first Gaucho 35-seater in central Amsterdam, smuggling Argentinian beef over the German border because he couldn’t find it in Holland. He was co-chef.

“This was June 1976, the hottest summer on record. Nobody came into the restaurant for three months,” he recalls. “I thought it was over, a disaster. Then one night a well-known food critic from Avenue magazine came in. She tasted our food, loved it and gave us a glowing review.”

Business took off overnight. For a while he worked and studied at the same time, but trade was so busy that he asked the academy whether he could take a year’s sabbatical to give Gaucho a go. It said no, of course. (It should have asked for shares; even his father regrets not having invested more.)

Ironically, Mr G and his team have created their own slice of theatre and he is the undoubted showman. “Great restaurants are all about energy and tiny detail; the staff and the customers have to be happy. Getting the intangible bits right is what makes the atmosphere. That’s what makes me tick – seeing everybody happy.”

All of his staff – there are 1,000 employees – are trained at Gaucho’s academy in Swallow Street and he receives hundreds of job applications every week. “Everybody goes through the training, so they all have the right attitude and culture. Unusually for the restaurant business, we have a lot of women at the top of the company. I find they are far more creative, loyal than men. There is less ego and less elbowing.”

Mr G, who owns a majority stake, has no plans to sell or list, having shelved plans for a flotation just before the financial crash. His top 40 managers own a decent chunk of the shares too, as does Intermediate Capital Group. “I am having far too much fun,” he says, smiling. “Maybe my daughter Georgie, who runs some of the London restaurants, will take over one day. She is only 27 but she loves the business as much as I do.”

Watch out, cowboys – it’s time for a female gaucho.

The CV: Zeev Godik

Job: Chief executive of Gaucho Group

Aged: 61

Family life: Divorced, with two sons and a daughter

Favourite book: George Orwell’s ‘1984’

Favourite musician: Cat Stevens

Favourite film: ‘Midnight Cowboy’

Favourite car: Mercedes Pagoda

Favourite holiday: Anything on the water

Favourite artist: Jackson Pollock

Typical day: “I’m in the Piccadilly office at about 8am most days for meetings and talking to staff until about 11am. Then I usually visit two or three restaurants if I am in London, or perhaps I will go to Leeds, and then on to Manchester. Say hello to everyone, chat to staff, look around, feel and sense what’s going on. I check the tables, talk to customers, many of them are regulars.

It’s a bit of a rotational circus; there are good days and bad days. It’s good for me to know how staff – and clients – are feeling. Then I go out to business meetings, usually in a restaurant, and then in the evenings it’s back to visit more restaurants. It’s a 16-hour day usually – and often seven days a week.

At least once a week I am travelling abroad to visit our restaurants or look for new sites. When I do take some time off, you can find me walking in London parks, often Hyde Park, or visiting the Tate or the museums. Sometimes the cinema. Or I like to play tennis, go to the gym. But working is what makes me tick.”

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