Me And My Partner
Tony Allan met fellow chef Ronnie Truss at Claridges in the Eighties. In 1985, he borrowed pounds 400 to set up a fresh fish business, then invited Truss to join him. Their business, Cutty, supplies most of London's restaurants and they opened their own, Bank, in 1996, and Fish! recently. Cutty's turnover is now pounds 25m
Wednesday 05 May 1999
A year later, Ronnie asked me to come and work with him as a fish chef in the City. Ron had his own views on cooking, and I think there was a clash of personalities between him and the executive chef. He left to work at another place, and I was promoted to head chef. I stayed six or eight months more before I got sacked.
I was always complaining about the quality of the fish. We were 60 miles from the coast, and the fish was sub-standard. I decided to start going down to the coast. My girlfriend's dad lent me pounds 400 and out of that I bought a van and paid for a batch. There was no one doing it from a chef's point of view, no one with knowledge of the end product, so I had an advantage.
The one thing I had to learn was how to buy fresh fish. I was learning how expensive the product was, learning the way people risk their lives to get it. If you've got a problem with getting beef, you'll know months in advance. If the boat goes out in the morning and comes back in the evening with nothing, you've got a problem.
I was selling to a few restaurants, and supplied Ronnie with a bit of fish. We had a chat and I said, "Why don't you join me?" He was a bit disillusioned with his job, so he did. He would go out and see customers, I would buy and prepare the fish. We grew very quickly.
We've both got the same goal in life: there's a real passion for the restaurant industry and cooking. Our jobs used to overlap more, so I've got a good knowledge of what he's doing, and vice versa. My day starts about 4am and Ronnie starts about 6am: we'll meet in the morning and discuss things, and have six or seven phone calls a day.
I have always been a gut reaction person, someone flying by the seat of his pants, but I have become more cautious. I used to think a year ahead: now I think five or ten years ahead. Ronnie's a good negotiator and he's got a sensible vision. I have been in many situations where I have been too fiery and hot-headed for some people, but Ronnie's got the right temperament. He's got strong views.
We have grown up together, we'll go on holiday together, and there's no competition between us. If anything, that boosts the business. We tend to go through stages together; we got cars, then we got new houses. Ronnie would get his head down and work much harder and so would I. We'd think, `How am I going to pay this off?'
Another thing that helps is our age: we've got to give the public what they want, even if they don't know they want it yet. That's behind our menu at Fish! It's simple: staff tick off what's good on the day. We have revitalised classic dishes and rescued them from naffdom, like the prawn cocktail. We believe there's a big market for that.
I believe Fish! is going to be the most successful thing we have ever done. If you look at other fish restaurants in London, they lack atmosphere and people in them are of an older generation; they're also expensive. There was a massive gap in the market for someone to come in and turn it around. We've got this platform from which we can serve our own product: we already supply 350 restaurants in London, and we thought we'd like to do our own thing, something that London hasn't got. We said to each other, `What's your idea of the perfect restaurant?' We wanted to make it affordable, a restaurant where you could eat three courses and drink wine for pounds 25 a head.
The atmosphere comes from finding a location. We were introduced to this place, opposite Southwark Cathedral, by Sophie Grigson's husband William Black. We thought, with the PR we can generate, this could be the perfect start-up. The atmosphere's brilliant, with the trains going overhead.
There are frustrations, but when you stand back you could accuse yourself of being a spoilt little sod. We've got a fantastic concept in Fish! and our supply business is the best in London. At the moment I'm on Cloud Nine. We know we can see 10 sites and put our names to all of them. We are that confident.
I tend to use Ronnie as an insurance policy. I'll say, "I fancy this" and he will say, "Yeah, A1" or "I don't think so". He would question it. I am sure he perceives me as his second brain.
RONNIE TRUSS: At school, I tended to be in and out of scuffles. For some reason, I had an interest in food, and being a chef appealed because I didn't know anyone else who did it. I wanted to work in the West End: I was a bit of a Jack the Lad. I like to do my own thing, and I have a relationship with Tony which allows me to do that.
At Claridges, we got on very well from the beginning on a friendship level. We went out socially, and he had a good sense of humour; he was good fun. I tended to do a year or six months working in a place, which suited my personality. I was quite serious about food, and had an enormous appreciation of it. It's frustrating being a young chef because you want to do things in a certain way, and you have to conform to a particular style. Tony and I worked together in the City, and we've never lost contact since then. The initial thought for me joining Tony was the fact that I knew a lot more people in the industry at that time. I thought it would be fun to work together for a while, and it would be good to make some money along the way. It evolved very quickly when we got together - how things should be and could be done. I would be the front man, going out and getting the orders, meeting people.
There was a great timing about Cutty. At that point, in the mid to late Eighties, there was an explosion of chefs who wanted to create different food and interesting products and styles, to demonstrate qualities never demonstrated before. The old-style suppliers used to get away with murder. Cod was 10 days old before you'd see it on the fishmonger's slab. We saw that niche because of our understanding of that side of the industry and our synergy with chefs.
We became what they were trying to be. It's a time which will never be repeated and it was exciting for everybody. Before that, it was Dover sole or steak and chips.
We took 10 years to build Cutty into a really solid foundation and we appointed a good financial director. That gave us the confidence that there's an awful lot you can do out there. Tony and I have always had a mutual understanding about what's right and what's wrong.
We both realise that we could have been involved with other companies and been successful but, as a team, we are more successful than if we were apart. We bounce ideas around each other. Tony's got good gut feeling for situations.
Fish! is the first restaurant I've seen that is true to the product. We take a small piece of beautiful fresh fish and cook it simply. It's not masked behind sauces and garnishes and flavours. It speaks for what it is. People want to eat healthily and want to feel they are doing right by themselves and by their children.
Eating fish goes a long way towards that. The menu's designed to be an alternative to what's out at the moment. You can have a fresh piece of swordfish, chips and a bottle of beer for the same price as a meal at Pizza Express. For once, there's a healthy option. But it's a new concept and people need to be educated, a job done not only by us but also by supermarkets and health magazines. The public understand a pizza or a burger, but there's an education process going on and we need to get to the forefront.
Tony sees in me someone he can bounce an idea off, and have complete trust that we will make it work. I don't think too much about our relationship. If you're too analytical, you'll drive yourself mad. Why does someone make you laugh? We do see each other a lot, and we've known that whatever paths our lives might take, we'll always be friends.
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