Chef Magazine 2022
A guide on how not to open a restaurant.
If you the reader can cut me some slack, I’ll be using terms such as change, newness and restaurant openings interchangeably as a shameless plot device to provide some structure to an otherwise rambling, meaningless monologue.
Here goes. As an unhappy, misoneistic conservative, I like continuity, and feel that change should be reasonable, incremental or best, not at all. Change usually requires the destruction of what came before it, and the new thing, whether a building, an idea, a haircut, a fashion statement, a way of doing things, or a simple Coke recipe, won’t necessarily be better just because it’s new. Schumpeter’s Gale implied just that, a tumultuous storm where old money is destroyed and new money might be used to build upon the ruins. Or as Lenz might say, “clear a space, destroy, something will arise, oh god like feeling!” The last part of the sentence is probably most revealing!
Yet, despite being someone who has had a healthy suspicion of the whole Obama, “change, change, hope, change” T-shirt slogan, I’ve had a lot of this ‘change’ stuff in my own life.
I’m not sure what the attraction is, what it is I find in this constant flux of new beginnings that is so appealing. Maybe the chance to use pristine pots and pans, or the drunken lunches with potential shareholders where exaggerated cash-flow projections are mooted, the tingling, warm-all-over thoughts of glamorous launch parties where we might get to rub shoulders with some horribly mediocre reality star, or just the virginal carpets in the loos, and not needing to go through the rigmarole of putting paper on the seats. Gosh, any more exciting and it probably wouldn’t be legal.
So what can I say, both horribly stressful and horribly exhilarating. During our first opening, and despite David and I both studying for our Masters in Chaology at the University of Charlotte Street, we (I think, I speak for both of us) were totally unprepared for the sheer volume of stuff that had to have ready in order to welcome our first guests on our first lunch way back in the Paleolithic age of London gastronomy. It was the 16th December and we had planned on working for five days, a particularly soft, painless, and squidgy-opening, before taking a well-deserved holiday at Christmas and launching properly in the New Year. That was the plan until one particularly mean-spirited* (replace with any expletive) former-employer had the roaringly funny idea of tipping off the country’s food journalists to our opening, so what was meant to be a very casual few days, simply to wet our feet and try out a few dishes, turned into a trial by fire. Five national critics in the first five days.
My stellar team during this pivotal moment in our lives consisted of a girlfriend who ‘loved food’, a super sensitive kid DHL’ed down from a friend’s restaurant -accompanied with the firm instruction of ‘not upsetting him’- and a few other journeymen. Around midday David brought the first check into the kitchen and I remember to this day how everyone turned expectantly towards me waiting for instructions. I assumed the classic dear in headlights look as I froze, realizing I hadn’t got a clue what to do. I think I might have dropped into the fetal position and cried for a dummy or my favorite teddy and screamed something about the nasty customers simply having to leave the restaurant. They didn’t. The truth was, I had narcissistically insisted on the menu being ‘my dishes’, my inventions, rather than plagiarizing dishes from the great houses I had worked at. Great idea, but it didn’t lend itself to a smooth opening.
Somehow we survived the week, David obviously charmed them, pleaded with them to be sympathetic to my botched efforts, or maybe, he simply bought food from one of the nearby restaurants in Charlotte Street and re-plated their professionally executed dishes on our crockery and passed it off as ours?
There have been continuous accusations over the years, from wives, girlfriends partners, staff, friends, customers, suppliers, dogs, cats……..pretty much anyone who’s ever met me, of my tiresome love for drama. I remember when a French TV company were filming in our Hadean pit at P-a-T and I banned the chefs from making prep and blocked the reservations together to create the messiest service imaginable. The lady producer loved it, gushing over the ‘frenetic ballet’ that had taken place. The exhausted, brutalized staff used a different vocabulary.
I just believe that our greatest enemy is boredom, or suffering the pain of repetition. I’m not sure how many restaurant openings he did, but James Joyce certainly put it more eloquently, “Repetition is, in its monotony, variety and intensity, the rhetoric of Hell.” Quite.
So, what have I learned? From Pied-a-Terre, opening a place at the age of twenty-five, I must say, ask yourself as to whether you have enough experience –not just kitchen skills- to deal with the complexity of a new business and being the last person in the line where problems land. Apparently men don’t exhibit mature behaviour until the age of fifty, so we are at a permanent disadvantage, or simply roll the dice and suffer a repulsive character for the rest of your life.
Longchamps in New Delhi was my next venture and was pure farce. We arrived in September and were given a huge space on the top floor of the Taj Hotel overlooking Lutyens’ Delhi. Great spot, though the décor was… I consult my Thesaurus….tacky, hideous, vile. To their credit, the hotel immediately proposed a complete redecoration. It took six months, during which time I improved my front crawl in the swimming pool and travelled the country taking photographs. We eventually opened, though the restaurant was rarely busy and I constantly felt guilty that I was single-handedly bankrupting the nationally crucial Tata Group. Miraculously, the company very honorably let me see out the entirety of my contract, allowing me to spend two wonderful years in this fantastic country. I always had this nagging feeling that the visionary chairman who had taken me out there had not consulted his people to see whether there was any demand for a gastronomic restaurant in the country. ‘Create your own market’ is a very catchy T-shirt slogan, though can only be indulged by people with very deep pockets.
Lesson number two; is there really a market for your product.
Neat Cannes was another mess. We bought a lease from an aging alcoholic who would apparently fall down the stairs whilst drunkenly navigating the steps and lie at the bottom covered in his own urine. By all reports, a remarkably theatrical entrance, one, that despite my best efforts over the years, I have been unable to repeat with such aplomb. During negotiations for the lease we tried to choose evenings when he was plastered and we were sober. The property was in litigation with the landlord, a situation we inherited, though we had a company strategy of trying to trade well enough and long enough to be properly compensated before the inevitable eviction. Really dumb idea. Legal stuff is debilitating and saps the energy of everyone.
We also had to navigate French labor laws and how to get the seven reptilian staff that had ruined the previous incarnation, fired. Alcoholic guy wanted us to pay more for the lease, to compensate him for the costs of firing them. In the end, we reluctantly kept three of these ‘restaurant destroyers’, though pulled the expensive trigger ourselves over the following months. In an historical re-enactment of Operation Dragoon, -the invasion of the south of France by the Allies in 1944- I brought in a team of special forces from Blighty to help in the kitchens of Neat Cannes, without whom I could never have accomplished the critical success that the restaurant achieved.
Lesson number three; do your absolute best to gather good people around you. A restaurant is NOT a one-man show, and you’ll really need some talented individuals to share the burden, or the frustration will erode your will to live. Also, avoid litigation, easier said than done, as it was during an era when a restaurant’s dealings with lawyers was merely finding enough expensive wine for them to consume. Today, I understand there is much more litigation in restaurants as the hierarchy are either beastly, hurting the feelings of the staff, or are depraved monsters constantly molesting them?
Our take on Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe for our menu cover
Neat in London. Possibly the smoothest opening ever, a fact which must be testament to the people I had around me. Solid, decent shareholders, talented kitchen and front of house teams. Excellent property and location. How could anything go wrong?
We split the huge space into two, with a seventy seat gastronomic restaurant on one side, a Brasserie on the other. The Gastronomic side performed fantastically from day one, whilst the Brasserie never really took off. Despite my years in France and my familiarity with eating simple, well executed food, or as they say, ‘a la bonne franquette’, I put in place a misconceived restaurant which was neither gastronomic, nor brasserie style. Mea culpa. Nobody else was involved in this calamitous decision.
I never had the time to rectify my error, as three months after opening we witnessed the criminal act of 9/11 where after, the bottom dropped out of the City as the world awaited developments. By this time, I was missing my home, wife, friends and faithful Boxer in Cannes and it was with some relief that the shareholders pulled the plug in January. However, it was a very public and humbling experience, though probably necessary as an antidote for hubris, as we should all be occasionally required to feast upon the putrid dish of humiliation.
Lesson number four; be absolutely focused on your business. No distractions, no distractions, no distractions. I had always insisted that I would never be an absentee chef, yet I stupidly pursued the Napoleonic fantasy of global domination with restaurants in every city. It simply wasn’t me and I damaged both places simultaneously. Saying that, I hope that one day, we can return to an economy where a single restaurant can provide the owner/chef with a viable life composed of both professional satisfaction and decent income.
Moscow. Strictly speaking, a re-boot, rather than a launch. It was an existing, functioning restaurant where the owners wanted me to parachute in for a month or so and teach the team a few new tricks. Instead, the principle partner and I hit it off and I ended up staying eighteen months. I didn’t know a soul in the country and the owners were two nationally relevant players, so the place functioned with or without my efforts. It was simply a blast.
Lesson number five; drink copious amounts of vodka when launching restaurants in Moscow.
Casa Lalla Marrakech. We settle in this remarkable country after the trauma of eviction in Cannes and my cameo in Moscow. We buy a Riad (house with rooms) through an arrangement called a ‘gerance libre’, a French system of purchase split over an agreed period of time. My first experience of running a hotel and something I’ve always dreamt of doing again. Really one of the most pleasurable periods of my life as I discovered that I was not a complete misanthrope, but someone who actually liked and loved (certain caveats apply) his fellow man. My ex-wife and I had the best time, a continuous house party as we held court on our roof-top terrace, whilst the smoke, sounds and smells from the Place Jemaa El Fna provided the most incredible, exotic backdrop.
The previous owner had been running the Riad for a year or so, though only as a maison d’hote, rather than our lofty vision of a destination restaurant with rooms. We had some early press in the UK, not a difficult achievement as Marrakech was the hottest global destination at the time, and filled the place up with visiting Brits. Really great fun, as I could inflict my love of company and conversation upon a captive audience of prepaid houseguests. The opening was straightforward, as by the time we took on the place we had made a few friends in the town who supported us during the early days. The staff, clientele and produce in the country were excellent and we were able to create a super formula, where we prepared a daily changing menu degustation for sixteen people (eight rooms of two people) that was served with military discipline at the same time each night.
We were finalizing the purchase of the place, when instead, we decided to get divorced.
Lesson number six. …….don’t get divorced from your partner?
Off to Costa Rica. So, my girlfriend Louise, a fellow Brit, has been here for thirty years. She has built the most beautiful hacienda style house where she sells antiques in the nations capital, San Jose, and magnanimously gave me an aisle and garden to regale myself. Possibly the most beautiful setting I’ve ever had for a restaurant. The nine tables are surrounded by Buddha’s, arches, ornate doors that once sat in Maharaja’s palaces or beneath the boughs of our majestic Kigelia Africana, whose enormous fruit were as dangerous as Damocles’ sword. One day one of its huge fruit fell inches from the American ambassador and probably would have impaled him, thus causing a diplomatic incident at a crucial juncture in the US’s ‘war on terror’ and probably would have seen me dragged off to some rendition site in a country not known for luxury tourism.
Anyway, the opening was fine, as I inherited a lot of Louise’s antiques buying customers. We had little capital expenditure as we used the tables and chairs of the shop which were for sale anyway, though we always tried to make sure things weren’t removed before people had actually finished eating from them? The climate in the central valley is just right -even Goldilocks would approve- so a garden setting is perfect, a happy fact that allows more savings, as Nature is doing most of the décor? Understandably, there is a genuine excitement about the nascent restaurant industry, as the people of Costa Rica are harnessing it to create an excellent destination for global tourism, where 2019 itself was a record year for welcoming travellers. There have been some extraordinary openings that take advantage of the unique natural beauty of the country (check out Pacuere Lodge, where I spent the most amazing forty-eight hours of my life, that started with whitewater rafting for hours through jungle covered gorges, where birds flew above us –macaws, NOT vultures waiting for me to crash the raft- before arriving at the lodge and sleeping in the majestic Jaguar Suite, who incidentally wasn’t using it the night we stayed)
Anyway, then some bright spark came up with the under-cooked bat recipe, and the world has been suffering the horrors of a covid pandemic ever since. We closed the restaurant at Park Café and isolated at home, where the only people I could practice my culinary skills on were Milo and Lexi, our Rottie and Dobergirl. Feedback is limited, and whilst Milo occasionally mentions the ‘subtle interplay and juxtaposition of flavours and textures’, I suspect he read such terms on a pretentious food blog and is merely parroting it to sound knowledgeable.
Lesson number seven; partner someone who has the same value system as yourself. Whether my ex-wife, or girlfriend Louise, there has never been a conflict on ‘the right thing to do.’
Which brings up to the present, where as we reemerge form this hateful pandemic, I’m occasionally feeling my age, and want to do restaurants with partners, people to share the otherwise crushing load of responsibilities. It was with such a thought in mind that brings me to the latest venture, DOMA, my eighth opening as I’ve ‘changed and hoped’ my way around the globe these last few decades.
The four friends I’m helping have created a stunning new spot in Costa Rica’s capital, full of beautiful, avant-gardist design features, so I’m really happy and proud to be involved, more so since I’ve been close to one of the guys for over a decade. It’s a super exciting project, though essentially I’m the Fifth Beatle. We’ve been open two months and are already refusing people on a nightly basis. It has been a great launch, fun partners, great staff, fantastic customers. Suppliers are really helpful too, as everyone seems conscious of getting the country back to the position we were in before covid.
Most important lesson from this last place; if possible, try to open something where another activity is also taking place. At DOMA, there are a constellation of stars, not just one, and whilst I ‘do my thing’ there are other activities at the restaurant such as Oscar and Donato’s hugely successful fashion, clothing and bag atelier, Carolina, a brilliant florist, has also taken a place at the front of the house, whilst another lady has a beautiful design store at the entrance. Patrick the artist has filled the place with extraordinary art pieces.
With so much talent I have had to learn to humbly share the glory as well as the yukky difficult bits. It is a very good thing.