This article was also published in the Financial Times.
As managing director of The Fat Duck in Bray, for which its chef Heston Blumenthal has justifiably won three Michelin stars and worldwide recognition, Tony Baker has one of the most enviable jobs in the restaurant world. But one that he arrived at via a most unusual route.
Although today many chefs have attained celebrity status their ascent to this questionable position is very different from the sportsmen or artists whose company they are now often seen in. To make a name for themselves, chefs need their own restaurants which will have required capital and financial assistance to get them started. When they finally emerge into the media spotlight they invariably have a long-term commercial partner alongside them, someone who has been either wise or brave enough to have spotted their potential early on.
Baker has, however, only held this position for three years and previously had no experience whatsoever of the restaurant business. Before we met he agreed with my comment that it was as if he had gone overnight from running an amateur football club to managing Manchester United.
But it is unlikely that any football manager would look as youthful at 60 as Baker, a fact he attributed to one of the most distinctive aspects of restaurant life. “Everyone I work with now is much, much younger than I am. Heston is only 41 and the average age of the rest of our staff no more than 25. It’s a wonderful feeling to work with such a young team and it reminds me of when I first started in the design world,” he explained.
Baker had spent all his career in graphic design, sales and marketing for large corporations citing his previous interest in restaurants only as “places to eat in” - although as someone who has lived and worked around Bray he followed the rise to pre-eminence of The Fat Duck since its inception in 1995. “I used to eat there a lot, “Baker continued, “far more in fact than I do today. Blumenthal then spent all his time in the kitchen and we developed a kind of nodding relationship. I watched the business grow and develop and saw for example the lavatories moved from a shed outside in the garden to more luxurious surroundings upstairs.”
Their lives changed in January 2004 when The Fat Duck received its third Michelin star (I was with Blumenthal that day in Madrid when he revealed he had only six booked for dinner that night, just enough cash in the bank to cover the next week’s wages and was the closest he ever came to going ‘belly up’ as he graphically put it). Overnight the reservations line began to ring non-stop (they now receive several hundred calls a day) and Blumenthal’s first reaction was to try and outsource this aspect of the business to a mutual acquaintance. Her response was that this was too small for her company to handle but put Blumenthal in touch with Baker.
“By then I was doing some small business mentoring so I came in and we talked for a long time,“ Baker explained. “Heston outlined his problems and I offered to come in to help him three days a week. But that arrangement only lasted a fortnight and since then I have been fulltime. I managed to solve the reservations challenge by hiring Melissa Lyons, who now looks after the logistics when Blumenthal and his team cook outside the restaurant, and we employ two fulltime on reservations who implement a strict policy whereby you can only book precisely two months in advance.”
As well as full responsibility for The Fat Duck Baker also has what he describes as ‘a watching brief’ over The Hind’s Head, the 400 year old village pub 100 yards away where Blumenthal has intelligently created a completely different menu based on traditional British dishes (and where I would like to eat once a week as opposed to once every six months at The Fat Duck).
Commercially, they constitute a significant business. The Fat Duck seats 46 (reduced from 52) for lunch and dinner six days a week and with 60-65% of its customers choosing the £115 tasting menu it generates an average spend of between £150 and £200 and an annual turnover of over £4 million. The spend at The Hind’s Head is much lower but its popularity means that it is now serving up to 250 customers a day generating a further £2.5 million. The restaurants’ turnover, in a company privately owned by Blumenthal, is significant with additional income from books and TV, handled by two separate agents.
Baker’s role, as he sees it, is to look after what is effectively a family business and to deliver the financial rewards Blumenthal deserves after several years of working 100 hours a week for very little. Given his scientific style of cooking which does not rely on expensive cuts of meat or fish I would imagine that although the challenge of managing the food cost element is easier than in restaurants of similar standing, on the other hand each dish requires far more intricate planning, design and execution which focuses Baker’s attention on that other vital aspect, the staff.
“There are 32 chefs at The Fat Duck who together with the restaurant team and the administration generate a weekly wage bill of between £32-£35,000 a week,” Baker explained. And when rather than how to manage his team has proved the biggest challenge. “Normal business patterns simply do not apply. Usually when you have a major issue in an organisation you call all the heads of departments together and sort it out. But when everybody is working long lunch and dinner shifts and then needing the time in between to get ready for the next one there is simply no time for meetings. You have to deal with whatever arises promptly but as efficiently as possible.”
This approach has obviously taken a big weight of Blumenthal’s shoulders. “He does accuse me of giving him a permanent red forehead from banging his hand there whenever I come up with some crazy and invariably expensive idea such as giving every customer an I Pod in a seashell for the course we call ‘Sound of the Sea,” Blumenthal confessed. “But it is wonderful to be working with someone who cares about the business and my family and who has finally helped me get out of the personal guarantees I needed to give to start the business.”
Baker has already come to several conclusions about The Fat Duck. Despite continuous offers from around the world they will not open elsewhere which will sadly not make securing reservations any easier. He also says that working alongside Blumenthal, whom he described as ‘an incredibly determined perfectionist and a gentleman to all he meets’, has been an enthralling experience but what he has found most extraordinary has been working at this elevated level of a profession where everyone knows that this is what they want to do and their dedication is so pronounced.
His only regret is that he now eats in The Fat Duck far less often than he used to and that he does it is to taste new dishes straight from their kitchen laboratory. But this is unlikely to lead to an early departure. “It’s just too much fun,” according to Baker.
My last meal at The Hind's Head began and ended unforgettably.
As we drove into Bray our car picked up a puncture and just limped into the car park opposite the pub. Our tall Australian friend missed the sign on the low beam above the entrance which reads 'Duck or Grouse' and cracked his head (he recovered quickly with a stiff drink and was so impressed with the food that he returned the following week with fellow Australians). And at the end of lunch the waiters had to come round to every table to ask all the customers to remind them of what they had eaten and drunk because their computer system had crashed and they had no record of the orders for their bills.
In the interim we enjoyed several traditional British dishes each elegantly executed: soused herring with beetroot and horseradish; potted shrimps with toast; lemon sole with brown shrimps and spiced butter and a luscious Eton Mess, that unctuous combination of strawberries, meringue and cream. Alongside were a refreshing salad of Amalfi lemons; broccoli with almonds and anchovies and what has justifiably become the pub's signature dish, quaking pudding, a 17th century dessert Blumenthal has recreated with historians from Hampton Court. With drinks the bill came to just over £140 for four.