At the end of a radio discussion that focused on what 2014 will hold for restaurant goers, we panelists repaired to a nearby watering hole. Not surprisingly, the discussion about restaurants continued.
The first topic was quite general: where would we most like to travel to in the coming year to broaden our knowledge of food and restaurants?
My response, greedily perhaps, consisted of four distinct road trips. The first would be to repeat a trip we went on for my 50th birthday in late spring. This involves flying to Venice then driving west via the churches, trattorie and restaurants of Verona, Mantua, Padua and Cremona before ending up in Milan.
My summer trip would be to Japan and in particular to the northernmost island of Hokkaido, renowned for its fish, shellfish and their extensive use of seaweed. The attraction of the very finest raw food would then see me heading in late autumn to Denmark and Finland as a result of a comment made by Rene Redzepi, the chef and founder of Noma, Copenhagen. Late autumn is the best time to visit this area, he contends, as all the produce gathered and foraged so close to the Arctic has by then had the benefit of the sun's rays over their long days during the summer months.
Finally, I'd go on a two-part tour of the southern hemisphere. The first leg would be to Lima, Peru, to experience first hand this country's unique cooking style as well the social improvements the renewed national pride this cooking has generated.
Then it would be on to the Margaret River, south of Perth, Western Australia, to experience again that happy combination of beach, surf, good food and wineries that made this region so memorable on our last visit there 28 years ago.
After we had all given our answers, which ranged from trips to San Sebastian and the Basque country, to Mexico and the Amazon, to Laos and Vietnam, as well as a general sense of regret that we have all missed the opportunity to visit Syria, I was asked a very specific question, one that has been put to me more frequently than any other over the past 15 months. This has stemmed from all those who have heard that our son has become a restaurateur and what everyone has wanted to know is this: What did I try to do to dissuade him from such a career?
The answer is nothing and not just because he is taller and stronger than I am. Nor was this simply laissez-faire parenting, nor the realisation that he was not dissuadable. More importantly, I think my tacit approval was significantly due to the fact that at this stage in the evolution of restaurants there is a very special factor emerging, one that is unprecedented but potentially important for anyone thinking of going into this business, and for their anxious parents.
Success in the restaurant business demands the fitness, exuberance and optimism of youth. While the need for these qualities will never diminish, what is now emerging is a phalanx of talented restaurateurs who have earned their spurs. Hooked on a profession that is extremely difficult to say goodbye to, they form a bank of professional expertise that is readily accessible. Their advice may not always be available face to face but can invariably be gleaned by eating in one of their restaurants or by asking for guidance.
Andy Bassedone, whose latest restaurant, Jackson & Rye, has just opened in London's Soho, represents perhaps the most extreme exponent of such experience. Sitting back by the window of his new restaurant, Bassedone hazarded a guess at the number of restaurants whose openings he has supervised: 'over 140'. Over the past decade they have taken three very different guises.
Backed by businessman Richard Caring and in partnership with former chef Chris Benians, Bassedone created Strada, the Italian pizza chain, then Côte, the good-value French bistro, before both were sold very profitably to venture capitalists. He still masterminds the expansion of Bill's restaurants, an all-day very English café, restaurant and shop based on the original Bill's in Lewes, Sussex, as he plans his new forays into this highly competitive mid-priced market with Jackson + Rye and Grill Shack, which draw their inspiration from the casual food, drink and cocktails of the east coast of the USA.
Over glasses of 'Arnold Palmer', iced tea and lemonade, and dishes of well-priced, well-executed and generous servings of shrimp and grits, buttermilk fried chicken and crab cakes, I managed to draw out of this reticent restaurateur a few common threads to his approach. Giving equal importance to the chef and general manager in each opening; looking to take over sites that had been restaurants, even failed ones, as this means that the kitchens are already in a suitable location; and having a contingency for the unexpected, particularly with the ever-increasing need for kitchen extraction; these were his three insider tips.
But far more important than anything else, Bassedone stressed, is the need to deliver value for money for the customer. This, he contends, is by far the most important ingredient on any restaurant menu today.
Jackson + Rye
56 Wardour Street, London W1D 4JF; tel +44 (0)20 7437 8338