This article was also published in the Financial Times.
David Nicholls, the Food and Beverage Director for the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group (seen here on the right of Gary Rhodes, Sean Hill and Rick Stein), arrived for lunch at London's Fino restaurant, looking distinctly uncomfortable, although we have known each other for the past 20 years.
He wasn't, I was to learn, distracted by what was going on in the kitchens of the 23 hotels he is ultimately responsible for around the world, whose annual combined sales are US$600 million.
Nor were there any last-minute hitches in the contracts he had recently put together to bring Heston Blumenthal and Daniel Boulud from New York to open in the Mandarin Oriental, London, due to be announced formally next week; to bring French chef, Pierre Gagnaire, to open in Hong Kong and Las Vegas; and to bring Carme Ruscalleda, chef/proprietor of the highly regarded Sant Pau Carme Ruscalleda in Catalonia, to open a restaurant in their Barcelona hotel later this year.
The problem was much simpler. I had invited Nicholls to talk about his role in these significant restaurant openings but he simply does not like talking about himself. He turned down my initial request to meet and although he finally succumbed, he peppered our meal with phrases such as 'Talk is cheap' and 'I only want to be judged by results.'
And yet his role in persuading these top chefs to lend their names and reputations to what Nicholls and his small team are planning has been enormous. Over the phone, Blumenthal explained his admiration, 'It's been absolutely vital for me working with someone who is so enthusiastic about quality. For my restaurant to work in London we need to serve a certain amount of customers in the evening and for the afternoon tea. I said at the outset that this would mean a limit on the number of customers we can serve at lunch and Nicholls accepted this right away. He's been absolutely brilliant.'
Over the next hour I was to glean a little insight into the reasons for Nicholls' personal reticence but he began by explaining how he arrives at the style of restaurant he thinks customers will most enjoy in each particular city and then which chef is the most suitable to approach.
'The first, and most important, element is the local market research', he explained, glancing at the menu. 'We've got to understand the local food scene, the demographics, tourism and the hotel's precise location. This is what we are doing in Mumbai, Shanghai and Jakarta at the moment. We can't afford whims. Sometimes there is an obvious lack of, say, an Indian or an Asian restaurant in a certain part of any city simply because that's not what either the locals or our residents want to eat there.'
Nicholls highlighted examples by referring to his planned projects in Milan and London. Research around the former city had revealed not just the failure of one high-profile Japanese restaurant but also quite how proud the Milanese are of their own food and wine. The new restaurant there will, therefore, use ingredients only from within a 50-kilometre radius.
London is more cosmopolitan in its tastes and so his approach has been very different. Nicholls recalled that when he was a chef at Walton's restaurant in Knightsbridge over 20 years ago, British food had a very strong appeal to tourists and this interest has only grown in the interim. Hence his determination to secure a partnership with Blumenthal to create an extension of the traditional British dishes that are currently being served at his pub, The Hind's Head in Bray. Ashley Palmer Watts, from The Fat Duck, will be in charge of the kitchens and one researcher is already hard at work in the British Library resurrecting neglected recipes.
Nicholls' decision to pursue Daniel Boulud to open an outpost of Bar Boulud, the hugely popular wine bar opposite New York's Lincoln Centre, was based initially on their research that revealed that what Knightsbridge currently lacks, despite a plethora of restaurants in the area, is 'a local bistro with a great wine selection, that is affordable, between £35 and £40 a head'. Bar Boulud will open in April 2010 and Blumenthal's restaurant, whose name is strictly under wraps, six months later.
Nicholls did allow his guard to drop, perhaps thanks to the very good tapas, to explain that not only was Bar Boulud a favourite of his whenever he was in New York but that he always has had the greatest respect for the chefs he is currently working with, whom he described as 'huge culinarians'.
As a result, he expects their influence to extend far beyond their restaurants. 'These chefs are custodians of enormous knowledge and it is my role to create a platform from which they can best pass this on. We need to attract the best talent and signature chefs enhance that process. It's about allowing young people the opportunity to aspire.'
Nicholls speaks tersely but with enormous conviction based on the extraordinary opportunities a career as a chef has made available to him. He eagerly undertook his first jobs, pot washing and cooking bacon and eggs, because they were the only alternative to a career in the coal mines, then the major local employer in his home town of Deal, Kent, although he still remembers being teased by his friends at the time.
Having risen to the position of Executive Chef at The Ritz Hotel, London, Nicholls then created a role for himself which significantly changed his subsequent vision for the service he needs to deliver to his customers. 'Most unusually, I combined being chef with being Food and Beverage Director at the hotel, so I was responsible for all the food that was served, whether as a banquet or in the bars. Sales increased six fold in nine years but this combination of roles allowed me to develop a vision for hotels that I am now just beginning to implement.'
Exactly how Nicholls has implemented this vision was in turn significantly affected by a phone call he received six years ago from Australia. His 19-year-old son, Dan, had dived into a wave off Bondi Beach, hit a sandbank, broken his neck and remains paralysed. The Nicholls Foundation (www.nichollsfoundation.org.uk) has so far raised over £2 million for medical research on spinal injuries, principally via fundraising-events Nicholls has set in motion with chefs he has met all over the world.
'Adversity has had extraordinary implications. It has taught me not to be confrontational, which I think has helped me to pull these deals off. But I do miss cooking terribly', Nicholls added with a smile.