As we walked into Franco's, the excellent-value Italian trattoria recently re-invigorated by the Hambro family who own the far more expensive Wilton's next door, my guest Bob Plumb looked around the busy dining room and commented, "I recognise this place. I saw it when it was a shell and we bid on the job but sadly we didn't get it."
Plumb's job takes him into more building sites, prospective restaurants and kitchens than perhaps any other professional and at a far earlier stage than the many who work to transform and open restaurants. In essence, Plumb is a kitchen planner but so complicated and intricate have modern restaurant kitchens become that the business card for his company, GWP Ltd, carries a much more sophisticated strapline – 'foodservice design and management consultants'. In fact, he is a man who attempts to make restaurateurs' dreams a reality while simultaneously ensuring that future customers will receive the quality of food they expect as efficiently as possible.
Plumb's company is not alone in this line of business but I had warmed to him via a chance meeting when, as a fellow Northerner (born in Sheffield, Plumb is based in Grantham, Lincolnshire, when not travelling), he had expressed the same problems as I have getting my mouth round the French terminology which still dominates menus and kitchens, and even more so when he subsequently ordered the sea bass, adding "I do like my sea bass."
Ordering out of the way, I asked Plumb to explain just what the phrase foodservice design and management consultants actually involved.
"In essence it sounds quite straightforward. We need to understand fully what the front of house, the restaurateur, is trying to achieve and then we have to build the engineering capacity into the back of the house, the kitchen space, to make this possible. But it is far more complex than it sounds because professional kitchens aren't the simple, straightforward affairs domestic cooks recognise from cooking at home. Today they are hugely intricate pieces of engineering overlaid with all the services, ventilation and air conditioning that we now take for granted and increasingly stringent food hygiene legislation.
"What's essential to my job is first of all getting on site as soon as possible and then coming to understand what the client, whether a restaurateur or an hotelier, wants to do with the space and some idea of the numbers involved as well as the throughput if for example it's an area that's going to be used for staff feeding. We then go away, review and analyse what the client wants and it's this which begins to drive the design outline and the initial, albeit still vague, calculation of the possible cost involved.
"It's also at this stage that a restaurateur's initial vision can begin to change. The most likely reason for this is that we've identified that it's simply not possible to fit everything they wanted into the space available. And then there are the mechanical and engineering requirements. I often find that restaurateurs simply underestimate the power requirements a big kitchen needs. Although most kitchen equipment is constructed to be increasingly energy efficient the big vital pieces, like a combination oven, have a very high kilowatt loading. Each one of these uses 69 kilowatts, for example."
Plumb, 50, speaks quickly and authoritatively on such matters because, having graduated from hotel school, he went to work for the Electricity Council, where he picked up the technical knowledge to understand and design modern kitchens. As our two first courses, a tangy, warm octopus salad with pomegranate seeds and the finest Pio Tosino Parma ham were being cleared away, Plumb proceeded to extract the rest of his professional equipment from a bulging shoulder bag: most crucially, a slide rule for working out whether potential equipment would fit into the available space; a laptop; scores of sheets of plans that were not just restricted to the kitchen because whatever air conditioning, ventilation and services a kitchen requires has to be fitted into the rest of the building; and his mobile which he wasn't too ashamed to say he had forgotten to charge the night before allowing us an uninterrupted lunch.
Once his analysis of what is feasible has been completed and aligned with what will now be the client's final, albeit somewhat modified, ambitions, Plumb believes he and his fellow professionals fully earn their fees. "I think this is when we come into our own because if we are to do our job properly we now have to become the lynchpin for all the other professionals involved to ensure that the site is renovated and fitted out on time and to budget. My job, when all these final drawings have been agreed upon, is to link all the other disciplines involved, the architect, the mechanical and electrical engineer, the interior designer and the chefs if they are already on board, and ensure that together we deliver what the restaurateur wants."
But it is now that Plumb has encountered two sets of challenges that not even 25 years in the heat of the kitchen seemed to have inured him to. The first is the internal politics of the restaurant or hotel he is working with where various members of the management may be jostling for position regardless of the outcome of the design project. And the second is the financial imperative. "Return on investment drives everything and everybody and this becomes particularly onerous if the client is not a restaurateur but a property developer, for example."
But if this aspect of Plumb's professional life is exasperating, he has increasingly witnessed one very positive change during this time. "Professional kitchens are by and large far more hygienic today than they were when I first entered this business. The increasing amount of EU and UK legislation, which makes restaurateurs undertake due diligence on all their suppliers, has made for far more sophisticated operating systems, even if it has given me far more to take into account when planning a new kitchen."
I had hoped that my lunch with Plumb would yield some practical advice for my own kitchen but this was not to be. "The difference in scale and complexity today between the professional kitchens I'm asked to design and those at home is just too vast. I haven't changed my kitchen for years, there's still a large stainless steel sink under a window and a large Victorian cupboard that holds everything with some stainless steel work tops. The principles are, of course, not that different, to maintain good hygiene and a good workflow with the most important sections, the preparation, cooking and wash-up areas – what we refer to as the holy triangle – in the right place so that they can be easily cleaned and maintained. But domestic kitchens have to be visually attractive too and that, happily, is something I don't have to bother with."
Franco's 61 Jermyn Street London SW1, 020-7499 2211, www.francoslondon.com