Nick looks back quarter of a century

24 Jun 2006 by JR
June has always made me feel queasy. It is nothing to do with the weather or London’s ‘social season’ and everything to do with the memories that come flooding back as a result of opening L’Escargot restaurant in Greek Street, Soho, in the sultry June of 1981.

Many of the memories are still vivid, and an inordinate number are happy ones too, but I have forgotten a great deal. The stress of opening L’Escargot induced epilepsy, which has not left me, and subsequently exacerbated the ulcerative colitis, diagnosed in 1968, leading to stints in hospital in 1985 and 1987 and the inevitable decision to sell my restaurant in 1988. Although I would still encourage anyone to become a restaurateur, I would advise against falling in love, opening a restaurant, getting married and having your first child within 18 months. Each of these pleasures is too valuable to be rushed.

I rushed into becoming a restaurateur with a level of naivety I still find astonishing today. In the 25 years since, the restaurant industry has changed beyond all recognition not just in the UK but worldwide thanks to an influx of capital, technology, skills and customers. This combination of factors has meant that what I set out to become then, a successful independent restaurateur, is sadly a profession that barely exists to-day.

Having become an enthusiastic restaurant-goer thanks to the indulgence of my former, commodity trading employers, I quickly appreciated that the interior of the 18th century townhouse that had been converted into a restaurant in the 1920s had its own magic, even if took some time to find one’s way through all the rooms and too long to climb the five floors from the basement kitchen to the office.

I knew from having worked on the Haymarket nearby just how busy Soho could be (although not nearly as crowded as it is today) and that there was a busy theatre next door (although again I had no inkling of just how many customers the musical Evita would send my way). And I had a pretty good idea of the strong, clean flavours I wanted the food to have; the fun I wanted people to have with the wine list; and the open, friendly management approach I intended to adopt towards my staff, a spirit of friendliness which I hoped they would pass on to my customers.

Back then, however, I had little idea of how to implement any of this. The restaurant’s survival and subsequent success owed as much to my naïve vision as to the talents of a random group of individuals who shared my enthusiasm. Four young Englishmen: a designer, a general manager, a level-headed but talented chef, and someone who saw the potential of the ground floor brasserie and initiated cabaret there three nights a week where the young Julian Clary used to perform for £50 a night; an Austrian bookkeeper; and Elena Salvoni, a second-generation Italian then in her mid-sixties and still going strong now at the age of 86 at Elena’s Etoile in Charlotte Street. As the most sensitive restaurant manager, Elena brought in the first wave of customers and charmed them into returning - even if their initial meal had taken far too long - and then became the personification of the friendliness, generosity and warmth every restaurant should exude.

But none of us, individually or collectively and whatever our talents, contributed to the restaurant’s subsequent success as much as the establishment of an organisation about half a mile away which had an effect, not just on my business but every other nearby eating and drinking establishment, that is now impossible to underestimate. The opening of Channel 4 television in Charlotte Street in early 1982 never figured in my sketchy business plans but I will remain eternally grateful to its founders.

Channel 4 was unusual then in that it outsourced all its programming, with the immediate effect of kick-starting Soho’s cutting rooms, production facilities, and viewing theatres out of the recession of the early 1980s. Subsequently, it was to stimulate a growing number of independent production companies, all of whom needed somewhere to pitch ideas, interview potential actors, launch series and films and generally have a good time – a scene recently recaptured in BBC2’s dramatisation of ‘The Line of Beauty’, filmed in the current L’Escargot.

Today, it would be difficult to argue whether the media are more dependent on the restaurant industry and its chefs, their recipes and the details of their personal lives or vice versa with chefs queuing up to appear on TV, not for the money but for the boost it will give to their restaurants’ bookings. But this symbiosis dates back to a time when both parties were more youthful.

With a nascent media industry keen to show off and a restaurant keen for as much business as possible, there were no second thoughts when Colin Callender, now CBE and President of HBO Films in the US, suggested he took over the entire restaurant one Sunday, set up monitors in various rooms of the restaurant and mount the control room on my desk, to show the entire six hours of his television dramatisation of Nicholas Nickleby to as many press as would want to come over breakfast, lunch and supper.

Other members of staff were particularly excited by the subsequent visits of the late Princess Diana, Sir Alec Guinness and Mick Jagger but I will never forget the frisson of excitement when a documentary maker asked
to see Elena and me, and then pulled out from under the table the small velvet sack containing the Oscar he had recently collected.

The consequences of all this passed me by at the time but when I recently met the comic actress Jennifer Saunders she explained how, when she was still a singer on Channel 4’s The Tube, her encounter with a formal but friendly, white cloth table restaurant that was L’Escargot had been her first step in recognising just how much fun restaurants can be.

I would not want to overstate my or my restaurant’s role in the process that has led to what I believe is today undoubtedly the golden era of the restaurant industry but timing, as ever, was important. Although there had been numerous successful, and far more experienced, restaurateurs before me – Joseph Berkmann, David Levin and, most obviously, the late Peter Langan – I had the distinction of being not only naïve but also youthful, just 29 in 1981, and English. Happily, I was soon joined by Chris Corbin and Jeremy King when they took over Le Caprice and collectively set in a motion a process that was lead to the emergence of many more British restaurateurs and chefs.  But there was undoubtedly an originality and a freshness of approach in our food, wine and friendly service which caught the mood of the growing number of restaurant goers of that decade.

But looking back the biggest difference between then and now is unquestionably the size of the market. While there were far fewer restaurants than there are today there were also far fewer customers and going out to eat in restaurants was simply not part of the British way of life that it is today. This led to a somewhat paranoid feeling in those days that there was only a certain number of customers out there, that when they cancelled a reservation or simply chose to go somewhere else there was no-one likely to take their place. Although we may not then have concentrated on staff training quite as much as conscientious restaurateurs have to to-day, I do remember sitting all my staff down whenever a new restaurant opened nearby to ensure standards would not drop.

Today, such is the frequency and speed of new openings across so many cities that this approach would seem ridiculous. Competition in a seemingly ever expanding market, rather than isolation within a static one, is what drives restaurateurs and their backers to look at potential new sites. Equally, what reassures customers is the knowledge that even if they cannot get a table in any of their top three favourite restaurants there are at least a handful of others to choose from. Restaurant going is not the special occasion it was 25 years ago but this is something that few restaurateurs, or their customers, will complain about.   

And while the number of younger British restaurateurs, chefs and customers was expanding, it was doing so on to a rapidly expanding international setting. Trips by wealthy Americans to the best restaurants in France had been popular since Waverley Root first wrote about them in the 1920s but they were encouraged by the wave of publicity behind those practising ‘nouvelle cuisine’ and the new wave of top French chefs, Bocuse, Vergé and Blanc. American eaters were soon sent round the UK by the writings of RW Apple Jnr in the New York Times, customers who, at the restaurants and hotels they stayed at dispensed a level of tipping rarely seen since. From the middle of the 1980s came gastronomic tourists from Asia and Japan in particular when eating at as many Michelin starred restaurants as possible was often the aim and falling asleep at the table because of jet lag often an unforeseen consequence.

What this growing international curiosity in restaurants and cooking has established today is a level of gastronomic tourism that would have been unimaginable when I began. Blogs, the internet and, I would hope, numerous newspapers’ restaurant columns have all contributed to the current level of excitement but I still find it extraordinary when I am travelling very far from Britain to be asked by people who have never been to London whether St John lives up to expectations; what makes the set price lunch at Le Gavroche such a good deal; and whether Heston Blumenthal is actually his real name. 

And while the demand to eat at the most exciting, or even just the most talked-about, restaurants has become international so too has their infrastructure. Chefs have never allowed barriers to stand in the way of their career path and have moved easily not just across different sections of the same kitchen, then to different kitchens within the same country and then across continents. I remember being rather surprised by the sight of two Japanese pastry chefs in the kitchens at Troisgros in south east France in the early 1990s but this year El Bulli in Spain will receive over 5,000 applications from young chefs from all over the world who will volunteer to work for three to six months fashioning 50-dish tasting menus for 50 customers a night. And the most poignant example of this migration came from Blumenthal when he told me about the American chef he had hired via the internet who had flown over at his own expense to work at The Fat Duck but had realised, as soon as he arrived, that he was physically too broad to squeeze into what is a very small kitchen. Despite an offer to work in the restaurant’s laboratory, he decided to return home the next day. 

On the back of the chefs have travelled ingredients, recipes, wines, restaurant designers and managers, sommeliers and the highly specialised professionals such as Arnold Chan, the Hong Kong born lighting expert who has put his expertise into restaurants as far afield as Tokyo, New York, London and Madrid. This has evolved today into what constitutes a restaurant flying circus.

Behind all these individuals, however, lie two factors which, while common to every other industry, could have made my life so much easier 25 years ago.

The first is the massive advance in technology which, ranging from the kitchen to the General Manager’s office, has transformed where, how and what is cooked. The advent of induction cooking, a flames, highly efficient cooking method, has brought the kitchen closer to the customer; sous-vide and the Paco Jet have intensified flavours while the apparently irrelevant creation of the digital camera now allows chefs and management to monitor standards by providing a prompt, inexpensive record of what each dish must look like before it leaves the kitchen.

The second is obviously the accessibility of investors keen to take part in what is still a highly risky business. As the sums required to make today’s increasingly elaborate restaurants come to fruition seem to increase significantly, so too does the pool of would-be backers. The next wave of investment into London’s restaurants will come, I am told, from extremely wealthy Russian businessmen, many of whom have already enjoyed the first fruits of their investments in Moscow’s new restaurants.

Regrets aside, one thought has preoccupied me since I sold L’Escargot – how, or whether, I would have survived as an independent restaurateur. The answer is certainly, but sadly, that I would not have done.

Ironically, I would have survived the most difficult trading period, the recession of the early 1990’s because I had paid off all my bank loans and I would happily have joined in such promotions as Lunch with the FT to stimulate demand. But after that I would have struggled, becoming a victim, I fear, to one of the most significant changes of the past decade - the demise of the single, independent restaurateur. Instead this period has been marked by the emergence of restaurant groups which can absorb the higher costs of opening today; provide the costly management infrastructure that is vital to provide the appropriate levels of service; take advantage of all possible economies of scale in purchasing; and provide proper career paths for their staff.

Individually, I could never have provided any of this and today I realise that I simply could not have survived on my own. But from what I remember it was great fun while it lasted.
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