I first saw Will Ricker as he bounded down the stairs of E&O (Eastern and Oriental), his highly successful Notting Hill restaurant, and disappeared into the kitchen.
We spoke on the morning we were due to meet at Eight over Eight, his latest pan-Asian restaurant in the King's Road. Would I excuse him, he asked, as a chef had not turned in and he was going to have to work at the Great Eastern Dining Rooms, his Hoxton restaurant?
We finally met at a table outside Cicada, his Clerkenwell outpost and the only one without an Asian menu, where I was treated to a hugely entertaining, one-hour discourse on how to succeed as a London restaurateur delivered with the usual self-effacing humility one has come to associate with successful Australians.
First and foremost choose a building with a presence, a sense of form as he defines it. Ricker, now 41, left school in Melbourne very early and spent the next fifteen years in property, analysing what any site was worth and developing several of them. Today, he rattles off yields, percentages and floor plans as quickly as chefs do recipes and knows precisely what will work. 'It has to be a corner site, no low ceilings and with good natural light. And definitely no columns.'
The restaurant will only work if it is operates on the ground floor and basement but then it is always to be part of a larger scheme. 'Restaurants are risky ventures,' he explained 'and the trick is to try and minimise this risk.'
Perversely, Ricker does this by initially taking a bigger risk. On each occasion he has bought sites which have had residential property to convert above them. Purchase prices - ranging from £230,000 for Cicada which yielded a restaurant and four flats to £700,000 for Eight over Eight which will yield five flats and a townhouse - have been funded by an arrangement he puts together between himself and his investors.
'I don't have partners, rather a collection of investors in a syndicate. I have brought these together in various combinations. When I started it was 70/30 in their favour but the ratio has got better for me with each deal and I don't think I will need them for the next one,' he adds with a smile. 'When the properties are sold their capital is repaid and the balance pays for the shares in the restaurant company. At its best it has meant that one restaurant actually cost nothing and there was a £60,000 cash surplus.' All his investors have also enjoyed a healthy return, citing a 48 per cent ROI for one of E&O's backers.
He protects this exposure in two ways. 'I only buy freeholds because that is the only way you can safeguard your business. No busy restaurateur can afford to wait for landlord's permission if something structural needs moving or changing, particularly in the kitchen.'
And each restaurant must have the right-sized bar attached. 'A bar cannot survive on its own because they go out of fashion too quickly, they just don't have the longevity. And the right-sized bar brings an extra dynamic to the restaurant, bringing in an early evening crowd and easing the wage costs. But it must not be just a holding bar. It has to be a profit centre in its own right, big enough so that the drinkers can sit there comfortably and with a sufficiently comfortable access for the diners to get through to the restaurant without being crushed. I have finally worked out the perfect site. It would be 18/19 metres deep and 12.5 metres wide, seat 100 with room for six booths along the far wall. Then I would hit gold,' Ricker beamed.
In the interim Ricker and his investors are doing extremely well, particularly at E&O where around eight o'clock the line of taxis dropping customers off is longer than at most mainline railway stations. Luck, which deserted him on his first two Soho ventures in the early 1990s, has played its part, as Ricker honestly admits.
'I was very lucky with the name E&O which belonged to a restaurateur friend in New York and when he closed I asked him if I could borrow it. In retrospect I couldn't have chosen anything more suitable for what I had planned which was to create a menu with five or six of everyone's favourite dishes from Thailand, China, Japan. I haven't met anyone who doesn't like good dumplings, Thai salads, sushi or Peking duck and, of course, it's easy to come up with tasty Asian vegetarian dishes.'
And his timing was impeccable. London has been falling for all things Asian since Nobu, Hakkasan and Nahm and less expensive renditions such as Wagamama, the New Culture Revolution and Busaba Eatthai and our meal at E&O was as good as any of these restaurants' particular dishes. Meaty spare ribs; crisp, salt squid artfully wrapped in a strip of a Hong Kong newspaper; an authentic chicken pad thai and an invigoratingly fiery orange monkfish curry were the main ingredients of a highly enjoyable dinner for three which, with drinks, service but no dessert came to £77.
Ricker dreams of taking E&O abroad and has looked at possible sites in New York and Asia but as he put it, 'I don't fancy having to travel eight hours to work when things go wrong.' Instead, his active brain is beginning to focus on whether and how it would be possible to franchise E&O around the world. 'I am sure it will work. I could quite easily see E&O in Moscow, for example, and I think I could be a tough enough bastard to enforce the standards to ensure the consistency that is crucial.'
Anyone interested should look out this enterprising Australian. More than likely he will be in one of his kitchens.
Cicada, London EC1 (tel 020-7405-1717)
Eight over Eight, London SW3 (tel 020-7439-9934)
E&O, London W11 (tel 020-7229 5454)
Great Eastern Dining Rooms, London EC2 (tel 020-7613-4545)
Restaurant of the Week
The staff at Fleur, the charmingly named restaurant which has opened where Petrus (now in the Berkeley Hotel) used to be did not know who I was as I had booked under a nom de plume. Perhaps if they had they would not have made so many gaffes.
The meal began auspiciously enough although the flavours of the English flat mushroom soup were not enhanced by an unnecessary frothing and a dribble of olive oil. But when Perry Como came loud and clear over the sound system our table grew increasingly anxious.
This anxiety seemed to be justified by a main course of poached and roasted guineafowl with Parma ham, rosti, a thyme and cep dressing and a rosemary veloute (honest) whose faults equalled the words in its description. It was lukewarm; completely underseasoned (there is no salt and pepper on the table but it is delivered upon request); the rosti had sauce on it so that it had already lost its inherent crispness and the dish was for some reason served in a bowl which made cutting the meat difficult.
We ordered one dessert to share which took 20 minutes and a coffee and a tea that took even longer. The convoluted, over sweet strawberry fool was not enhanced by the meringue, pistachios or jelly-like substance it sat on. We managed less than half before my guest had to leave.
I was left with a bill that contained a couple of errors including a second bottle of mineral water which they had poured but I had not ordered. Having arrived at 12.45 I left at 14.30 unhappy and most unlikely to return.
Fleur, 33 St James's Street, London SW1 (tel 020 7930 4272)