The happy restaurateur?

Will Beckett of the Hawksmoor Group

Are restaurateurs as likely to smile as much as their customers? Will Beckett of the Hawksmoor Group above.

I wonder what a ‘happiness count’ on restaurateurs all over the world would reveal.

Can these individuals, whose establishments are open to welcome us all in, to feed us and to ensure that we all leave happier than when we arrived, relax enough to feel the happiness that they generate? Does the laughter and bonhomie which emanate from many of their tables ever rub off on them? Or does it make them even more anxious?

This is a question I have pondered since 2 June 1981 when I first reopened the front door of L’Escargot and joined the ranks of restaurateurs myself. Whenever we went out to dinner in another restaurant, if I saw something being done better than we did it, I wanted to borrow it, to implement it immediately. If there was something wrong, then I wanted to get up and set matters right. Either way, I was not that much fun to be with.

I do not know whether restauration, as the French call it, is a profession that attracts those of a worrying disposition or not. My own feeling is that this is not necessarily a consideration that surfaces when anyone is preparing to open a restaurant but it should be. It is perhaps a function of the fact that the profession over the past decade has managed to attract a more diverse group of socially concerned individuals who are more aware of the larger problems facing all of us than the previous generation of restaurateurs. Climate change is never going to go away and restaurants play an enormous role here: food waste, environmental damage, what can and cannot be recycled, and the widespread use of fossil fuels are just four areas of concern.

I was left pondering the whole question of a restaurateur’s happiness after encounters in the space of only a few days with two highly successful London practitioners of this intangible art: Johnny Smith of Luca, sister restaurant to The Clove Club, and Shamil Thakrar of Dishoom, the small group of very popular Indian restaurants.

I met Smith at the bar last Wednesday evening at 7.40 pm. His restaurant was packed even though it must be capable of seating about 120 at any one time. He looked as smart as ever and slightly apprehensive, a not unusual combination for a thoughtful maître d’. The more customers any restaurant has, the more orders there are going into the kitchen, the more options there are for something to go wrong.

I had walked from Farringdon Road up St John Street and could not help but notice a number of closed, former restaurants along that street, including the original branch of Pho, the classy Vietnamese restaurant. When I asked Smith about it he said that, although closed to the public since the pandemic, it was still operating as a head office for the group. And that he had had his sights on it for some time.

‘I would love to open a delicatessen there, a Luca delicatessen which I believe would do really well, wouldn’t you agree?’ he said somewhat defensively, adding, ‘but I do have my concerns.’

‘Which are?’ I asked with my restaurant journalist’s hat on. ‘There are two main ones’, began Smith in response. ‘The first is the complete absence of any local clientele around here, which would definitely dampen sales on Saturday that would have to be the busiest shopping day of the week. It’s interesting but around here on a Saturday it’s really quiet and both St John restaurant and us find that all our customers on a Saturday are destinational.’ (Not locals.)

‘And the second concern is the bigger problem of how, and whether, we could find the additional staff in the kitchen to produce the goods that we would sell in the delicatessen as well as the extra staff to run it. This is the biggest problem facing everybody in this industry all over the world. And I do believe that this is a timely shock, it is about time that we woke up to the fact that we have not been treating our staff as they would like to be treated and we, all of us, have to improve the whole package of staff remuneration and conditions.

‘A shortage of staff (two sous chefs started here last week and one left after only three shifts) means that this restaurant is open for only four days a week, as opposed to five pre-COVID, although sales are up. But the volume of sales has never translated directly into a growing number of chefs or waiting staff.’

Our meal was intended to show off how well top-quality Italian wines can match very good Italian food but I believe that it was the chef Robert Chambers’ food that provided the highlights of the evening. The raw sea bream in agrodolce with blood orange and pickled chilli was a stunning first course with a 2017 Soave Classico Calvarino from Pieropan and a Verdicchio Classico from Villa Bucci; Fontodi’s Flaccianello 2016 was the favourite over a Brunello from Biondi-Santi of the same vintage with meat-stuffed agnolotti; while the 2013 Vin Santo di Carmignano, Capezzana was the star with a yoghurt and vanilla panna cotta.

The following morning I was walking past Dishoom, King’s Cross, when I was stopped by the sound of someone knocking on the large window. It was Shamil Thakrar, who with his cousin Kavi founded this group of casual Iranian/Indian restaurants that today number five outposts in London, plus one each in Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh. He signalled to me to wait as he ran round to join me.

We chatted about his three daughters and his return to health after a biking accident, before I asked him about his business. ‘Well’, came the response, ‘I’m relieved as far as the numbers are concerned. Our customers are finally back to their pre-pandemic level, which is a great relief, and we seem to be suitably covered in the quality and number of our staff, which now number approximately 1,400 Dishoom-wallas across the UK.

‘But every time I listen to the news or read a front page of a newspaper, I grow worried. It’s all deeply depressing. The rising cost of living; the rising cost of most foodstuffs; what it will cost in the future for any household to heat their homes. It is all extremely worrying and working out what will be the effects on our business is a challenge. But I guess that is all part of my job.’ And with that, and a flash of his trademark smile, Thakrar shook my hand and walked back into his meeting.

In pursuit of a direct answer, I put the question as to whether, and how, restaurateurs can attain happiness to two of the most celebrated restaurateurs, Will Beckett of the Hawksmoor Group, and Danny Meyer of Union Square Hospitality Group and the founder of Shake Shack.

First from Beckett:

‘Can a restaurateur be happy? is a funny question. I feel like I am as happy and fulfilled as I could have ever imagined myself to be professionally. I love the job, and the industry. I love the privilege of being in a line of work that is primarily about looking after people, and I love that every day of my life is quite different to any other in quite a meaningful way. My main source of happiness is the amazing achievements of people and teams at Hawksmoor: seeing them thrive and knowing we were a part of it.

‘I find it hard to imagine doing this job and not feeling happy, but I also recognise that it is a difficult industry to succeed in, and flirting with failure was a more stressful time, but I think I was always happy even when demonstrably unsuccessful!’

Then from Meyer:

‘Oh my, yes we can.

‘But feeling happy is quite different than being content. I find great happiness in the pursuit of excellence – a continuous journey in which we honour the imperfect work we did yesterday and then plot how we might do things a bit better tomorrow. Implicit in that is that while we are never content as if we’ve arrived, we can take great pleasure in the many happy moments we’ve provided along the way.

‘On the other hand, I would be miserable if I were attempting perfection. It’s an unachievable goal fraught with internal and external disappointment and all too often, bereft of joy for both the provider and receiver of the effort. I am happy seeing people made happy, enjoying delicious food and drink – cooked, served and poured with love.’