Restaurants began to feature in my dreams 25 years ago and they have been a regular ingredient ever since, along with their place in the occasional nightmare.
Initially, the dreams were quite limited. I had bought the lease to the restaurant, L’Escargot in Greek Street in Soho partly because I had fallen in love with the building – a former 18th century townhouse that had been converted into a restaurant in the 1920s – but although the interior needed considerable renovation, the kitchens and dining rooms could not be moved.
I therefore had to dream within the confines of the building and what had to be achieved in the nine months between purchase and opening, which included renovating the kitchens condemned on 44 different counts; ensuring that the lifts, essential in a five storey building, worked efficiently (which involved one night seeing one waiter, now a very well known actor, impersonating a ‘dumb waiter’ in front of one of the restaurant’s dumb waiters); and frantically renegotiating with the builders who were forced into liquidation six weeks before the opening date with the foreman holding the front door keys to my restaurant very close to his bulging chest. None of this is the stuff that dreams are made of.
But I still remember the dream and the vision which kept me going through all this – to run one of London’s most enjoyable restaurants while remaining what I was at that particular stage in my culinary career, one of the world’s worst cooks. I managed the former and watching so many fine chefs at close quarters has definitely improved my own cooking.
The nightmares only began later for two very different reasons. The first is that at that stage the days were a nightmare as we struggled to come to terms with the building – pasta even in a sauce even in a warm bowl does not arrive in the right condition after travelling up and across three floors – but this was the kind of thing which we only learnt from bitter experience. I was too exhausted to dream.
The second is that the nightmares only begin when the restaurant is in a position to disappoint, when expectations are such that what the restaurateur or the chef have established is so looked forward to and so appreciated by its customers. Which is why I can recall precisely where my nightmares began if not precisely when.
They always began in our bedroom and I would be closing the curtains. I would always make the mistake of looking at my watch. And whatever time it was it would always set me thinking – would those who had booked to come for dinner after the theatre make it to the restaurant before the front door closed? Would the receptionist or the kitchen brigade be welcoming to any late comers and, if so, how many taxis and beers would it cost me? Or would there be the following morning a brief note from my manager asking me to phone the following irate customers? Such are the stuff of restaurant nightmares.
These no longer exist now that I am no longer a restaurateur although even though it is over fifteen years since this professional umbilical cord was cut closing the bedroom curtains still takes me back to those more anxious days. Now, fortunately, restaurants only figure in my dreams.
They do so because in my opinion no other profession combines satisfying hunger, the most basic human instinct, in one’s fellow human beings with such an array of different management skills in an entirely unscripted interaction with so many strangers twice a day. There is no finished cut as in the television or film world; matinees aren’t just twice a week as they are in the theatre; language is not the barrier it is in literature and there is nowhere to hide as I now know there is with only a laptop rather than a packed restaurant in front of me. And history, culture and the rare opportunity for a city dweller to be slightly closer to the countryside are extra ingredients.
So I dream of taking the place of Jean-Claude Vrinat, the owner of Taillevent in Paris and walking around that luscious fin de siecle dining room carrying what is in my opinion the most exquisite menu under my arm.
I would like to take the place of Julio Soler, the restaurateur behind chef Ferran Adria at El Bulli and welcome guests at 2200 as the sun set over the Mediterranean behind the restaurant knowing that my guests were in for a magical evening. In New York, I would like to slip into Danny Meyer’s skin and take in the pleasure being exuded at the tables of Union Square Café or Gramercy Tavern and do the same, albeit in a slightly larger format, with Drew Nieporent and travel from La Montrachet across town to Nobu and then on to other outposts in London and Milan.
I will continue to dream that had life been very different I could have taken the place of the restaurateur alongside Deborah Madison, the chef who founded Greens the vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco or Alice Waters, at her ground breaking Chez Panisse in Berkeley, two women who have refocused our attention back on to the intrinsic importance of vegetables. Or back in France alongside Olivier Roellinger, that wizard of a fish chef in Cancale, Brittany, a young Alain Ducasse or Guy Savoy. Or, better still, because it will cross so many borders seamlessly, could I not have been sitting opposite Joel Robuchon when he had the inspiration for L’Atelier du Robuchon?
I can dream of what might have been. But for a totally unaccommodating lawyer I would have taken over a small Italian restaurant next to L’Escargot and perhaps ridden the wave of Italian food and wine that has swept London over the past decade or more alongside Ruth Rogers and Rose Grey at the River Café and Andrea Riva the proprietor of nearby Riva. And like so many other Londoners why wasn’t I watching the increasingly desolate Chinese restaurant on the corner of Arlington Street and Piccadilly? Now, seemingly effortlessly, it’s The Wolesley busy day and night.
One reason I know that I only want to carry on dreaming of being a restaurateur is that I can see even more clearly what is involved. The last time I ate at Taillevent I looked across at the waiter station and something, relatively minor, had not gone according to plan. Nothing was said between Vrinat and his staff – nothing needed to be as the slightly pulsating vein on his forehead conveyed the message. And the last time I called in to book a table at The Wolesley, I saw Chris Corbin, one of its owners sitting down at 1615 to a solitary cup of tea and half a dozen biscuits all of which were lined up next to his notepad and pen. This was a working biscuit tasting, not tea. And by the time Meyer opens The Modern in MOMA, New York at the end of the year he reckons he will have sat through almost 300 tastings of salami, coffee, cheese, wine and chocolate as well as numerous offerings from prospective chefs.
Although I cannot be specific I am sure that my restaurant dreams are now predominantly memories of meals that I have enjoyed rather than occasions when I and my restaurant, real or imaginary, could have given pleasure to others.
One of the strongest memories takes me to Japan and to lunch at Mochizuki Sushi one Saturday in Hiroshima. What lingers just as strongly as the taste of the fish and the images of the skills of the chef is watching the owner and his wife bowing to us until our car had turned a corner and they had disappeared from view. Twenty years ago we sat watching over the rails as our then small daughter fished in the Hawkesbury river after one of the very finest Sunday lunches at the now closed Berowra Waters. And that trip too contained another might have been. What would have happened if I had persuaded my wife to follow that week’s dream and to forsake the UK to open a restaurant on the banks of the then nascent Margaret River overlooking the rolling Indian Ocean south of Perth?
If I had, I would certainly have missed the time travel involved in dinner at La Crepa, the café, ice cream parlour, wine shop and restaurant run by bothers Franco and Carlo within the small, walled town of Isola Dovarese in northern Italy. And I would probably never have had the opportunity to eat a much grander version of what my grandparents ate albeit in the much more modern reconstruction that is Café Pushkin, Moscow. Or see London develop to include restaurants as exciting as Moro, yauatcha, Roka, St John, The Real Greek, Rasoi Vineet Bhatia and Chez Bruce amongst so many others.
I know that I am privileged to have experienced the consummate pleasure restaurants can give as both a restaurateur and a customer. But I know that for various reasons – age, health and family – I will only ever revert to being a restaurateur in my dreams.