The greasy end of restaurateuring


Nick goes behind the scenes and explains the logistics and less glamorous aspects of running a restaurant. 

I was just finishing my breakfast of a phylas, cheese and zaataar wrapped in filo pastry, with small bowls of goat’s yogurt and a tomato and pickled cucumber salad topped with a boiled egg, at Honey & Co in Warren Street in central London, when Itamar Srulovich, the founder and with his wife Sarit Packer and this small empire’s inspirational co-chef, walked in. 

As the café was already filling up, Itamar immediately picked up several trays of cakes that were on the front counter and walked them down to the service counter at the back, thereby releasing the counter for waiting customers. En route he spotted me and said he would be back.

I promptly introduced him to my two friends, Mario San Jacinto, the managing director of the Old War Office building on Whitehall that one day will become a five-star hotel, and Jesús Sánchez Sainz, the two Michelin star chef from Villaverde de Pontones outside Santander in northern Spain.

Intrigued, Itamar explained the history of the café and then asked us to accompany him to their deli across the road (pictured above by Patricia Niven). Here we were as warmly welcomed as we had been in the café, even if technically we were there 45 minutes before it opened. As Itamar was explaining their stock of organic spices, which play such a crucial role in this couple’s cooking style, I noticed a young man at the door pushing a trolley.

I went to open the door for him and realised that this covered wagon is used to transport raw and cooked food between the café and deli on Warren Street and their much larger restaurant on Great Portland Street. Once inside, Itamar and the young man entered into an intimate discussion. A discussion that, although it was sotto voce, I could easily overhear given the deli’s small space.

Itamar was simply instructing this employee to keep an eye on the state of the cutlery and crockery in the café. Breakfast had been busy – in fact the day before had been the busiest day in the café’s history since it opened six years ago thanks to the proximity of the Frieze Art Fair in nearby Regent’s Park. Itamar was concerned that the ‘dirties’ (as they are known in the trade) might pile up and that the kitchen might as a result run out of clean cutlery and crockery. The young man said he would do so as he wheeled his trolley out.

I immediately said to Itamar something along the lines of ‘so much for the glamour of being such a well-known chef and restaurateur’, a phrase that obviously struck a nerve. ‘Absolutely', came the reply, ‘in fact on some days I believe that my entire day is taken up with extraction, looking after the drains, clearing the rubbish, making sure that all the systems are working properly. Nothing of which any customer sees or understands that they are paying for but these are the inescapable facts of restaurant life. On some days, I spend zero per cent of my time on cooking.’

These thoughts brought back painful memories of my time as a restaurateur in the 1980s. It was extraordinary just how much of my time I spent chasing the lift engineers when one of our two electric dumb waiters, which linked the basement kitchen to the restaurant two floors above, had broken down. It reminded me so clearly of another incident from my first book The Art of The Restaurateur (Phaidon 2012).

It is in the chapter about the charismatic restaurateur Russell Norman, who created Polpo restaurants, inter alia. ‘Quite recently, I was voted Restaurateur of the Year in the Tatler restaurant awards, a very nice compliment for me and those I work with. But then later that night something broke in one of the kitchens and at 3 am I was up to my elbows in sewage. It was quite humbling, really.’

It is to prevent such logistical breakdowns that the best restaurateurs use the best consultants, in particular M & E consultants. These two initials stand for mechanical and electrical services and cover everything that has to do with a building’s infrastructure: all the services and systems installed in buildings to make them comfortable, functional, efficient and safe as well as building control systems and energy distribution.

The problem is that these consultants tend to work in the abstract, in conditions that are unlikely to be those the restaurateur may choose or be offered. And while their roles, and the efficacy of what they do, may be more easily recognised and achieved in the many new buildings that restaurateurs are being invited into, these are not primarily what a small, independent restaurateur has in mind.

Most of central London is composed of tall, narrow buildings, often Victorian, and it is the ground floor of these buildings, predominantly once shops or retail of some sort, that have been converted into restaurants. In this instance, it is the size of the extract that will determine just what the kitchen is capable of and what the restaurant can serve. A grill restaurant will require an extract of 1 metre x 1 metre that will take the flames and the ensuing smoke up and out of the building, usually via the roof.

This means a sizeable hole in the floor plates of the upper floors too, a combination that can make the upper floors unworkable because of the lost space that can be involved. And keeping such an extract free from the grease and the gubbins that accumulate from a busy kitchen is obviously a full-time occupation. The recent temporary closure of The Lighterman at King’s Cross was due to a small fire that broke out in their extract system – and this was in a brand-new building!

The same applies underground. Located in every kitchen there will be a number of grease traps that, since patented by Nathaniel Whiting in the late nineteenth century, have helped keep the drains in all the major cities free from fats, oils and greases that would otherwise enter the sewers. But keeping these clean and clear, via a contract with a specialist company, is another, less than glamorous, aspect of being a restaurateur.

I was reminded of this earlier this week while I was shopping at The Quality Chop House shop, part of our son’s restaurant business and a restaurant site which will be 150 years old in 2019. I was talking to Shaun Searley, the chef in the eponymous restaurant next door when our son Will walked in. ‘Don’t forget, we need to talk about the grease traps', said Shaun to Will. ‘Of course not', came the reply.

Who said that being a restaurateur was a glamorous way of earning a living?