Wise words from an accidental restaurateur

Nathalie Salas speaks with FT restaurant critic Nicholas Lander at the recent Global Restaurant Investment Conference in Dubai.

The Global Investment Restaurant Forum (GRIF), which took place on the 16th to 18th February at the Conrad Hotel, Dubai, would have to be one of the most enjoyable conferences I’ve ever attended. Not only was a lot of food consumed during those three days, but the energy that was generated, by both the speakers and delegates – just by discussing food and the business of restaurateurship – was evident to me that this industry is a place where extreme passion, fast-paced creativity and innovation clearly go hand-in-hand.

Nicholas Lander – ex-restaurateur of the renowned L’Escargo in London’s Soho and FT restaurant correspondent for the past 21 years – kick-started the conference with an engaging keynote of lessons learned from the top 20 restaurateurs around the world.  Based on interviews derived from his latest book, The Art of the Restaurateur, Lander presented a candid synopsis of how to succeed in running a restaurant, in what he described as the “the most exciting and gratifying profession”.

Top ten lessons:
1.   Have a good sense of humour
2.   Love of food, wine and one’s fellow man
3.   Have a nose for the right location
4.   Understand financial arithmetic
5.   Inspire, lead from the front and communicate
6.   Appreciate the two most important pieces of paper – the lease and the licence
7.   Combine vision with determination
8.   Combine stubbornness with the ability to bend to popular demand
9.   Combine an inner sensitivity with a very thick skin
10. Be aware of any restaurant’s environmental aspect, impact on climate change
and a restaurant’s ability to offer a benefit to the local community

Through a private interview with Lander, I was keen to hear his perspective on which boutique hotels he thought had been successful in terms of running a hotel, as well as a restaurant. Adding an F&B dining component can be a financial haemorrhage to the business if not managed properly.  So was it possible to be able to succeed in both?

“Hotels in general have made their restaurants too ostentatious,” says Lander.  “This has consequently resulted in creating a dividng line between the two. The success of any restaurant has to start within the neighbourhood because customers don’t want to be surprised.  Restaurateurs need to create a concept that blends in with what is outside their front door – you cannot force it.”

A relevant example based on Lander’s comments is interestingly presented as one of the first restaurants he thought of when compiling his book.

The Ballymaloe
Founded by Myrtle Allen and her husband Ivan, whose life as restaurateurs started when they bought Ballymaloe Country House, and its surrounding farm, 40 minutes outside of Cork, Ireland. Through Allen’s passion and deep knowledge of cooking and local farm produce, in 1964 she decided to open up the house as a restaurant, showcasing the secret delights of Irish cuisine. The hotel aspect to Ballymaloe came as a natural evolution, when other members of the Allen family came to help grow the enterprise.  Teamed with Hazel Allen, who has run the restaurant and hotel since the 1970s and was instrumental in gaining its Michelin star, from 1975 to 1980. Darina Allen co-founded the Ballymaloe Cookery School, and all three women have identical enthusiasm for two things –  the pleasure for food and a passion for being restaurateurs.

Hazel Allen’s perspective on the skills required for a hotelier and restaurateur couldn’t be more straightforward: “I don’t believe that there are many skills on the hotel side that require training; it is more of a matter of aptitude.  But principles of restaurant service, of how you look after and serve your guests in the dining room certainly do. Those skills need to be ingrained.”

Apero at the Ampersand Hotel
Although not included in his book, Lander also applauded the success of the restaurant, Apero, housed in the basement of the Ampersand Hotel in South Kensington, London. Its huge success can be credited to this incredible duo – head chef, Chris Golding and pastry chef Ji Sun. They wanted to take away the stuffiness and premium cost of dining out in London. When Golding was approached to head up the kitchen at the Ampersand, he felt a strong connection with the general manager, Roberto Pajares, and the restaurant’s vision and concept.

“I have the freedom to change the menus when I like, and experiment when I like,” says Golding. “I love seeing our customers happy and surprised when they discover Apero and realise that hotel restaurants can be fun. And with a price tag that’s affordable, you walk away feeling you’ve got your money’s worth.”

Golding also believes that the success received since Apero’s opening in August 2012 also comes down to having a successful kitchen: “We have a great team here at the Ampersand, and we are all very passionate about the service we provide,” says Golding. “That’s what I love about Apero, the sincerity and a high-end dining experience, without all the pretentiousness.”

Excerpts are taken from The Art of the Restaurateur (Phaidon), by Nicholas Lander, and can be purchased on Amazon.

Watch Nicholas Lander’s keynote speech at the Global Restaurant Investment Forum here.

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