Food News

The art of the restaurateur

Chefs usually steal the limelight, but restaurateurs are key to successful diners, writes Nicholas Lander.
Nigel Peake

During the 1980s I was a restaurateur: the proud proprietor of L’Escargot in Soho. At 29, when I opened my restaurant, I was arguably the worst domestic cook in England, but despite this rather large setback, I was determined to own one of London’s most exciting restaurants. And I succeeded thanks to a combination of determination and stubbornness in equal parts.

To be a successful restaurateur requires such strength of personality, a stubbornness bordering on bloody-mindedness. This quality is shared by the 20 restaurateurs I profile in my new book, The Art of the Restaurateur, and it courses particularly fiercely through the veins of the two Australians I interviewed.

Neil Perry has it in spades, and it was this trait that allowed him to see the potential in the location of the first Rockpool – which set in motion the renaissance of The Rocks in Sydney – and then galvanised him to transform the extraordinary art deco building on Hunter Street into the fabulous Rockpool Bar & Grill and Spice Temple. They were both big, demanding projects made even more difficult by the challenges faced by the local industry: tough labour laws, red tape, high running costs and a relatively small population. “That’s why I’ve seen so many come here and fail, sadly,” Perry says. “I reckon if you can master it here, you can master it anywhere, but the reverse is not true.”

Melbourne-born cook Michelle Garnaut admits to stubbornness, albeit in a lady-like fashion. But without it, this powerhouse entrepreneur would not have opened her restaurant in Hong Kong, then moved on to Shanghai where she had the strength of character and vision to be the first to open on the now ultra-fashionable Bund. And then, seemingly unbowed, Garnaut went on to battle the authorities for a further eight years before finally opening Capital M in Beijing. “It seemed mad at the time, and everyone said I was mad,” Garnaut says. “You know I am very pig-headed, don’t you?”

But there are other inspirations too. Paris and wine lovers have benefited from Enrico Bernardo’s dream to open a restaurant where the customer chooses the wine first and only then a complementary menu, as is the case at Il Vino. London’s culinary reputation certainly wouldn’t be the same today had former banker Nigel Platts-Martin not fallen in love with Burgundy and by extension food and wine and formed partnerships with chefs Philip Howard, Bruce Poole and Brett Graham to open The Square, Chez Bruce and The Ledbury. It was a desire to look after their fellow human beings that led Danny Meyer and Gilbert Pilgram to abandon their initial careers in law and to open seminal restaurants in New York (Union Square Cafe) and San Francisco (Zuni Café) respectively. And Meyer says this desire extends to his staff as well as his patrons: “It’s my job to look after my staff. If my staff are good enough, the customers will return.” Neil Perry echoes these thoughts and describes his restaurant business as “an organisation steeped in humanity of which I am the mouthpiece”.

Since the rise of nouvelle cuisine in France 40 years ago, the focus of attention in restaurants has shone far too brightly on the kitchen. It goes without saying that every good restaurant will have a great chef, but every great restaurant will also have hospitality, and this is created by restaurateurs. After all, chefs tucked away behind the comfort of a swing door simply cannot provide a warm welcome, and this basic human need is the cornerstone of true hospitality, and is precisely what restaurateurs do seven days a week.

Having thoroughly enjoyed interviewing these 20 great restaurateurs, and hearing of their failures, successes and plans to inspire their teams to even greater success, I wish I was 29 again and reliving my time as a restaurateur. But that pleasure I now bequeath to my son, who has just reopened The Quality Chop House in Clerkenwell, London. And, yes, he has inherited my stubborn streak.

Nicholas Lander has written the restaurant column for the Financial Times for the past 22 years. The Art of the Restaurateur by Nicholas Lander with illustrations by Nigel Peake is published by Phaidon ($45, hbk).

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