Business is booming in London's restaurants, but Stephen Bull is philosophical about the trade. Working in restaurants, he feels, is a constant war of attrition.
This weekend, London-based restaurateur Bull, a former advertising executive who became a chef during the 1980s, will cook for 500 or more customers at the Vodafone Derby meeting at Epsom racecourse. If all goes to plan, it may provide a new source of business.
Working in partnership with a team from Gardner Merchant Leisure's Ring & Brymer events caterers, Bull is planning to re-create in Epsom the cutting edge of British cuisine. The two-day event will be a gruelling challenge, but a welcome break from running his three restaurants in central London.
Tomorrow, the day of the famous fillies race, the Oaks, Bull will provide a buffet for 220. The next day, 260 guests will sit down to a four-course lunch devised by Bull and his team before watching the Derby, the principal race of the meeting.
It will be the first time Bull has ever worked with an event caterer. The opportunity to cut his teeth at the Derby came about almost by chance when he was bidding to run a new London restaurant alongside a team from another GM division. Neither party could make the figures add up on the deal and both ended up pulling out. But Bull was introduced to Steve McManus, head of Gardner Merchant Leisure, and the possibility of combining a hobby - he's a big racing fan - with business emerged.
Bull is keen to develop new areas of business: "I'm not interested in having any more restaurants. I'm sick of the back of house problems," he says. "I didn't become a chef for all this, but it takes you over. The bureaucracy is getting worse, rents are going up and it's getting more and more difficult to find staff."
Unlike many younger chef-patrons who are now household names, Bull has worked through the boom-and-bust cycle before, and he believes the London restaurant scene is riding the crest of a wave. Some time soon, he foresees, the bubble will burst. And that's where event catering comes in. Ties with contract caterers such as Gardner Merchant Leisure will never shield a restaurateur from the full force of recession, but it makes sense to diversify while trade is good and there's lots of money around.
However, exporting the Bull name and style to the Derby is about more than seeking new avenues of business. "One, it's the challenge; two, it's the exposure; and three, it's the fee," says Bull.
Detailed menu planning
Five chefs from Bull's eponymous restaurants will cook at Epsom, including the head chefs of the St John Street and Upper St Martin's Lane restaurants and the pastry chef from St John Street. Although Bull himself gave up cooking in his restaurants several years ago, he will return to the stove for the occasion. "I'll probably be saucing up in the corner," he jokes.
The menu for both days was devised by the team, with Bull relying heavily on his staff's greater experience of banqueting. Detailed planning, from which the final menu was developed, began in February, and Ring & Brymer, Bull reveals, gave the team a free hand in choosing the menu.
The two-day challenge is certainly not underestimated by Bull, who admits to finding the logistics of the project daunting and is grateful for the support, advice and experience of Ring & Brymer's own chefs. For example, there will be only a small service kitchen at Epsom Racecourse and all mise en place will have to be done in the preceding two days at Ring & Brymer's kitchens in Ascot, which means food will be transported in chill trucks to Epsom to be finished off before service.
"That means we can't fill the pastry for the Oaks croquembouche because it will go soggy, and the leek stuffing for the lamb cutlets will have to be chilled separately for assembly later," explains Bull.
Inevitably, the choice of dishes was influenced by the unusual conditions. Bull suggests that he has played safe with his choices. "[If we do it again] next year, we'll be more adventurous," he claims.
On Derby Day, a cold starter is planned. "A bit of cop-out," thinks Bull, but the roast chicken and foie gras terrine with fig and almond chutney demonstrates Bull's ability to put a twist on even the most standard of ingredients.
Plum tomatoes stuffed with caponata, gazpacho sauce and saffron wafers made it to the finished menu. A crab stuffing for the tomatoes was rejected. "So many people won't eat seafood," he explains. Equally, the choice of lamb for the Derby Day main course is less of a risk than controversial beef or, as Bull would have liked, a fish main course.
Bull's brief is to bring something new to the standard racecourse repertoire, although having dined at Sandown recently at the invitation of Ring & Brymer, he admits the contract caterer is capable of achieving high quality without outside help. But there is always room for improvement. "We can offer them a new approach. We bring in a little innovation and imagination. By hiring in my services they get the benefit of some of my ideas and are seen to be raising their game," says Bull.
Creating new dishes
He continues: "I hope that people will think that we have created something new with dishes such as saffron and almond pie with herbed yogurt, and the lamb cutlets with pea purée. I've always been interested in taking humble ingredients and making something interesting out of them."
Bob Reeves, deputy managing director of Gardner Merchant Leisure, pronounces himself more than happy with the menu. "When we contract with a chef for an event we are looking to introduce their particular style," he says, adding: "For the customer, it offers choice by style rather than choice by price, and we gain a marketing edge through introducing almost a brand - and our involvement with chefs like Stephen Bull, Gordon Ramsay and Herbert Berger motivates our own people wonderfully."
In order for his own team and the Ring & Brymer brigade to get to know each other, Bull has been playing host to Ring & Brymer staff in his kitchens. This is clearly a great opportunity for these chefs to experience the hurly burly of cooking an à la carte menu and will help familiarise them with the modus operandi of Bull's head chefs.
Rob Phipps, head chef at Ring & Brymer's racing division, is a seasoned hand on the circuit of top London restaurants as a result of the company's work with a number of chefs, including Ramsay and Marcus Wareing. Mickey Abadee, a commis spending time at Stephen Bull in St John Street, has also enjoyed the break from routine. Bull has talked to the visiting chefs and is pleased with the way they have fitted in. "London restaurants are a completely different sort of crisis management to deal with. But it's a change for them and they get quite stimulated by it."
Cooking at such an event is undoubtedly a showcase for Bull and his team, and the famous Stephen Bull signature - by which all his restaurants are known - will have maximum exposure over the two days' racing. Obviously, Bull hopes some of his Derby guests will be intrigued or excited enough to visit his London restaurants - and another unexpected spin-off has been the amount of publicity the venture has received. Bull has appeared on Channel 4 Racing and is shortly to feature in The Times with his instant-camera record of Derby Day.
Finally, but importantly, there is the fee. Bull is under orders from Gardner Merchant not to reveal his budget, although he says it is generous. Customers over the two days will pay a rate that is competitive with the corporate entertaining market, £210 a head for the buffet and £295 for the Derby Day lunch, including a full day's events and bar. The fee paid to Stephen Bull Restaurants "will make money for the restaurants, but is not greedy", says Bull. It will cover bonuses for the staff involved and pay for their labour and expenses with a little to spare.
So would Bull recommend the experience to other chefs? Not while he thinks he's in with a chance of winning other contracts. As far as endorsements go, "Hands off, it's mine" seems to say it all.