The story so far
Savannah is the first of a planned chain of restaurants serving a simple menu based on high-quality ingredients, especially free-range beef. Customers can choose the exact cut of their steak and watch their order being cooked in the open-plan kitchen, where ex-Belgo chef Charles Noorland leads a team of six.
Business is brisk in the evenings and the management has been working on improving lunchtime trade, building up a database of previous customers and key people in local companies.
It's a slightly unusual CV for a chef. He left the Netherlands 14 years ago and came to London to work at Le Gavroche. Within two months he had moved on to the Hilton on Park Lane. Next it was Le Méridien Piccadilly, then a year at a luxury hotel in the Far East before coming back to London to the Park Lane hotel, where he became senior sous chef overseeing banqueting and room service. Then, in 1995, he gave up the world of fine dining, Michelin stars and luxury hotels to help launch Belgo, the chips-and-mussels chain where, until August last year, he was regional head chef for London.
But now, sitting in Oxford's Savannah restaurant, the Caterer Adopted Business where he is head chef, Charles Noorland is talking like a man who has arrived at the place he wants to be.
"I really believe in the concept," he says. "My goals have changed since I came to London. If I were still looking for Michelin star standards, I wouldn't have spent six years at Belgo. And it's great working with men like managing director Stuart Campbell and restaurant manager Saher Sidhom. Their approach is just very, very professional. I find that is often lacking in the industry."
Noorland was offered the job at Savannah only a few weeks before the restaurant launched last October, but he doesn't seem to have had any difficulty deciding that it was the right move. "Stuart contacted me when I was on holiday. He was looking for someone with my profile and I was looking for a new challenge… I think I was there for the best part of Belgo."
Just at the moment, his new job is also smaller than his last one. This is a situation that will soon change, however. The Oxford restaurant has always been planned as the first of a chain, and Noorland expects that Savannah will have three restaurants in the very near future. His role will be executive chef for the whole group.
With that in mind, Noorland is keen to make sure all members of his brigade, most of whom are new to the hospitality industry, are comfortable with the open-plan cooking style. He spends a lot of time on hands-on training, showing the team exactly how to do things. "I try to reassure them, and tell them it's not as scary as it looks - just be yourself, and enjoy it. You have to be on your guard, but that can be a positive thing, a pleasurable thing in a way. If you know people are watching you, you just have to perform."
Most of the time, his charges will find themselves cooking one of Savannah's steak options, the restaurant's speciality, that account for about 65% of main courses served. The free-range, hormone-free beef is supplied by Allied Meat Importers of Tottenham, and comes from Namibia. The restaurant doesn't source the beef from the UK because Campbell couldn't find a supplier to guarantee the cut, quality and quantity he required.
Cooking at Savannah doesn't just mean throwing steak after steak on the griddle, of course. "Every party of a half-a-dozen or so will have at least one vegetarian in it," Campbell says. "Yes, we only do three vegetarian dishes, but we set out with the idea that the vegetarian food should be as good as the steaks and I think Charles has achieved that. Also we have some very good fish dishes - the sea bass is excellent."
Savannah's chef has had no trouble adopting the restaurant's "quality food, simply served" philosophy. "Working in top restaurants was a great experience," Noorland says. "I spent five years learning classical cooking, and learning that things should be done properly. In a way, that still applies to a restaurant like this. The way you make a basic stock in a three-Michelin-starred restaurant is exactly the same as the way I do it here. There are right ways to do things, so that's how you should continue doing them."
Next visit to Savannah: 11 July
17 Park End Street, Oxford OX1 1HU
Tel: 01865 793793
Managing director: Stuart Campbell
Restaurant manager: Saher Sidhom
Head chef: Charles Noorland
Average spend: £22-£25