Many of Claude and Claire Bosi's staff at the London incarnation of Hibiscus moved with them from Ludlow, and their experience came in handy when the new restaurant was busy from day one. Joanna Wood reports

It's the first full week back after the Christmas and New Year break and Claude Bosi is a worried man. Is it the looming publication of the 2008 Michelin guide to London? No - he's trying not to think about that - it's the headline-hitting winter lurgy.

"They were talking about it on the radio this morning - the colonic irrigation bug," he says, with a huge grin on his face and amid gales of laughter from wife and front-of-house supremo, Claire. "We can't afford for anyone on the team to get that. We'd be in the shit!"

Joking apart, it's a serious point to make. The couple's restaurant, Hibiscus, relies not only on the inspirational lead of its proprietors, but also on the dedication and skill of their staff, many of whom worked with the Bosis at Hibiscus in Ludlow.

It's this core of staff, who are used to the way in which the couple run their business as well as Claude's very individual cooking, that have seen Hibiscus through a highly pressurised first three months of trading. These Ludlow-ites comprise head chef Marcus McGuinness and chef de partie Ivan Brahm in the kitchen, and sommelier Simon Freeman and assistant restaurant manager Sally Humphries out front.

Hibiscus kitchen team
The kitchen brigade at Hibiscus with Claude at the back
(Photograph by Adrian Franklin)

The old hands in the kitchen, in particular, came into their own in the run-up to Christmas, where the double whammy of serving 550 covers a week coupled with the stress of learning new dishes and new systems of working proved too much for a succession of new commis chefs. Three of them couldn't stand the heat and got out of, or were asked to leave, the kitchen.

"Opening is never easy," reflects Claude. "It was very difficult for everybody. The hardest part when we opened [at the end of October] was we took over the kitchen on the Friday, did our soft opening on the Monday and opened properly on the Wednesday. Then, bang: we were busy. We didn't have time to get our head out of the water. It took us about three weeks to start getting things right."

The Bosis' Ludlow team forms the skeleton of their London brigade, but other staff members, who have proved equally loyal and, importantly, adept at picking up their working methods on the job, include recruits from the highly regarded Star Inn at Harome in North Yorkshire (chef de partie Peter Bradley and his girlfriend Elizabeth Eddy, a commis sommelier), London's award-winning Tom Aikens (reception manager Natalie Hadley) and the capital's two-Michelin-starred the Square (chef de partie Peter Biggs). There's also pastry chef Nick Zwolinsky and receptionist Hannah Park, who, while not strictly a Ludlow-ite, was au fait with the Bosis, being the girlfriend of Claude's right-hand man, McGuiness. "We have to say a very big thank you to everyone. They've put in so much," says Claire vehemently.

Given the working pressures of the past few months, the fact that there have been only a few kitchen walk-outs on the staff front is a huge vote of confidence in the Bosis and the working atmosphere they create. Essentially, this is one of relaxed professionalism, although because Claude is possessed of a Gallic temperament, flare-ups in the kitchen are not unknown. "Marcus got yelled at today, but it's all forgotten at the end of service. Nobody goes and cries in a corner," says Claire. Returning from showing someone from the BBC's Masterchef around the kitchen, Claude adds: "We joke all the time. The only time I get serious is during service."

Understandably in his eyes, the most heinous thing that a chef can do is to cut corners after making a culinary mistake. "I tell everybody, don't be afraid to own up. If someone is in the shit, I want them to tell me. Sometimes people forget that we are all in a team - that we're all here to help each other," he explains.

Owning up to mistakes is integral to how Claire operates front of house, too, and crosses the kitchen-dining room divide, as Claude likes to know exactly what's going on out front. "He wants to know what happens in the restaurant and appreciates being told if something goes wrong. A lot of staff who haven't worked with us before aren't used to that and sometimes try to cover up a mistake, but our policy has always been brutal honesty with the kitchen and each other. We like to get a problem sorted and then move on," says Claire.

Hibiscus front of house team
Claire with the restaurant's front-of-house team
(Photograph by Adrian Franklin)

Apart from the ability to admit errors, she adds, the other essential personality attribute she demands in her dining room team is a friendly smile. "If you've got a nice disposition, a relaxed manner and a lovely smile, you can get away with murder in a restaurant. I've done it!" she laughs. "I'd rather have a nice person with a bit of common sense and a nice smile than someone who's worked in all the top restaurants in London but can't put customers at their ease."

Commendably, the Bosis have always encouraged feedback from their staff about how they run their business and, in the kitchen, input into new menu dishes. Not only does it help them to continually refine their business, but it also gives everyone who works for them an investment in the restaurant.

"Marcus often comes up with foraged ingredients I've never heard of that he knows from when he worked with David Everitt-Matthias [at Le Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham]," says Claude. "I'll check any dishes that the boys come up with, of course, to make sure that they work properly, but it's very important to get teamwork going."

Another useful bonding device that Claude and Claire have always weaved into staff working structures is the occasional team outing. In the past, in Shropshire, things like paintballing and go-karting expeditions proved popular, but in the pre-Christmas madness a similar excursion wasn't possible. Claude and the team did, however, find time for a fine-dining jaunt to London's highly regarded Hakkasan before they disbanded for the festive break. But Claire was baby-sitting with the couple's two-year-old daughter, Paige.

"I'll go next time. Maybe if we're lucky enough to go back in to Michelin at the same standing, then we'll go out and celebrate with everybody," she says with a smile.

 

 

 

Hibiscus

  • What is it? A 45-seat restaurant with 18-seat private dining room and 700-bin wine list
  • Address 29 Maddox Street, London W1S 2PA
  • Tel 020 7629 2999
  • Website www.hibiscusrestaurant.co.uk
  • Proprietors Claire and Claude Bosi
  • Cost "Around £1m" for the site and kitting out the restaurant
  • Funding From the sale of the Ludlow site (£247,000), the Bosis' savings and three backers, all City businessmen
  • Site lease 25 years
  • Opening times Monday-Friday, lunch and dinner closed at weekends
  • Turnover 1-21 December £142,989
  • Closed 21 December to 3 January
  • First full week's turnover in January £34,180
  • Staff wages as percentage of turnover 27%

The story so far

Following the sale of the Ludlow, Shropshire, site of their renowned restaurant, Hibiscus, in April 2007, Claude and Claire Bosi relaunched their two-Michelin-starred business in London's Maddox Street on 24 October 2007.

As soon as the doors opened critics and public piled through, putting immense pressure on the Bosis and their staff from the word go. Barring a few notable exceptions, critics have been kind, and staff have held steady. Hibiscus closed down for two weeks over Christmas - from 21 December to 3 January - giving everyone a well-earned break.

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