Jamie Barber is the owner of the Villandry, Hush and Kitchen Italia restaurants.
The transition from lawyer to restaurateur could be considered an unlikely recipe for success, but Jamie Barber has used his experience and connections as extra strings to his bow.
“My biggest strength when I started out was that I was an extremely good customer,” he explains. “I was my own target audience.”
Barber had carved out a thriving legal career at London-based firm Harbottle & Lewis, with a portfolio of celebrity clients including David Frost, Michael Caine and Roger Moore. It wasn’t until the former James Bond star introduced him to his son Geoffrey that Barber’s business interest in the world of restaurants began.
When Geoffrey Moore began putting together an ill-fated chain of theme restaurants based on his father’s role as 007, Barber disentangled him from the arrangements when the business failed to launch.
“It was called Spy Café and featured the likes of Live and Let Die Burgers and Goldfinger Fries on the menu. It was a disaster!” recalls Barber.
He advised Moore to leave the burger bar ideas behind. “I suggested he create something glam; somewhere you would take your friends,” Barber explains. Inspired by his own advice, Barber decided to quit the legal world so they could work together.
They opened Hush in 1999 in Mayfair, a stroke of luck for a pair with “no money and no track record”. Moore left the business five years ago, but the success of the restaurant has continued.
Barber admits that in the beginning he was very naïve. “I didn’t know there were restaurant critics. I didn’t invite or speak to anyone and I was always surprised when we appeared in the papers,” he explains.
However, as Barber’s business assets grew to include two Villandry sites, in London and Oxfordshire, and Kitchen Italia in London’s Westfield retail development, so did his appetite for success and his fear of failure.
“Each new opening is accompanied by nausea and anticipation, but also excitement,” he says.
HIGHS… “The opening party of Hush was amazing. People still talk about it,” says Barber. Hardly surprising when you learn that in addition to an impressive celebrity guest list, Victoria Beckham put in an appearance behind the bar making cocktails – shaken, not stirred presumably.
The opening of Kitchen Italia was also “fantastic”, says Barber, who had been mulling over the concept for more than five years.
“I never understood why you can’t get decent Italian food that is quick and easy and incredibly tasty. I wanted to raise the bar. We’ve taken chefs who’ve cooked for kings and queens and stuck them in shopping centres. It’s dynamic, classless and democratic,” he says.
LOWS… Barber’s lowest point in his hospitality career, also one of his most costly, was his restaurant Shumi, which boasted a hybrid of Italian and Japanese cuisine. He describes it as one of his biggest learning experiences.
“I’d forgotten my own lessons. I was trying so hard to appeal to critics and the industry when I should have been connecting with the customers,” he admits.
Shumi also played host to one of Barber’s biggest kitchen nightmares. On Valentine’s Day, with bookings for 350 people including former England football manager Sven-Goran Eriksson and his girlfriend Nancy Dell’Olio, Barber decided to take the evening off.
“With hindsight, it was a regrettable decision. I left at 5.30pm only to be told at 6.30pm there had been a power cut. There was no gas or electricity at all and it was game over. Weeks later I found out the cause of the disaster: when a chef’s blender had blown a fuse, he’d attempted to mend it by wrapping it in foil.”
Name Jamie Barber
Family Married, with two daughters aged 5 and 3
Favourite holiday Italy, Forte dei Marni – Tuscan coast
Drives Jaguar XS
Motto If the experience is right, the turnover will follow and if you don’t ask, you don’t get.
React quickly to change and be very lean, but still deliver the service and customer expectation. Otherwise there’ll be no business when you come out the other side