Raymond de Fazio grabs my hand and plants a big wet kiss on it, his moustache tickling my skin. This has happened only once before – the hand-kisser was legendary Austrian winemaker Willi “laydeez” Opitz. He has a moustache, too. “How are you?” says de Fazio, eyes twinkling. “Sorry I’m late – it took me 37 minutes to drive here from Tottenham Court Road. Bloody Ken.”
De Fazio is the co-owner of Osia, a newly opened restaurant and bar on London’s Haymarket, among other things. “I’m not used to giving interviews,” he declares. “Be gentle with me.” De Fazio is hardly a stranger to the hospitality industry, though. He has been a part of the London restaurant and bar scene since the mid-1970s and he became an owner/operator in the city for the first time in August 2001 when he snapped up the Café Med chain, followed by the eight-strong Café Flo chain in April last year. But you won’t find that much written about either event. “He likes to stay in the background,” confides his PR, Maureen Mills.
It’s not that de Fazio is shy, either – far from it. During the course of our chat he reveals personal, even traumatic, details about his first foray into the hospitality industry (which he doesn’t want us to print) and is candid about his various ventures, constantly reprimanding himself for letting slip certain details about his past business dealings in hilarious Billy Connolly-style outbursts, most of which, sadly, can’t be relayed for fear of libel action.
So who is Raymond de Fazio? Born in Glasgow to an Italian dad and Glaswegian mum, he ate well and drank well (wine watered down from the age of five) and was educated at boarding school, where he was fed with “over-cooked macaroni cheese”. He went to university to study law, but dropped out after a year to open a bar – “which looked like loads more fun”.
To be a little more precise, he got “honking drunk” at legendary London nightspot Peppermint Park and fell in love with the place. “I loved the vibe of it,” he remembers. So he set about finding its creator (a set designer at London Weekend Television), to persuade him to work on what was to be his first venture back in Glasgow – a French brasserie-inspired café-bar called Nico’s (still there, incredibly), which he later sold.
A period of bar and restaurant consultancy followed his departure from Nico’s, but the buzz of the capital city beckoned. “I couldn’t get a green card for New York, so London was the next best thing.”
By the mid-1980s, de Fazio was back in town. But this time he was running things, ending up at Coconut Grove and working for owner, Circus Circus, for the next 10 years. But when their expansion plans came to a stop, so did he. “Time to move on,” he recalls. He landed up at Notting Hill restaurant and bar the Pharmacy – “to improve operational and accounting procedures,” he says, diplomatically.
It was at about this time that de Fazio first met Australian chef Scott Webster – or “The Big Man” as he calls him. De Fazio had a restaurant project in the pipeline in the north of the country that needed a chef-consultant, so they got together – but the venture didn’t work out. “I’d rather not talk about it,” de Fazio says.
Then Café Med came up for sale. De Fazio bought the five-strong London-based restaurant chain in 2001 from Simon Binder (and associates) with an unnamed partner (they’ve since parted ways), for an undisclosed sum. “They’re still ticking along nicely,” reports de Fazio, who opened his sixth Café Med on Kew Road last year, and reveals that he has plans for many more.
The same goes for Café Flo – though, of course, they’re not called Café Flo any more. De Fazio made an agreement with its previous owners, Groupe Flo, that the name would eventually cease to exist. “I wanted the sites,” he admits.
To date, he has sold off one Café Flo, turned another into Osia – “I think the space deserved something better”, and two more have been become the Mediterranean Kitchen (in St Martin’s Lane and Kensington Church Street), with the rest to follow.
And like Café Med, which de Fazio pigeonholes as “local neighbourhood eateries”, there are also expansions plans for the Mediterranean Kitchen. “These I see as a bit more commercial than Café Med – great for shopping centres, that kind of thing, but at a similar price point.”
The Mediterranean Kitchen on St Martin’s Lane, which opened last December, was filling up with the first trickle of theatre-goers and tourists when I stuck my head around the door on my way back to the tube. Dishes on the menu included salmon and cod fish cake with tsatsiki and fries (£10.50), duck confit with a borlotti and butter bean cassoulet (£10.95) and meatballs with spaghetti (£7.95), served in a “chic rustic” interior (read bare floorboards, wooden tables and chairs). “They’re going really well,” de Fazio claims.
Sorry, we’ve got to ask – what exactly did happen when the Café Flo chef took you to an industrial tribunal for being a Francophobe, as reported in the Daily Express recently? Did you really demand that Evian and garlic be scrapped from the menu?
“He just couldn’t accept the fact that he had been made redundant,” he splutters. “And anyway, my best man was a Frenchman.”
So where does Osia fit into these expansion plans, exactly? “Well, not here – not in the UK,” he replies. “But Osia could work as a franchise or a contract somewhere abroad. The idea is to build the brand first. I think the food is ground-breaking and we have this unique combination of great food without attitude. There are still too many places in London where you’re too scared to talk or laugh – and I absolutely insist that our staff should be knowledgeable. If I can deliver all that, then I think we can win.”
Favourite holiday: the Datai, Langkawi, Malaysia
Favourite hobby: golf
Favourite city: New York
Loves: food without attitude
Hates: overcooked macaroni cheese
Tel: 020 7976 1313
Seats: 72 in the restaurant, 38 in the bar
Designer: Sophie Douglas at Fusion
Celeb watch: Gwyneth Paltrow, Bryan Adams, Tom Ford
Owners: Raymond de Fazio and Scott Webster
What’s on the menu
* Blue swimmer crab cocktail, minted cucumber threads andflying fish roe, £9
* Lemon myrtle-cured smoked salmon, potato pancake, lime butter, £10
* Skewered ocean prawns, crisp kunafa pastry, wasabi mayonnaise, £12
* Chicken sweetcorn bonbons, mango and red onion relish, £8
* Dorrigo herbed spring lamb, wilted pea shoots, kumara ash, £18
* Grilled suckling pork cutlet, shallots, green beans, orange quandong glaze, £17
* Steamed wild salmon fillet, tomato star anise broth, £19
* Hot Rosella flower pudding, wild raspberry sorbet, rhubarb compote, £7
* Meringue pavlova, wattleseed cream, exotic fruits and sugar bark, £7
The Chef Scott Webster
“Don’t call it fusion,” pleads Australian chef Scott Webster. The chef and co-proprietor of Osia, which opened last month on London’s Haymarket, is explaining the menu at the Australian-inspired restaurant. “And it’s not Australian food per se,” he corrects, again. “I think of it as a contemporary Australian approach to food and service.” Meaning? “Our staff are very friendly and they know what a quandong is.” A desert peach – in case you’re wondering.
Actually, Webster is a pretty jolly sort. It’s just that he gets a bit fed up when people get it wrong (he means the critics, mostly). His pavlova is a case in point. Apparently there are two ways to make pavlova: the crusty type with a soft gooey inside that we know and love; and the soft, gooey type without the crust – “just like grandma used to make,” he says (an Aussie grandma, presumably).
It’s the latter that he serves at Osia, with an intriguing wattleseed filling (more about bush foods later), but it prompted London’s Evening Standard restaurant critic Fay Maschler to remark: “No one should mess with a national dish – particularly to its detriment.”
Osia is Webster’s first restaurant – he’s the co-owner with Raymond de Fazio. But why London? “Ego,” he replies. “I’d be lying if I said otherwise. I wanted to prove to myself I could do it.”
Webster may not be known in London circles yet, but he has trodden the boards internationally. After a classical training, which took in London’s Savoy hotel, he worked his way around the globe. “There isn’t a continent I haven’t worked in,” he boasts.
In fact, he has been travelling since 1979 (he’s 45 now), spending 10 months of the year away from home (he has a wife and two kids back in Sydney – “it’s a happy marriage, honest”), spreading the word about Australian produce through his work for hotel chains (Westin was the latest).
As well as operating a consultancy business, Webster promotes and sells Australian produce through his website – www.culinary.com.au – pushing much of what you see on the menu at Osia – Hills of Darling lamb, Rockdale beef, yabbies (crayfish) and marons (sweet lobster) and copious native Australian herbs and spices, with names such as wild fire and mountain pepper.
He uses 11 “bush foods” on the menu at Osia – “I don’t want to over do it”. There are intense, cranberry-tasting Hibiscus flowers, at £35 per kg, used with rosella flowers in a hot soufflé-like pudding; the coffee-cum-hazelnut-like wattleseeds used in the (offending) pavlova, and tiny sun-dried tomatoes (akudjura) as big as your thumbnail hiding in a cheese wafer, served with a Jerusalem artichoke cream.
The only things missing are the warrigal leaves. “It’s like really juicy spinach,” he explains. But Webster has even sorted that now. British salad producer Richard Vine put warrigal seeds in the ground four days after speaking to him. London-based chef, and friend, Andrew Turner (at 1837 at Brown’s hotel) has helped Webster out a lot with contacts.
“I love meeting new people and experiencing new cultures – that’s where I get a lot of my inspiration for my food.” And that includes his multi-cultural brigade. “I work with seven different nationalities, from German to Brazilian – plus three Aussies, of course.” Isn’t that a form of fusion?”
Fusion is a term that has been bandied about too much. It’s not just about chucking a bit of lemon grass at chicken. What does it really mean to me? Multiple flavours on a plate creating confusion – not fusion.” So how many flavours on a plate does Webster approve of? “Five tops, but four is best,” he replies, taking a swig of draft Hahn (the only Aussie lager on the list). “I take my lead from Asia. I love the contrast between cold and hot, crunchy and smooth.”
Webster doesn’t like to use a lot of starchy food or carbohydrates on his menu, which should please the Atkins dieters. “It’s an Aussie thing. Though if people really want them, they can order a side dish,” he says. “And I stay away from bread, too. Customers have to ask for it if they want it.”
Wine, you’ll be pleased to know, is OK with Webster – in fact, he loves the stuff. “It’s normal for Aussie chefs to know their wine – it goes hand in glove with the food.” The wine list at Osia even includes some of Webster’s personal favourites in a separate section called Scott’s Food Wines – wines that he thinks show off his food best
Red plum, yellow tomato cocktail
Meringue pavlova, wattleseed cream, exotic fruit, sugar bark
Wattleseed cream filling