It’s been more than a decade since Paul Merrett left the world of fine dining and embraced the ever-growing gastropub movement. Now, his Jolly Fine Pub Group is quietly winning awards and building a loyal army of locals in west London. Tom Vaughan went to meet him.
What prompted your move from fine dining into gastropubs?
Leaving the Greenhouse in Mayfair, where I had a Michelin star, was probably the most significant moment of my career. I’d spent my formative years in fine dining and had won a star at two different restaurants. But I started to feel a lack of emotion in that world of cooking. I didn’t feel a connection with the customer. I had young children and was thinking about what they were eating and family food.
A lot of factors made me look at the gastro-pub scene and think, “Maybe that’s where it’s at for me.” I still get up each morning thinking: “Yeah, let’s try and win a Michelin star.” I still see that as the benchmark, but I have toned down all the frilly, twilly shit that goes with so much of that kind of fine-dining world.
After the Greenhouse, I fell into the Farm [in Fulham, London]. It was just the right move, at the right time. When I came out of it, I knew that I wanted my own business. I don’t have any sort of family wealth, so there was no way I was going to be able to afford a fine-dining restaurant, even if I wanted one. So the gastropub was the way in.
What attracted you to East Sheen and the Victoria hotel?
I’d driven through Sheen, and I kind of knew it was close to Richmond Park. It’s a beautiful old building and I immediately felt comfortable there. It just worked straight away. But you don’t make much money out of one gastropub, however good it is. There comes a point where you have to grow.
There was me and Greg Bellamy, who was my business partner at that time. We were taking a small salary, building up a little bit of value in the business. But we knew we had to expand and eventually along came the opportunity to look at the Malt House [in Fulham] and the Fox & Grapes [in Wimbledon].
All three of your properties have rooms attached. Did you deliberately target properties with accommodation?
That’s our little business model: pubs with rooms. The Victoria had rooms but we never wanted them at first. I remember saying to Greg: “Bloody hell, do we really need thehassle of rooms?” But as it turned out, the revenue stream that rooms provide made it a no-brainer. The cost of taking money from a room is considerably less than the cost of taking it from a table of four people eating. One of the appeals of the Fox & Grapes and the Malt House was that they already had the rooms. So we now have three in Wimbledon, six in Fulham at the Malt House and seven at the Victoria. If you fill those every night, you’ve got a nice little business.
You took over the Victoria in 2008 just weeks before Lehman Brothers collapsed. What lessons did you take from launching a business during the recession?
I learned very quickly that we had to be lean and mean to survive. All of our little percentages needed to stack up. At about that time, there were probably a few restaurants with a bit too much fat. At first, of course, we panicked, because there was no one bailing us out; there was a big bank loan and there was money we’d borrowed and scrimped together. There was no safety net – we had to survive. I went straight into the kitchen and Greg ran the front of house. That allowed us to be a bit more cost-efficient and we got through it. It was such a steep learning curve and I think now I’m better at looking at a business and realising that there might be one or two people too many or there might be some dishes that are causing a problem in terms of revenue.
How have you changed your offer to suit the more residential areas of London?
I try and understand the locality. There are some very wealthy people living in Wimbledon. They probably eat in fantastic restaurants and they are probably buying high-end ingredients to cook at home. So you start to build a picture of what you think these people might want to eat. You then remind yourself that everybody wants to eat a burger at some point, so you have to have one of those. And a steak as well. We interact with the community as much as possible. We do the barbecue at school fairs, we sponsor football teams, we work closely with the local Macmillan trust.
At the Malt House, you have to be lots of things to lots of people. You have to be trendy, a little bit younger, a bit more edgy. We keep an eye on what ingredients are happening in east London and make sure that we’re tuning into those food trends. Then you’ve got the football crowd: when Chelsea are playing at home it’s a different day – we sell thousands of burgers and pints of beer.
The Ivy Café has opened around the corner from the Fox & Grapes. How do you cope with the new wave of restaurant brands taking over the high street?
We can’t run away from the Ivy. They opened in Richmond, which obviously affects the Victoria a lot, and they opened in Wimbledon and I suppose we are definitely fishing for the same customers. The food was of a far higher standard than I anticipated it would be. But I think we can challenge it on certain fronts. The chains take a little bit of time to manoeuvre, but we can react very quickly. [Head chef] John [Stanyer] can call up the fish man and if he says he’s just landed some fantastic wild sea bass, we can have them on the menu within 10 hours. We are good at anticipating change – that’s our strength. While I’d quite like to be the only destination in Wimbledon, it keeps us on our toes.
If you were starting off as a young chef now, would you follow the same route?
Don’t start me on young chefs! I did my apprenticeship at the Ritz and I was beaten up and bullied for three years. It was regimented and structured. The sections were very clear and you got to work on each one. Nowadays, most kids that I interview have never been to college, most of them have first tasted a kitchen at somewhere like Bill’s. The standard of chef is way lower than when I was young and the availability of young people in the industry is at breaking point. Restaurants will close because they can’t staff their kitchens. Brexit is going to be a massive issue. The biggest challenge facing the industry is the recruitment of young people and turning them into really good chefs.
What are your plans for the businesses?
The Victoria’s been refurbished and I’m going to relaunch it myself. I’m going to go back into the kitchen, write the menu, spend the next three months working very hard and trying to develop the team I’ve got. Then I will probably hand it over and take a more operational view. I’ve got a great head chef at the Fox & Grapes in John Stanyer, so I don’t think I’ll be stepping into the kitchen. But I’ll certainly be working closely with him. I’m going to refurb the pub side of things and the rooms are going to get a lick of paint. Come January, this will be somewhere back to where it was formerly.
Do you plan to add to the group?
I would definitely look at any similar kind of pub that came along if it was reasonably priced and I thought we had a good chance of doing well. Personally, I can only do so much. We would need a logistics set-up with an infrastructure to allow us to grow, and I’m looking at various people to come in and take some of those roles on.
Paul Merrett, a potted CV
1984 Apprenticeship at the Ritz London
1989 Le Soufflé, InterContinental Hotel, London
“Peter Kromberg [chef-patron] was the man who kicked me into shape. I’d done a lot of competitions at the Ritz and won quite a few medals. I was beginning to think I was pretty good and he soon kicked the stuffing out of me. It was such an honour to work for him – he was a proper chef.”
1991 Greenhouse, Mayfair, London
“[Head chef] Gary Rhodes was the man at that time. There was Marco and there was Gary. I really, really learned to think about food with Gary and he immediately became a friend. I liked him enormously. He was a great man manager – you really wanted to work for Gary Rhodes. Footballers say similar things of Alex Ferguson. You wanted him to think you were good and so you worked harder.”
1998 Head chef, L’Interlude, Fitzrovia, London
“L’Interlude was where I won the star. I don’t know what it’s like nowadays, but you used to just get a call from your PR saying, ‘Oh, you won a star’. The biggest thing in your life ever – way better than having children – and you don’t even get anything! But then the investors sold the restaurant to an Indian restaurateur, so obviously he had no use for me and my shiny Michelin star.”
1999 Head chef, Greenhouse, Mayfair, London
“We got the Michelin star in the first year and we retained it each year and I’m very proud of that. I would love to win one again. I wouldn’t rule it out, but I think it’s more the tricksy fine-dining world that I kind of got a bit tired of.”
2004 Head chef, the Farm, London
2008 Chef-director, the Jolly Fine Pub Group… and the television shows
“I had sort of five or six years where I probably could’ve called myself a half-baked celebrity chef. But I don’t think I ever had the talent or the personal management to really cash in on it. It was really fun, but it is in a box. I haven’t been that person for a very long time. I’m a jobbing chef who’s got three gastropubs and that’s what I do.”