Master mixologist Tony Conigliaro is teaming up with chef Rob Roy Cameron to open Gazelle, a Mayfair restaurant promising outlandish and innovative cocktails and modern dishes to match. Tom Vaughan met up with the two self-confessed ‘flavourists’ to learn what they have in store
“Snow tastes of enoki mushrooms!” whoops Tony Conigliaro. The much-vaunted mixologist is telling the story behind one of his most famous creations, the cocktail ‘Snow’. It all began a few years ago, when he showed his team at the Drink Factory a picture of someone with a snowflake on their tongue. “I wanted to know: How could we turn that into a drink?” Turning a sensation into a series of flavours turned out to be a nearly impossible task: it took over two years and came close to defeating them. “Then one night at 2am, I got this crazy text from Zoe [Burgess, operations director],” he explains. “She was on holiday in Norway. It just said: ‘Snow tastes like enoki mushrooms!’ Immediately, I knew she was right. I was so excited I got out of bed and did a dance!”
Everything about the story – from the drinks creation to its final ingredients (a mix of distilled chalk and clay, and freeze-dried enoki mushrooms) – provides a window into the unique mind of Conigliaro. Now, after years of revolutionising the London bar scene, the much-admired mixologist is turning his crosshairs on the capital’s dining scene. July will see him open his first food-led restaurant, Gazelle, alongside head chef Rob Roy Cameron.
Sat in the corner of his bijou Bar Termini, espresso cup in tattooed hand, hipster beard trimmed to perfection, denim jacket, rings et al, Conigliaro is very much a 21st-century restaurateur. And fans of the oft-labelled ‘celebrity bartender’ – and there are many – will be cockahoop that he is opening his biggest operation yet. This is the man whose Champagne cocktail Twinkle is a permanent best-seller at the famously boozy Groucho Club. Who at one point had three bars in the World’s Best 50 Bars.
It’s not just any area of London that Gazelle is hoping to make a splash – but its most prestigious. Conigliaro’s other bars include the achingly hip, concrete minimalist Untitled in London’s Dalston and Soho’s Bar Termini – but where is he eyeing up for his first full-on restaurant? Hackney? Fitzrovia, maybe? Nope: Mayfair. Home of the business lunch. The straights. The suits. That Mayfair.
It’s a bold move, but does it represent something of a gamble for the pair, sailing their avante-garde offering into an area of London not known for its bohemian tendencies? “I don’t think so,” replies Conigliaro. “I think a company strength is our ability to appreciate what’s in an area and ask, what are people looking for? Bar Termini started out as a conversation of where can you get a decent coffee and cocktail in Soho that’s not a members’ club. With Gazelle, we’re going for a different clientele – the arty crowd, the fashionistas. Everyone I’ve spoken to has said, ‘thank God you’re opening in Mayfair because there is nowhere there where we would go’.I think we will be unique for the area.”
The restaurant, which is set on Albemarle Street, has been in the making for two years, he says, ever since he was approached by the owners of the street to come up with an offering that fitted in with the high-end Italian clothes shops. Privately funded, it occupies the first and second floor of a Georgian townhouse and comprises a 40-cover restaurant and a 60-cover bar where his creations will take centre stage. “We’ve literally spent 10 months writing the bar menu,” he says. “They’ll be a few Tony numbers, including an improved version of the Twinkle. Sometimes it’s nice to look back at something that’s really simple and ask ‘How can I make it better?’ Elderflower, vodka, Champagne – it’s just three ingredients. We asked ourselves, how can we make it sing like no one else has done? And that process has taken 10 months.”
Meanwhile, downstairs, the restaurant will provide an opportunity for the South African, Spanish-trained Rob Roy Cameron – who counts a season at El Bulli and a Michelin star at Barcelona’s Hoja Santa on his CV – to showcase his modern European cooking. How have the pair ended up working together?
“The first time we worked together was when Zoe [Burgess] came to work at 41 Degrees [in Barcelona] when I was head chef,” explains Cameron. “The summer after that I came to work at the Drink Factory lab and I did the food for Tony’s bar, 69 Colebrooke Place, and we just kept in contact.”
Conigliaro continues: “When we were opening Untitled and looking for a chef, I asked Zoe to ask Rob if he knew anyone. And Rob said ‘Yeah. I know me’. The thing about Rob is he’s a flavourist. And I’m a flavourist, so we work well together.”
Those who have visited Dalston’s Untitled will have an inkling of what to expect from Cameron’s cooking, as the drinks-led site had a small menu. But for most diners, his food is something of a mystery. What can people expect? “I think it’s simple, straightforward, clean. Medium portion sizes – I want people to be able to come in and have a plate for lunch or three or four for dinner,” he replies. Average spend on the à la carte will be around £75.
These simple, clean flavours are best witnessed in the restaurant’s halibut dish. “I’d been working in a Mexican restaurant recently and in Mexico before that. Whenever you do a fish dish there, you do a ceviche,” he explains. “I wanted to do a dish like that translated to an English palate. We use halibut and cure it in an elderflower vinegar, that gives it its citrus instead of lime or lemon. The fish feels buttery – like it’s cooked. Then we use activated charcoal in the sauce, which is also a Mexican technique – over there they burn the sauces. So the final dish is just the fish, the elderflower vinegar sauce and blood orange, which we semi-dehydrate to give it a bit more texture. That’s all it is. Three simple flavours. It’s similar to what Tony does with his cocktails.”
For Conigliaro, stepping into a food-led operation feels like a natural progression, he says. “I think I was one of the first people to have a foot in two camps and to work closely with chefs as a bartender. Bruno [Loubet, who he worked with at London’s Grain Store] would come and see us at 6am when we were trying to make a purée, and he’d throw it in the bin and say ‘No, Tony. This is how you make a purée!’”
Gazelle is also an opportunity for him to draw on his artistic roots. He’s gone on record saying that Andy Warhol’s Factory was an inspiration behind Untitled. What influences is he drawing on for Gazelle? “I love the way Haider Ackermann uses colour and texture so I chose Shaun Clarkson to do the interiors because he is Mr Colour. I want the space to be bohemian, elegant, glamorous, sophisticated. And I want it to feel like a progression from day to night as you move through the building. In the restaurant it’s vivacious and colourful, then it gets more delicate, darker and more seductive – with navy blues and greens – then finally silvers and blacks towards the end in the bar.”
When Conigliaro first started off in the drinks industry 20 years ago as an art graduate trying to fund his studio, the chef-led revolution of London restaurants was only just gathering pace, and it’s fair to say that the bar scene was lagging far behind. “It was bloody terrible,” he laughs. “But lots of fun. If I had a time capsule, went back 20 years and offered them a distillation of flint stone, moss and clay, the bar would have closed within 10 minutes.”
But slowly, thanks to the work of people like Conigliaro – and he’s quick to name-check other trailblazing bartenders such as Dick Bradsell and Salvador Calabresi – the capital’s bar scene is now the envy of the world. “It took time. But now people travel from all over to taste these drinks. That is based on trust. They trust you. And it took time to build that professionalism.”
As well as the four bars – Untitled, 69 Colebrooke Row and two Bar Terminis (all dotted around London) – and a consultancy arm of the business, there is also the Drink Factory lab, the equivalent of the Fat Duck development kitchen, where his centrifugal machines epitomise a high-tech approach to extracting flavours. “That place just happened naturally,” he says. “It was a crap blog at first – me just writing about stuff. Early on I realised I didn’t just want to create the same drinks, so the blog was me asking how can I bring in different influences. I started having conversations with different people and it changed the way I approach things. Soon I needed equipment to try all these new things that people were suggesting.”
Arguably the biggest new thing in either his or Cameron’s career thus far – Gazelle – is just around the corner. Are they nervous? “No! Although why does everyone keep asking me that?” laughs Conigliaro. Well, it’s Mayfair, new ground, their first restaurant, I explain. It’s only natural to be nervous. “Obviously I’m a bit nervous, because no one ever knows 100% what’s going to happen,” concedes Cameron. “But then again, I know the food tastes good, and I know what we’re doing is going to be good. So we just have to trust the people to understand that and they’ll come.”
48 Albemarle Street, London W1S 4DH
Covers restaurant: 40; bar: 60
Average spend £75 before drinks
• Halibut, orange, elderflower
• Pigs’ tails, Manhattan
• Monkfish, burnt seeds
• Sesame, mango, pink pepper
• Babydoll: rum, rhubarb liqueur, lemon, egg white
• Dreaming of salmon: whisky, plum shrub
• Twinkle: elderflower, Perrier Jouët, vodka, lemon twist
Conigliaro first stepped behind a bar 20 years ago when he was an art graduate in need of money to fund his studio. After being trained by renowned bartender Dick Bradsell – who many credit with first transforming the London cocktail scene with his eponymous bar at Oliver Peyton’s Atlantic Bar and Grill – Conigliaro set up his group the Drink Factory in 2007.
He opened his first bar, 69 Colebrooke Row, in London’s Islington in 2009, followed by bars at both Zetter Townhouses in 2011, before going on to open Soho’s Bar Termini in 2015, a bijou espresso and negroni joint that took inspiration from Italian train terminals of the 1960s.
In 2017, he joined forces with Rob Roy Cameron to open bar Untitled in Dalston. Gazelle will be the pair’s second collaboration.
Rob Roy Cameron
Born in Botswana to Scottish and South African parents, chef Rob Roy Cameron studied and worked in photography before making his foray into hospitality at his mum’s pizza restaurant.
Stints on the pastry section of the Landau in London followed before he chanced it all and moved to Barcelona with barely a word of Spanish.
After coming under the wing of chef Albert Adrià, he quickly rose to head chef at Adrià’s Barcelona restaurants 41 Degrees and Hoja Santa via a season at El Bulli. His connection with the Adrià brothers first introduced him to Conigliaro at the Drink Factory, before the pair worked together on Untitled and now Gazelle.