The president of the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts talks to James Stagg about being a patron and founder member of Restaurant Collective and what the organisation hopes to achieve for the industry.
What are you working on at the moment?
I've been treating this period mostly as a rehearsal for retirement – and most of it I don't like. But I've spoken to many people and kept in touch with what's going on. And my new role with Restaurant Collective is starting to take up some time.
You're better known for your knowledge of cookery techniques than technology – what drew you to the Restaurant Collective project?
The pedigree and experience that the founders have is incredibly impressive. I see myself as a conduit between independent restaurateurs and those that have something to offer them. Most of the chef-patrons I know might overlook opportunities like this – but if it has done anything, this pandemic has magnified the need for restaurants to modernise. I truly believe this is worth looking at.
Are there any parallels with the ideas sharing you did while operating restaurants?
When I was at the Capital hotel in London, Richard Shepherd used to go and meet eight other chefs to discuss the issues of the day – be it getting more bookings, solving no-shows, finding staff or the price of potatoes. The ‘club de neuf' would talk about how things work by sharing their knowledge. We now have a group of people in similar circumstances who have knowledge to share. They need someone to turn to for advice, too.
What are the benefits of joining the collective?
Essentially it's a not-for-profit members' association. All money made goes back in to support members. There's a members-only Facebook group where members can get together and discuss the issues, and within the platform there's a deals marketplace where partners can provide goods and services at a deeper discount than they'd otherwise get.
We want to level the playing field and give members the same kind of rate that they'd expect if they were a chain. It all feeds into giving restaurateurs a better shot at making a profit.
Is there a digital element?
Restaurateurs of all types have difficulty controlling content once it goes out into the wide world. For example, review site content isn't necessarily accurate or it can be out of date. We're trying to help them take control by creating a single-page website with all their core information, which is put together into a directory of restaurants featuring all members. That listing is available via white label to distribution partners too, so the restaurant owner is in control of their content.
Does the collective have purchasing power as well?
At the moment we're working with procurement partners who will do that on our behalf, but in the fullness of time we hope to absorb that into the services we offer as Restaurant Collective.
Much of that is locally based – one of the things we want to concentrate on is for Restaurant Collective to be truly representative of anyone in the country, whether they're in the Highlands of Scotland or deepest Devon. Part of the idea is to support independent suppliers, too. So the local focus is very important.
So the ethos is all about community?
I think those outside of cities have the most difficult task. It's about finding strength of unity with people who really love the industry. We talk about pubs being the hubs, but they're fleeting. People spend more time in local independent restaurants and it's important that they're offered support. Togetherness is important.
You work hard to encourage youngsters into the industry. Does that work take on even greater importance now that the industry will have lost many colleagues during the pandemic?
I've been reading about a Japanese concept call kintsugi [the art of repairing broken pottery pieces using gold]. It's the idea of rebuilding or repairing to make something more valuable or stronger than it was before. Here is a perfect opportunity for someone in government to say, "why don't we get these chefs to help with domestic science?". We need to encourage kids to eat properly and understand food better.
It's not despair, but we do need to think about the future of the industry. It has never been more relevant. We need kids leaving school to know how to buy, how to prepare and how to have a balanced diet.
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