The Breakfast Group founder, who is behind London venues including Saint and Jerusalem and more recently the Last Talisman and Martinez, speaks to Caroline Baldwin about his move away from nightclubs towards restaurant and cocktail bars.
You launched your first London venue in 1991. How has your business changed over the past 30 years?
Thirty years ago, I was in a very different part of my life: I was younger and I enjoyed going out. Now I don't want to be pounding under the arches, having people look at me and wonder who brought their dad along – it's not right. I realised I can't be doing this nightclub thing any more.
I don't want to be pounding under the arches, having people look at me and wonder who brought their dad along
Back then I had my managers ring me after a terrible night, saying it all kicked off after someone threw a drink over someone else – now it's somebody has been shot or stabbed. It's very different now.
I can still have the same licensed premises to 3am today, but most of my [restaurant and cocktail] business is done by 10.30pm. Anything beyond that is icing on the cake.
How have you improved your food offering and why has that been important over the years?
A lot of it is driven by my own standards. I'm a huge foodie, being Chinese, so it makes it easy for me to get involved. I've got millions of ideas of what I should do, from my own personal experiences, my mother's cooking and spending a lot of time in Malaysia, which has been the inspiration for the Last Talisman.
I've recently been looking at bringing in outside catering and I'm speaking to the former head chef at Sketch, Hervé Deville, who has a catering company called Hosanna London. We have kitchens on all our sites, but we all know wages, recruitment and expertise is a difficult subject for a lot of operators. I make my money from wet sales, so if I break even on the food, I'm a very happy man – but I'm only a happy man if I deliver great food.
Your bars and restaurants have always had a strong aesthetic, why has this been key to your brand?
I thought it was fairly obvious to make places look really wonderful and transport people to another world, or on holiday somewhere wonderful. That's why people will pay £12 for a gin and tonic when they can get the same thing at home for 80p. I'm opening a venue called Lucy Wong early next year and I'm having things shipped in from China, lighting and birdcages. In my mind I can picture this venue, which will be absolutely delightful.
Which venue has been your favourite and why?
If I had nine children, even if I did have a favourite, I wouldn't tell you because it's unfair on the others.
Outside of my business, I always say my favourite cocktail bar in London is the Punch Room at the London Edition hotel, because it's small and intimate and I love the whole thing about punch bowls.
If you had 10 minutes with Boris Johnson, what would you ask for?
Last year I was in hospital for 12 days with Covid and I made a promise to myself to do something for the NHS. I was so embarrassed that these nurses and doctors were risking their lives on not much money and they had to be cheerful every day of the week – these are special people. So on the Bank Holiday Sunday at the end of August, every venue in the Breakfast Club group will offer free food and drink to NHS staff. I would ask Boris to support this initiative – maybe we can get other venues to sign up to do it annually.
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