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The Caterer interview: Chantelle Nicholson on taking ownership of Tredwells

06 August 2020 by

Last month the chef revealed that she had been the sole owner of Tredwells restaurant in London's Covent Garden, which she established as part of the Marcus Wareing Group, for two years. She speaks to Emma Lake about her decision to keep it quiet and the future of the industry

You took sole ownership of Tredwells two years ago – how did it come about?

It came about very organically; it was a natural progression. Marcus and I had worked together for many years, and still do work together, but I wanted something that was mine, where I could drive forward my ethos, change things up slightly and solidify my next chapter.

I'm still working with Marcus, I'm still a business partner, predominantly in the Gilbert Scott [in London's King's Cross], but I'm involved in all the restaurants at a top level.

I wanted something that was mine, where I could drive forward my ethos, change things up slightly and solidify my next chapter

Why did you wait for two years to make the step public knowledge?

Something always just cropped up and got in the way. I was too busy to think about how I wanted to communicate it, then I guess there was a bit of a downturn in the economy and I thought, "Is this going to be more of a hindrance – are there people coming purely because it's a Marcus Wareing restaurant?". It was when I didn't really want to rock the boat, but as time went on, it was apparent it was on its own trajectory and I also didn't want that to conflict with what Marcus was doing.

You've reopened the restaurant in the Covent Garden site this week, but you had been looking for a new location for what you've called Tredwells 2.0. What can you tell us about that?

I was looking for a new site for quite a long time, but this [Covid-19] has put a little spanner in the works. My approach now has been to use this time to do a relaunch with some of the things I was going to do for the new one.

Already before Covid-19 I wanted more of a multifunction space, not just a restaurant – somewhere with room for things like cookery lessons, community projects, a retail element to it. Just somewhere that was very dynamic, where we were able to be very flexible.

I really want the right place. I don't want to jump into something that isn't the way I envisage the business being, that isn't flexible. I want a space that is great for the team, as working in a kitchen can be really mentally tough.

Also, the local community is important and I'd like to have more of a collaboration with a landlord – someone who really wants to do better themselves, change their sustainability models and enhance the operation.

A lot of the things I wanted have become even more important with Covid; it's solidified what I want. I think right now in terms of supporting local and consumer confidence, it's beneficial to be in a neighbourhood location. For me, it's finding the right neighbourhood and making sure everything can work in tandem.

Chantelle Nicholson
Chantelle Nicholson

You mention sustainability – you've been at the forefront of building momentum for industry-wide improvements through the Chefs' Manifesto action hub. Do you think Covid-19 will have an impact on our focus on sustainability?

I hope, for the sake of the world, sustainability is turbocharged, but I think there have been backward steps as well as forward steps in this period. People were getting really good at taking their KeepCups out to coffee shops and now many shops are saying ‘no, we won't do that any more'. I think it's a bit of an excuse because it makes their lives easier.

I think the pandemic has also exacerbated single-use packaging – that has sky-rocketed because people feel it's safer. Then there are all the Perspex screens, which people jumped on the bandwagon to get at the beginning, which will probably end up in landfill.

But things have also regenerated in the period where pollution was much lower. I live in Angel and I spent a lot of time by the canal in the last three months of lockdown, and even there the clarity of the water is insane. The proof is in the pudding – we can see the wildlife returning. It would be such a shame to go back to us decimating everything.

It does take a bit more effort; you have to be conscious of what you're doing. We're going through that process now with our suppliers, looking at how we get things in. The big thing we want to do is get rid of cling film. It takes some thinking around what we will use instead, and obviously there's not really any money to get new things, so we're having to work with what we've got. It takes brain power, but for me it's non-negotiable.

Tredwells
Tredwells

Many operators have reported going back to basics over the past few months, looking at every aspect of their businesses. We've seen several announce big changes. Is that something you've done?

For me, it's a reset. I want to see this as an opportunity and make the most of it. I'm not sure how optimistic I feel for the industry and I could be sitting here in three months' time putting my business into administration. I'm quite aware that's on the cards for everybody. But, at least we will give it a real go – I would feel disappointed in myself if I didn't.

I have the opinion now that we are at rock bottom and there's nothing more to lose, so if we throw everything at it, the only way is up. That may mean there will be more closures, but if opportunities can be created from that in some way, then actually it will have a better long-term effect.

I have the opinion now that we are at rock bottom and there's nothing more to lose, so if we throw everything at it, the only way is up

Do you think this is a good time to speak to consumers about subjects such as service charge and to make changes?

I really hate service charge and I admire those who have incorporated it into prices, but that comes with some pretty big financial ramifications. There's the VAT you have to pay if you incorporate it and, at the end of the day, the team get less because they then have to pay National Insurance. It's an instance where the right thing to do is actually the most costly in some respects, which doesn't make sense to me.

In terms of moving forward I think one of my big frustrations is consumers not understanding the true cost of their experience. That comes down to the ingredients being put on their plates, the skilled people who have put them there and the overheads of the site. We've seen prices driven down by various third-party operators within the industry and I think it was untenable. It's been really hard to make a profit these last few years and it's getting harder and harder.

Tredwells
Tredwells

I think this [pandemic] allows us to take stock and be conscious of how we move forward rather than having to go with the flow. The bubble was always going to burst at some point because there were too many restaurants in London. It was really hard.

The bubble was always going to burst at some point because there were too many restaurants in London

How have you prepared for reopening and how do you feel about the West End market?

I didn't think we'd see people travelling into central London for a while, which is why we've waited until August to open. We were only going to open three days a week, with the Eat Out to Help Out scheme – we'll see if that has an impact.

Our capacity has reduced by half just with the distancing, but we're having to be very restrictive with people coming and going. While previously we would take up to 20 people every 15 minutes, that's now capped at six. So it's actually less than half capacity because we have to be mindful of who is coming in and who is going out.

We had around 60 menu items previously and we're really scaling that back. We're just having one à la carte menu, from which we can make tasting menus. The à la carte menu will have three or four choices for each course and two of those will be plant-based, because that's what people have come to expect from us and that's how I would like to move forward as well.

Tredwells
Tredwells

We're also taking a look at our suppliers and at supporting our British producers as much as possible, and we're also focusing on more regenerative agriculture. We're challenging ourselves to think a bit more of the moment, so we're looking at it from the perspective of what's in season this week, what can we get that's good, and we'll create a menu from that.

Do you think Covid-19 will turbocharge the rise of plant-based diets?

I think there's a necessity for it to be on people's radars. I would never advocate for a completely plant-based lifestyle, that's not where I come from, but the fact is we all need to eat more vegetables, for the planet, for ourselves and for biodiversity.

Do you think restaurants have a responsibility to help people lead healthier lifestyles?

It's all about moderation. Using the word health in restaurants is a very dangerous thing to do, because health is very subjective. As an almost 40-year-old who exercises a lot and eats a good diet, my health priorities are very different to a 60-year-old with high cholesterol and so on.

When I go out, I want to have a great time and I'm not bothered what the nutritional content of a dish is. I don't want to think about that. Putting calories on menus is a dangerous road to go down, because do people understand what calories do? Are they going to say, ‘I don't want to eat that because it's got so many calories in it', without understanding what those calories are made up of? If they're all carbs and sugars, then maybe reconsider, but if it's healthy fats with higher calorific values, you need those in your diet.

Tredwells
Tredwells

If you want to go and eat a meal that suits your chosen diet, you can, but it shouldn't be a mandated thing. I think now that people haven't eaten in restaurants for so long, they want to go and have a joyful experience.

Asma Khan thanked you on social media for helping her as she opened Darjeeling Express. She's spoken out about bringing women on in the industry – what's your perception of what needs to change?

Even with industry press you see a lot of the same names and, I'll be honest, they're mostly males with Michelin stars. While I respect them all greatly for what they've achieved, I think they only represent a small fraction of the industry.

There are so many people doing really inspiring and interesting stuff that's not talked about. I understand that the big names in the industry bring in readers to some extent, but on the flipside, it's just perpetuating a problem and I think there's so many amazing people who are slowly doing it on their own, who don't get the kudos they deserve and could inspire a lot more people.

I think as women we tend to be a lot more involved in everything within our businesses, such as the kitchen, finance, PR, marketing, maintenance, IT, social media, etc, and I don't think that's talked about enough. Running a restaurant is about so much more than just the food. Change is needed across the board, and I believe the media needs to become more thought-provoking and current rather than featuring the same names and supposed accolades year after year. The pandemic has heightened the need for change in what we do and it needs to be seen as an opportunity to do better, in all areas.

Masterclass: Chantelle Nicholson uses aquafaba to create a kohlrabi starter >>

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