The reopening of the Savoy Grill in London's recently relaunched Savoy hotel promises to be a shot in the arm for Gordon Ramsay Holdings after a tough year. The brains behind the restaurant, chef director Stuart Gillies, talks to Tom Vaughan
I'm completely uninterested in what is going on outside," says Stuart Gillies, as we sit at the chef's table at the Savoy Grill, the restaurant he has relaunched on behalf of Gordon Ramsay Holdings (GRH). "No way can I get distracted with reports of Gordon, Chris [Hutcheson, the former CEO of GRH] and the company. I owe it not just to Gordon, but to the team here and the hotel itself to deliver an amazing restaurant."
A lot has happened since the Savoy hotel closed to refurbish in December 2007. At the time GRH, which ran the Savoy Grill, was at the height of its power. It held eight stars in that year's Michelin Guide, had just won a further two for its New York restaurant Gordon Ramsay at the London, had recently opened two other sites in the USA, two gastropubs, and had a restaurant in Paris and a further pub planned.
Some high-profile departures, a lot of press coverage and a few restaurant closures later, and the image of GRH as an all-conquering empire seems a distant memory. So, after spending much of 2010 resembling more a soap opera than a restaurant group, it must be nice for everyone involved to be back in the business of opening profitable restaurants.
The new-look Savoy Grill, with its elegant interiors from the Russell Sage Studio, hopes to be just that. It's a homage to the opulent hotel-dining of the 1920s and 1930s, backed up by a business model for the competitive 21st century. The aim, says Gillies, was never to try and emulate what Marcus Wareing did at the Savoy Grill, when his high-end cuisine gained a Michelin star, but to put his own, less-formal spin on the room. "I told Gordon from the very start that I wanted to do a classic grill, with the buzz, the theatre and the flamboyance of those 1920s and 1930s restaurants," says the former Boxwood Café chef. "From then it was just about getting the right team in who I knew could deliver that."
With head chef Andy Cook running the kitchen, and restaurant manager David Carter front of house, the menu at the Savoy Grill comprises classic upmarket British dishes - smoked salmon on soda bread, braised hare, and a long list of grills - coupled with some old-school French numbers such as omelette Arnold Bennett, snails, and lobster Thermidor. Running alongside it is the one-time staple of the British hotel dining room - the trolley. After slipping from vogue with chefs - only a handful of London hotels such as the Ritz and the Goring still run one - Gillies is determined to drag the trolley into the 21st century: "I think diners and chefs both tired of it. It has to be done well; you have to use the right cut of meat so it doesn't dry out and get the trolley at the right temperature so the meat doesn't overcook or go cold. But some people come in and see the trolley and they don't want anything else."
Likewise, table service - rarely seen in the capital these days - will be a big part of the offering at the 98-cover restaurant. "We've tweaked it and refined it to suit today's diners," says Gillies. "It might take five minutes to carve a chicken, but the customer will only want to watch for 30 seconds or a minute, then they want to get back to talking to their companions. You've got to keep it snappy." Aspects like carving a chicken - which is available whole for two to share - are started at the table and finished in the kitchen. Likewise, guests get to watch a baked Alaska being finished, a custard millefeuille with mango being carved and a Dover sole being filleted - although not for too long.
The theatre of it all, says Gillies, is very close to his heart. "When I was at Daniel [Daniel Boulud's flagship New York restaurant] it was like a finishing school for me; it tied everything together. It was about the noise, the buzz, the brasserie atmosphere and the theatre - they'd do things like carry a Dover sole through the restaurant and it was fantastic. For me, brasseries are the best restaurants in the world, I love them. And that's what I want here, for people to come in, enjoy maybe just one course and a glass of wine and love the atmosphere and theatre of it."
After accumulating Michelin stars for so long, GRH seems to be heading in the direction of more informal, democratic eateries, and Gillies is central to this. Next year will see the chef open both Bread Street Kitchen and Union Street Café for the company (see panel on page 44), two restaurants that will be characterised by a fast, buzzy pace similar to Heathrow Terminal Five's Plane Food, which Gillies also opened.
Does he prefer quietly pulling the strings rather than soaking up the kind of limelight many of Ramsay's other protégés enjoyed?
"I'm really happy with what I do and how I do it," he says. "I'm never going to demand this or demand that. There's no ego clash between Gordon and me. I've never wanted three stars; I don't even want one."
But I put it to him that, slowly and surely, he seems to be building an empire within an empire. "In a way I am, yes," he says. "And Gordon doesn't have an issue with that. I'm not interested in being high-profile. I love my job, I'm married with three kids, who I want to look after and spend time with. I want to work at a high level and do my own thing but I'm not in this to become the planet's hottest chef."
Stuart Gillies and Gordon Ramsay first met when they were young commis chefs in London. "I was at the Royal Garden and Gordon was at the May Fair InterContinental and we used to go out together," recalls Gillies.
While Ramsay went on to work under Marco Pierre White at Harveys, Gillies preferred to travel, working in Rome and Sweden, and backpacking in South America, before working for Daniel Boulud in New York. Stints at Le Caprice and Teatro followed before he rejoined Ramsay to help open Angela Hartnett's restaurant at the Connaught in 2002.
Gillies then went on to open Boxwood Café for the company in 2003, and ran it until it closed in April 2010, as well as Plane Food in Heathrow Terminal Five, and now the Savoy Grill.
Next year will see him head up two new restaurants - Bread Street Kitchen in One New Change in London and Union Street Café near Borough Market.
The Savoy Grill: on the menu
Somerset cider and onion soup with Cheddar cheese toasts, £6.50
Omelette Arnold Bennett, £11.50
Potted salt beef, pickled vegetables and buckwheat flour crackers, £9.50
Mains Mixed veal grill, £18
Dover sole 16oz, grilled or meunière, £35
Roasted Creedy Carver chicken with Périgord truffles and gratin dauphinoise (for two), £55
Desserts Lemon tart with almond milk ice, £8
Custard millefeuille with mango, £9
Mandarin baked Alaska flambé, £9
2011 launches: Bread Street Kitchen and Union Street Café
Promising a more informal style of restaurant than Gordon Ramsay Holdings has been known for in the past, Bread Street Kitchen and Union Street Café will open next year in London's One New Change and Borough Market respectively. The 250-cover, all-day Bread Street Kitchen will be based loosely on Heathrow Terminal Five's Plane Food, says Stuart Gillies, who will be executive chef of the project.
"It's in the City so there'll be the same fast-food mentality and lots of people on their own. Lots of the systems will mirror Plane Food - such as the back-of-house structure, timings and price level - but the offering will be completely new."
Due to open in spring 2011, one feature Gillies is certain of is a raw bar, dealing in cured, smoked, pickled and raw fish. "Lots of people run seafood bars but they are expensive to run and I wanted to do something different," he says.
"Meanwhile, Union Street Cafe is a site we signed up a little while ago and is part of a feeling from the whole group that is for team-led, informal restaurants that aren't about the chef," says Gillies. The site will be on two floors in Harling House, on the intersection of Union Street and Great Suffolk Street.