As he opens his fourth restaurant, Boisdale Mayfair, the restaurateur tells James Stagg what he's learned from 30 years in the business and why being unfashionable is the only way to stay current
Hospitality needn't be complicated. When we opened the original Boisdale in 1988 I ran a perfectly effective business with a once-a-week stock take and a simple till with price look-up codes. It was a pretty good manual system. My bills were on duplicate paper, handwritten, and I knew where I stood. I had a wonderful device called a hook, which corresponded to a table number that you put the bill on. It worked as well as our current system, which does a million things that we don't use. The restaurant industry spends a fortune on this technology, but really it's all about customer experience. Most of what happens is about human contact.
We're now on our fourth site and the dishes are pretty similar.
When I started in catering people thought herbs only went with certain ingredients. But all the aromatic herbs are delicious with virtually anything. You just have to experiment. It's like wine matching. If I'm in a mood for a particular glass of wine, it'll go with whatever I'm eating. I had Chianti and skate last night, for instance. The British just like putting things in pigeonholes.
I love the concept of sharing plates, as everyone does. We've created the concept of British tapas. When I started in 1988 I had this idea that we were a restaurant and savoury bar. I took British savouries and we had a tapas-type arrangement. That turned out to be too labour-intensive for us and didn't really take off, but now we've created what I think is pretty eclectic and wonderful - because British covers everything. As long as the ingredients are British we can source inspiration from the world of curries and empanadas.
It's taken time to get simple things right. We've had Welsh rarebit on the menu since 1988, but we've expanded it. Now it's like a pizza, with different toppings. So we have Tunworth cheese and rosemary; field mushrooms; pickled walnuts; and ham and cheese. What we won't include is tomato. It's not an indigenous food.
More people are eating out, but the risk factor is as high as ever. We have the best-value shellfish in London. We work on a cash margin. It is an expensive item, so if we sell a lot we make similar money to that of a less expensive item. The key difference is volume. There is a transport cost for buying direct from the Outer Hebrides, as we do, as obviously there are minimum quantities.
I've chosen things that I like in my restaurants - they're a reflection of my preferences. I'm mad on cheese, wine and cigars. We probably have the best selection of British cheeses in London. The only thing we have here that isn't British is truffle, pata negra and some mushrooms. Our prime ingredients are British with a preference for the west coast of Scotland.
People in Mayfair aren't that different biologically to people in Belgravia. We want to be big on cocktails, shellfish and tapas. People can eat - even if it's just a burger - here at the same price as he high street. There's something for everyone. That said, we're not the perfect place for a non-drinking, non-smoking vegan who doesn't like jazz and red walls. We always have red walls.
We're fortunate never to have been fashionable, so we can't go out of fashion. The restaurant scene tends to rip out, while we tend to move into houses and look for features from the original build. I like the evolution of the building. With restaurants, most follow fashion. They have an identifiable style in a particular period. We don't use designers, we do it ourselves. I bought a pile of pictures and I had no idea if I had enough, but in the end I only had three left over.
There is always something you can do better. I've been a restaurateur for 30 years. This opening is as much hard work as it was the first time. It's like giving birth in your 50s. Also, you get more cautious as you grow older. When I was younger I had nothing to lose. But my enthusiasm is the same.