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A new taste of Thyme

23 November 2004
A new taste of Thyme

It's a big ask. Taking a small but perfectly formed neighbourhood restaurant of 50 seats into the heart of the West End's luvvieland, expanding it along the way and, oh yes, taking on an F&B operation at the same time. Total potential covers in one night? Approaching 400 over all the dining outlets. An undoubted opportunity. A risk? Certainly. After all, the industry is littered with the fall-out from over-ambitious expansion projects.

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But if anyone is up to the task, the two Adams (Adam Byatt and Adam Oates) probably are. I've never met two such organised chefs. Every i and t of the transfer of their highly acclaimed Thyme restaurant from South London to Covent Garden's exciting Hospital site has been dotted and crossed. From the 26-page staffing manual, to the bespoke chinaware and cutlery, to the graphics on the business cards: menus, wine and cocktail lists, suppliers, the flow of work in the huge main kitchen - the thought lavished on everything is impressive.

"You can't possibly take on a project like this without having some kind of structure to your business. It's all well and good being creative and visionary and serving wonderful food, but if there's no system and it's totally dependent on you as a person then it's a pretty useless thing. I feel very strongly about that," Byatt says. (He's the one that does most of the talking, by the way, with Oates adding his pearls of wisdom where appropriate).

We're sitting, all three of us, in a tiny chef's office, overflowing with coats, computers and mobile phones that leap into musical life with irritating regularity. It's two weeks prior to the restaurant's opening (on 4 November) and, in time-honoured tradition, the restaurant - apart from its vast kitchen, stretching out into infinity before the office's peep-hole of a window - is a building site. Chippies, electricians and plasterers are all beavering away, oblivious to the racket and clouds of dust they are throwing out. To stop any untoward interruptions, Byatt locks the door. No escape for anyone.

A brief history of Thyme
For anyone unfamiliar with the Adams Family scenario and its Hospitalisation, here's a potted history. Byatt and Oates met some 14 years ago when they were working in the kitchens of London's renowned Claridge's hotel. Their careers diverged for a while subsequently, but reconverged in the kitchens of Philip Howard's two-Michelin-starred Bruton Street restaurant, the Square. They left the Square two-and-a-half years ago to give birth to Thyme in a less-than-salubrious part of Clapham, south of the Thames.

Critical acclaim wasn't long in coming. The national reviewers (barring the Sunday Times's AA Gill) loved the classically-based modern fare that the chefs (Byatt at the hot station, Oates in pastry) put out. They loved the … la carte concept of modest-portioned dishes - tasting menu-esque, but not so small - that Thyme made its own, which enabled them to sample a myriad of food without the consequence of finding themselves welded to the chair at a meal's end. "I think I'm in love," opined Terry Durrack in the Independent on Sunday at the time; "Sweet Jesus but it's good," raved the Observer's Jay Rayner; while the Guardian's Matthew Fort declared the boys were putting out "forceful… well-focused and rich" flavours.

"We didn't expect to become successful so quickly. Not at all," Byatt says. "We viewed Thyme as ‘let's do our own thing and not work for anybody else' and didn't think beyond that." Those blinkers didn't stay on long, as the restaurant's success meant it soon outgrew its neighbourhood roots and the Adams cast their eyes north-westwards to Chelsea or South Kensington and a larger - say, 80-seat - dining room.

Enter restaurant manager and fixer Anders Baath (ex-Bank Group and Fifteen), who put them forward as possible leasees of the fine-dining restaurant (and contractors for F&B at the private members club) at the Hospital, a converted medical building slap bang in the middle of Covent Garden. Baath was the vice-president of club and guest relations at the Hospital, whose multi-functioned purpose was the vision of entrepreneurial owner Paul Allen and rock musician Dave Stewart of Eurythmics fame. Chicago uberchef Charlie Trotter had been planning to make his debut on the London restaurant scene at the Hospital, so for Byatt and Oates to pull off the deal was something of a coup.

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Adam Oates (left) and Adam Byatt have moved their restaurant to the centre of London.
So what is the deal? Essentially the duo are leasing the 7,000sq ft first-floor space for Thyme, which is now an 76-seat restaurant with a 14-seat private dining room and two bar lounge spaces. They are also contracted to do the F&B for the private members club ("our cash cow") which is spread over the building's second and fourth floors and encompasses another 72-seat restaurant and several bar lounges. Both lease and contract run for 10 years initially, with a renewable clause for another 10 years at the end of the first decade. I venture to ask for a rental figure and am politely, but firmly, put in my place. "We pay a very acceptable and normal rate for a prime West End restaurant space of this size," is all I get from Byatt. On the other hand, Byatt and Oates are more than happy to talk about their respective roles in the new venture. Byatt is taking charge of Thyme, while Oates is quitting the stove completely to oversee the club's F&B operation. It's something they're both happy with: a move that suits both personalities. "I've always been good at maths and I'm finding the position I'm in now very exciting - understanding formulaic ways of business in a very fluid environment. I like boring things," Oates says, drily. "He's very analytical and mathematically he's outstanding," Byatt chips-in, "the exact opposite from me. If there's a decision to be made, I'll make it in 10 seconds and Adam will make it the following day. We'll both probably end up with a middle-ground answer, but we get there a different way." "Adam's very quick, but I'm never wrong!" Oates offers with a grin, adding: "His great strength is his passion for food. That's what got us talking originally, but it takes a lot of energy and natural ability to maintain that passion 14 years down the line." There's no doubt that Byatt comes across as the more obviously driven of the two ("I resolve my issues with life through my cooking" he admits), but the success of Thyme is clearly dependent on the two chefs' ability to work together seamlessly. Without Oates carrying the weight of the administrative role in Thyme, Byatt wouldn't be able to channel his energy into creativity in the Thyme kitchen. And upping the ante at the restaurant is central to the success of their whole project at the Hospital. Without their achievements on the plate at Clapham, the duo wouldn't have got the break in Covent Garden. "Thyme drives the whole business. It drives me as a chef, Adam as a restaurateur. It drives the profile, it will be the draw for the whole building," Byatt stresses. So let's take a closer look at the Thyme's new incarnation. The first thing to be said is that the … la carte offering is not in the same starter-portion-size vein as at Clapham. Yes, the portioning is not overwhelming ("We don't want people full-up when they're only half-way through a meal," Oates says), but the menu is set out in a classic three-course structure. Some signature dishes have been retained ("the ones that I thought were strong enough") - a velvety cauliflower soup with earthy truffles; a sophisticated foie gras terrine with confit cod, trompettes and Banyuls reduction; a tasty braised belly of pork with truffle gnocchi, seared scallops and crackling - but Byatt has added more than he has kept. He has used a seven-choice format at each course and intends to change on a 10-weekly, season-led cycle. Hence the frequent use of autumn truffles, for example. And no surprise, either, to find a couple of game choices among the new additions, as well as the liberal use of trompettes and other fungi. There are dishes such as a succulent baked fillet of halibut placed precisely - as if skewered - on a bed of balsamic-nuanced trompettes aligned along the delicate sprig of thyme incorporated into the design of ceramicist Bodo Sperlein's pure white plate. You can see the heritage from the Square in Byatt's clean, precise classicism: in the wonderful depth of flavour he gets from his ingredients. But he's not a clone of Howard: his own take on the cuisine of his training shines through in touches such as the apple macaroni that helps to make up a multi-textured, multi-temperatured salad of pot-roast partridge. (And yes, there are morels in the shake-up, too. Why not?) And he has cleverly taken seasonal apples and weaved them into an amuse bouche of pure, intense game consomm‚ - they're lurking at the bottom of the cup - while a winter favourite, parsnip, lends its sweetness in a foam topping. The amuse, like most of Thyme's dishes, is easy on the eye - deceptively simple, you might say - given the techniques it requires in its construction. Desserts, on the other hand are more obviously showy. With Oates moving full-time to a managerial role, these are now the province of pastry chef Damian Allsop and it's a tribute to Byatt's desire to nurture his chefs that he has allowed the younger man to stamp his personality on Thyme's menu. Expect things such as figs in orange and honey served with a mild, moussey goats' milk ice-cream; blackberry gazpacho with muscavado croutons, ratafia ice-cream and pears; and hazelnut crisp, plum compote, Guinness ice-cream and cherry mousse. "A lot of people have put their careers on the line for me and I respect that," Byatt says. "I've got a duty to make their careers go forward. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than taking three or four of the boys on to another level. I'd give any accolades back to fulfil two or three of their careers." That's no mean statement, coming from someone who has set himself the task of taking his restaurant into the fine-dining top 10 in London. Accolades clearly matter to both Byatt and Oates, if only to gain that coveted place among the elite. Personally, I've no doubt that the duo will attain their goals. Nor has their former mentor, Philip Howard. "Those boys are very talented, they're going places," he says.
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