Shunning the more eccentric techniques of his restaurant's namesake - author of the only surviving cookbook from ancient Rome - in favour of a more straightforward style of cooking, Tim Johnson, chef-proprietor of Apicius, has proved you can make money from fine dining outside London.
Johnson and his wife Faith sold their house and decided to take over an ailing restaurant in Cranbrook, Kent, after he quit his position as head chef at Chapter One under Andy McLeish. They also decided to run it as a two-man show: Tim in the kitchen and Faith "literally doing everything other than the cooking - laundry, front-of-house, the wine-list and accounts".
It can't have been the easiest of ventures, but the Johnsons have carved out a pretty successful niche. The restaurant is intimate, with just seven tables, which helps to manage the numbers. A competitively priced menu at £24.50 for a set three-course dinner - £4 cheaper for the same menu at lunch - also means the restaurant is usually full, with about 80% of the business repeat custom.
But how do you make money? Foodwise, the French- and Italian-influenced fine dining is kept straightforward, with only three or four elements to each dish. Johnson's reworked "lasagne" starter, for instance, is made of nine carefully sculpted layers of baby spinach, peeled and skinned celeriac and wild mushrooms. Meanwhile, the pan-fried fillet of brill main comes with baby leeks and salt-roasted potatoes (parboiled, then roasted in a galette tin, with about 3ml of goose fat and a teaspoonful of Maldon salt to each cake), plus some rocket pesto.
With staff costs kept down, you begin to see how it adds up. Johnson says fairly priced local produce reduces costs, and he's ruthless with dishes, minimising waste and renaming dishes that are failing or even taking off dishes that sell too well at the expense of others.
Careful planning is also vital, like asking his butcher to freeze guinea fowl legs while he uses the breast, which means when he confits the legs for a different dish they're already paid for. "It covers the cost of the truffle that goes with them," he says.
This simple approach also helps him during service and was partly taught him by the person he calls his "culinary father", Nico Ladenis. Johnson worked at Chez Nico, Simply Nico and Incognico before joining Chapter One in 2001, and still goes to his mentor for advice. "He read the menus here and said ‘You won't be able to serve all that - take those ingredients off'," says Johnson. "It's great to get such good advice for free - well, he got enough out of me over the years!"
Other tricks include taking nearly all red meat off the menu. "If I had beef then 80% of people would want it and I'd have 10 bits of fillet to cook to differing degrees, while trying to plate up starters and maybe some puddings," he says.
Instead, with meats like guinea fowl he can roast the breasts on the crown, remove them, then finish cooking each one by sous-vide. Similarly, he covers salmon fillets with goose fat and cooks them on the bottom rack of the hot plate. For slow-roasted shoulder of pork, the joint is boned, rolled and coloured up in the pan, then sat on chopped up vegetables and roasted at 160°C for six hours. "These dishes look after themselves," he says.
Johnson doesn't worry too much about presentation, preferring to concentrate his one-man efforts on taste. "The customers always say it looks good," he points out.
Having worked at so many high-profile restaurants - he also worked for a year at Roger Vergé's in the South of France - does he ever regret trading it all in? "Well, I'm a pretty unsociable character anyway," he laughs. "My hands are ruined but it's really enjoyable".
And anyway, with a clutch of good reviews and a Bib Gourmand in this year's Michelin guide, as well as supportive calls from old contacts like Brian Turner, for whom Johnson worked at the Capital hotel, the couple still seem very much on the industry's radar.
- Honey-roasted quail, pickled girolle mushrooms and green bean salad
- Smoked duck breast, foie gras velouté and confit duck leg ballotine
- Fillet of Scottish salmon, mussel, sweetcorn and saffron chowder
- Poached breast of guinea fowl, spring vegetables, gnocchi and truffle broth
- Grilled goats' cheese gnocchi, rocket and Parmesan salad, tomato jus
- Cinnamon-poached apple, Calvados sponge and crème fraîche sorbet
- Vanilla panna cotta, cassis sorbet and pink grapefruit salad
- Selection of British and French cheeses
If you're going into business cooking in a kitchen on your own, buy a Pacojet. You can make anything from herb oils to truffle butter with it, and lobster bones in butter will come out smooth in seconds.
Apicius, 23 Stone Street, Cranbrook, Kent TN17 3HE
Tel: 01580 714666
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