As food increasingly becomes an art form in itself, we take a look at how art galleries and caterers are working together to create innovative restaurants that make commercial sense. Rosalind Mullen reports
Flip down a menu of Japanese delicacies in the chic, white world of Magazine at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, or savour a bowl of soup garnished with rose
petal cream, surrounded by artworks in Saatchi's Gallery Mess, and it's no wonder restaurants in art galleries are becoming destinations in themselves. The food is cutting-edge, the spaces are beautiful and the staff fit the frame.
For the caterers, there are several challenges: how to marry the food and service to the highbrow or avant-garde arty environment, how to nail the demographics of the customer and how to manage business flow.
Oh, and when it comes to event catering at the gallery, how to be extra clever and creative. Indeed, some establishments blur the line between restaurant and gallery completely, such as the Roth Bar & Grill at Hauser & Wirth in Somerset. This architect-designed arts centre uses its restaurant as a 'salon', showcasing contemporary art themed around food, cooking, animals and the countryside.
Pretty as a picture
Zoe Watts, business development director at caterer Creative Taste, the heritage division of Creative Events, says: "The high calibre of the permanent collection and temporary exhibitions must be reflected in every activity at the gallery. This includes the catering, which is an important part of the overall visitor experience. The gallery's expectations are that the differing needs of all visitors must be catered for."
As contracts often include event catering too, creative versatility is required. At the launch party of its £3.4m five-year contract at Dulwich Picture Gallery in London in June last year, Creative Taste presented food to match the event's "In The Picture" theme. Drawing inspiration from Sir John Soane's 18th-century building and the old masters it houses, guests pottered about with easels, got tuition from the gallery's art teachers and nibbled desserts designed to look like artists' palettes, made from chocolate fondant, crushed raspberries and fruit "paint".
But success comes from being practical too. Recognising that the existing counter service wasn't coping with visitor queues, Creative Taste gave the gallery's restaurant a facelift and introduced table service. The team also parked a 1970s CitroÁ«n H van converted into an espresso bar in the gardens.
"As a result, the café is now a calmer place to be," says Watts, who adds that business has increased 20% on the previous year and customer feedback scores stand at 94%. While Creative Taste themes the catering for events, it doesn't do so for its restaurant food. Instead, menus are dictated by the seasons and the demographics of gallery-goers. And not all visitors are gallery-goers, either. There's a lot of regular business - particularly from local mums and preschool hildren.
"We market to the local residents and the café has a friendly, community atmosphere," says Watts. "The support from locals means we've ironed out the variations in business levels associated with the exhibitions calendar."
That said, footfall is dependent on the popularity of an exhibition. With a small kitchen and more than 100 covers inside and out, they sometimes have to adjust the menus for crowd-pulling guest exhibitions.
"Both Whistler and Hockney were incredibly busy exhibitions, so we prepared a menu with dishes that could be prepared freshly, but quickly - efficiency is the key," says Watts. "The challenge is the turnaround time between the last daytime visitor leaving and the first guest for the evening event arriving."
For sure, one of the big differences between launching a restaurant in a gallery rather than the high street is that there is no opportunity for a soft opening. The caterer has to hit the ground running. This was the case for K&K London when it launched Magazine in the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London's Kensington Gardens (see panel).
Director of restaurants Eadaoin McDonagh explains: "We never had the soft opening that most restaurants have. Instead, our practice was through hosting events for Frieze [the annual art fair in London's Regents Park] in October and we then opened our doors to the public in November 2013."
Restaurateur Oliver Peyton has had his fair share of openings at galleries. His company Peyton and Byrne operates restaurants and cafés at the National Gallery, the Royal Academy of Arts and the Wallace Collection, and it has just opened London Café at the Imperial War Museum (IWM).
Peyton says it's crucial to ensure the management team work closely with the client to look at events and plan ahead. They also need to be aware of the customer profile, so at IWM, which is more family-oriented, there are pizzas and a charcoal grill. What Peyton doesn't do is theme food. "We operate a seasonal business, so we often do certain menus around exhibitions," he says, "but the ingredients are always in season. People have a lot of choice of where they eat in London today, and often they are looking for reliability."
It's not just the food, though, according to Peyton. "Every site has its own yin and yang. The design of each restaurant is important. We have miniature models of the WW1 dazzle ships on the wall at the new IWM London Café as well as incorporating the colours of the medal ribbons worn by soldiers into our upholstery and round our coffee cups, so we very much try to create a space that works."
Garden party: putting on a show at the Saatchi Gallery
As a recent events menu featuring "edible soil" has shown, catering company Rhubarb takes its client's briefs beyond the norm. So it's unsurprising, perhaps, that Heston Blumenthal - the chef who invented snail porridge - is a consultant with the firm's food design team.
"Rhubarb offers bespoke catering, so briefs for launch events are varied and no menu is ever the same," says its head of marketing Gavin Goody. "Many clients choose a classic canapé and bowl food format, but recently we have seen uplift in the number of food stall parties, with themed menus and event design."
A recent brief, for instance, was to cater at a corporate Saatchi Gallery party in Chelsea to showcase creative flair in art - and food. Rhubarb worked with event production company GSP to reinterpret the gallery as "The Art House", sectioning the galleries into rooms so guests could journey through the garden to a "living room", "kitchen" and the "garage". The party started in the garden, where GSP created settings using box hedges and topiary.
While guests listened to birds chirping and chatted to botanists, they could sip Rhubarb's Garden Martinis, made with cucumber-infused gin shaken with apple juice and elderflower, and feast on edible garden canapés. These included pea purée and pea shoots on a bed of edible soil (olive and grapenut gribiche) and fillet of lamb marinated in shallots and honey and served on branches of rosemary.
The stylish "living room" featured a real-time reality programme channelled through a large retro TV screen, oversized mirrors and sofas. In the "kitchen", there was live cooking action, with chefs creating a cheese soufflé with English asparagus and minted peas, alongside Cornish crab with black tomato and compressed cucumber and tuna tataki with ponzu and edible flowers.
There was also an interactive dessert stall offering strawberry and basil and lemon sherbet mousse, frozen yogurt lollies, maceringues (a macarron and meringue in one) and cronuts (a cross between a croissant and a doughnut).
The final room was the "garage", a hangout area where Soda-Stream cocktails were served on poseur tables and guests could have a bash at being graffitti artists. This collusion between art and beautiful food requires solid logistics. Such is demand that Rhubarb has a dedicated creative department to work with clients and brainstorm ideas. It also liaises with the menu development team to create a cohesive and original vision for the food.
To avoid any surprises on the big night, clients are invited into Rhubarb's tasting room before the event, where the team present the menu and the event design.
"Menus range from traditional to innovative, from British to Asian; we have the capability to cater for two to 2,000 guests for any type of event, all with their own set of challenges and logistical considerations," says Goody.
Serpentine Sackler Gallery's Magazine restaurant
The opening of a gallery restaurant by K&K London, a division of international caterer Kofler & Kompanie, has helped choreograph one of London's most dramatic new gallery restaurants.
The Zaha Hadid-designed Magazine restaurant opened at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London's Kensington Gardens last November. What sets it apart from its peers is that Berlin-born chef Oliver Lange is cooking his trademark Japanese-influenced menu.
Lunch and dinner starters include big volcano roll and teriyaki sauce (£8) and spicy hamachi and crispy ginger (£8). Among the sharing plates are yellowfin tuna, scallop and avocado (£15); and Aberdeen Angus sirloin beef tataki, ponzu and lotus crisp (£17).
Anyone familiar with the astonishing building, which has a striking undulating fabric roof and curved glass walls, will not be surprised to hear that a great deal of planning went into the food offer. K&K's director of restaurants Eadaoin McDonagh explains: "We conducted competitor analysis of all restaurants and cafés in museums and art galleries in London, and reviewed those in the surrounding Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. We needed to understand what was on offer and how the customer changes at different times of the day and year," she says.
The gallery also shared its visitor information with the caterer to ensure it understood the customer base. "With this information, we wanted to provide an offer that was unique to such a special building yet enjoyable to the broad demographic," says McDonagh.
Magazine has just started offering afternoon tea but, as you can imagine, it does that differently too. McDonagh explains: "We planned to excite visitors with a modern Japanese take. Cucumber sandwiches are replaced by maki cucumber rolls and flavours of yuzu and matcha feature in the cakes. There are also interesting sake infusions to match."
In line with the client's "art for all" philosophy, K&K has to offer creative food with accessible pricing. This means that visitors wanting just a coffee and cake are as welcome as those having a five-course dinner. There continue to be challenges. Business is difficult to predict as the flow changes with each exhibition, as well as between weekends and weekdays. Needless to say, the client relationship is key. K&K managers meet the gallery operations team every week and invite gallery curators to their daily briefings to ensure staff are continually inspired and up to date with each new exhibition.
"It's an exciting place to be and clients expect our hospitality team to be knowledgeable about the unique architecture and construction mechanisms used to realise the space," says McDonagh.
Clearly, a high-design operation like this needs confident staff who can fit in with the gallery ambience. Happily, McDonagh has been operating London restaurants for almost 10 years and draws on a band of staff who embrace K&K values.
"We have a low staff turnover as we spend a lot of time recruiting our team members," she says. "We demand passion, enjoyment and respect and, in return, we offer opportunity. We get to have fun in a highly creative environment with some very interesting clientele."
Magazine attracts 6,000 visitors a month and this is predicted to increase. Average spend is £20 per person, though higher at dinner.