Edinburgh-born chef Roy Brett set up on his own after more than 23 years in the industry so that he could put sustainable seafood at the heart of his business. Neil Gerrard reports
Need to know
It wouldn't have come as much of a surprise had Roy Brett decided he wanted to open his own business earlier in his career. The Edinburgh-born chef has clocked up more than 23 years in the industry. Not only did he develop the food operation for Ken McCulloch's former hotel chain Malmaison when it launched in 1994, he has also worked with big names such as Mark Hix and Rick Stein.
But it was a second stint working for McCulloch as chef-director at Dakota and Columbus hotels that convinced Brett it was time to set up on his own and put sustainable seafood at the heart of his business.
"I really knew once I got involved that this wasn't for me. It is not to decry what Dakota is or what the product is, but I wanted to push people's awareness on sustainable seafood and that wasn't going to happen when I was at Dakota. So the choice was made really because I believed I had to do what was right," Brett says.
Finding a site
Brett initially had problems finding the right site in Edinburgh. None of its many historic buildings seemed suitable. "When you actually started looking at how you bring them up to today's standards - having disabled access put in and so on - we did our sums and it just didn't add up. Old sites look beautiful on the outside but it would have cost £1.5m to £2m just to do a makeover," he explains.
But he saw an answer in purpose-built Edinburgh bakery and coffee house Peter's Yard. "I realised we had been looking at this in the wrong direction. We had been looking for this old building in Edinburgh that didn't exist. What we needed to do was find a blank space."
So he phoned up old Malmaison colleague Gordon McKinnon, who by that time was at Rezidor, to ask if he knew of any new sites that were available. As it happened, there was a space free next to the new Missoni hotel just off the Royal Mile, after plans for an adjoining spa fell through. Brett took over the site in July 2009 and it opened in September.
Starting out in the recession
There was no time for doubt in Brett's mind when he opened the business, despite that the financial outlook in 2009 was still gloomy. "I had complete belief," he says. "I felt I had an understanding towards the city after coming from it. And when you are worrying that your two-and-a-half tonne suite is not going to fit the kitchen, and the tiler is putting his last tiles on the day before the first run of the restaurant, and the menus haven't turned up, there is no time for self-doubt."
In fact, he thinks opening when he did might even have helped. "To open in a recession was the right time to open. Because we only know what it is like to open at that period."
Despite its proximity to the hotel, Ondine is a completely separate business with its own entrance and although it does attract hotel guests, it is far from reliant on them.
Instead, Ondine caters to a larger slice of the restaurant-going public in Edinburgh, and Brett is pleased that it has also developed a strong repeat trade from regulars, including one or two celebrities. Local businesses and nearby law courts also help trade along.
Fortunately for a chef of Brett's reputation, he didn't feel the need to advertise heavily before opening the restaurant and did few press interviews - doing just one each with two big Scottish newspapers, the Herald and the Scotsman. "We had to establish ourselves and grow a reputation. And instead of having the restaurant with big signage outside, I wanted people to find the door," he says.
Now that Ondine is into its third year of trading he has hired a PR company to get the restaurant's message out into the wider world with, he hopes, a degree of subtlety.
But you won't find him on social networks any time soon. "It is just not me, and not how I operate," he says. "I like word of mouth. In the wrong hands, Twitter and Facebook is self-promotion and I have a real issue with it."
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In Brett's mind, the key to a restaurant's success is a combination of self-belief and knowing what the customer wants. "You have to believe 100% in what you are doing and that you can deliver. You need to understand your market - there is a lot of self-satisfaction in chefs and the belief that a restaurant is built just around them. I believe you are building restaurants for people to socialise. You actually have to look at the person who is buying the food and ask if it is satisfying them."
Spotlight on sustainabilitY
Very shortly after the restaurant opened, Ondine secured accreditation from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), making it the first independent restaurant in Edinburgh to do so. It is also ranked as one of the top dozen restaurants in the UK by Fish2fork, the restaurant guide for people who want to eat sustainable seafood.
Brett says the process of attaining accreditation is not as challenging as some may imagine. "For me, it feels absolutely right to do it and we are very lucky to have a body on the Marine Stewardship Council that explains it very well."
He is also pleased to see a greater choice of suppliers opening up, as more of them sort out a sustainable chain of custody. As he points out, suppliers in the Shetlands now have accreditation for hairy crabs and lobsters among other produce, and haddock in Peterhead is now also MSC-accredited, which allows him to diversify as well as continue ordering from bigger accredited suppliers like M&J Seafood.
"It is my belief that this was the only way forward because after cooking for so long you really have to start to make an understanding of where it comes from, how much is there and is it sustainable the way that we approach our restaurants and our fisheries," he says.
Facts and stats
Owner Roy Brett
Head chef Ishu Mehrotra
Covers per week 1,500 (lunch and dinner, at its busiest)
Capacity 74 (with 14 at the bar)
Average spend per head £40 (not including alcohol)