Swiss-born chef Michael Riemenschneider has been busy. Having taken over the Black Boys Inn in Hurley, Berkshire, in the summer, he has also moved his Canvas restaurant from Marylebone into what used to be Le Cercle in London's Wilbraham Place. He talks to Neil Gerrard about the changes to his business, his opinion of restaurant critics, and why finding staff is harder than ever
Earlier this summer you moved Canvas from Marylebone to a bigger site just off Sloane Square, with 60 covers. How have you found the transition?
I am really happy with it. We developed a new menu but apart from that the the style is the same, and the staff are the same, although the kitchen is bigger. I think it has gone really well.
It is a very imposing site. The other one had 20 covers and was like my dinner table. The people in Marylebone don't like it that much that
I have moved a little bit further but they are still coming. On a day-to-day basis we probably have a minimum of two who are regulars and they love that they have space and can have a pre-dinner drink at the bar. At the moment it looks a bit formal because we've got the wrong tables. We won't be keeping the tablecloths. We want to do high-end dining but with a casual approach and the least amount of stuff on the table possible.
Does it feel like a big change for you?
It does. It's quite funny actually because if you are in the shit in the middle of service, suddenly you have to walk a distance to go and get something. In Marylebone you had your magic triangle on a square foot and you had to manage to get everything. But it is really nice to see the guys who were in Marylebone now be able to do 40-50 covers. We still haven't fully used the site yet because we wanted to make sure everything was perfect before we get to 60. Lunches could be better, but we are tucked away from Sloane Square and Sloane Street, so it is up to my PR people to get that going.
You designed the refurbishment of this site yourself. How much did it cost to do?
We spent about £200,000. I saved myself about £30,000-£40,000 by not using an interior designer. We used the same builders who did my house, Marylebone and the Black Boys Inn [in Hurley, Berkshire] for me.
When you opened Canvas in Marylebone it was a ‘design your own tasting menu' concept. Have you changed the menu format here?
It is harder to fill 60 seats on tasting menus only and especially in the area we are in in Sloane Square, a lot of people just want to pop in and have something quick to eat. Now we are completely flexible.
How difficult does that make it for you when ordering in ingredients and working out what your margins are going to be?
We have the menu surprise, which helps a lot. Most people have seven to 10 courses or they have the menu surprise. The menu surprise is something I cook for you. You tell us what you don't eat, what you don't like and what you are allergic to. So margin-wise it is very good for us.
Whatever way I say this is going to sound bad, but when the lamb doesn't sell, it will sell on the menu surprise. It doesn't mean it is old, but we can predict how we want to end up on Saturday night with what we haveleft over. It also helps that now 90% of my veg is coming from the Black Boys Inn. We now have our veg growing there, as well as herbs, chicken, ducks and quails, and so all the eggs are coming from there too. We have four pigs coming in about two weeks' time and a sow that is pregnant.
You mentioned that you have had a couple of critics in since you reopened. Do you pay much attention to what they say about you?
Absolutely not. I saw Joe Warwick's review when he gave me a 2/5 [at Canvas in Marylebone]. My food isn't that bad. You may also have seen my little thing with Jay Rayner on Twitter and you can quote me - what a cock. How can you write a national review about a restaurant like Blanchette, which is quite nice, but at the same time write three quarters of a page about me, slagging me off when he hasn't even been? Who is he? He thinks he is bigger than God. Previously you took credit card details from diners who were booking, and that was one of the things that Jay Rayner criticised you for.
You blame no-shows for forcing you to adopt this policy, although you have now dropped it. Are no-shows more of a problem than they have been in the past?
It has always been like that but now I think there are more. If you look at TripAdvisor, there are something like 17,500 restaurants in London. The choice is getting massive. Here in Sloane Square you probably have about 25 good restaurants from Dinner at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park to Pétrus, to Five Fields, all within a five-minute walk.
It is a chicken and egg thing - we ask for credit card details and people get pissed off and don't want to give them to you. Or you don't ask them and they don't have anything to lose so they don't show up. It's not just the waste of food, it's the people who wanted to book a table who couldn't get a table because we told them 'sorry you can't have it'.
Describe your style as a chef. Where do you find your inspiration?
Walking the dog. It relaxes me. I don't go to restaurants and say to myself, 'I really need to do this or that'. They make me think of course, but I go more so to see what sort of level other people are at. Yesterday I walked the dog for hours and saw new herbs on the side of the path and that is what inspires me.
As far as my style as a chef is concerned, I am very very direct and everyone knows this. You don't cross me. But on a day-to-day basis I am the first one in - I was here at 6am today and the guys are coming in around 7am- 7.30am and we have a laugh. I don't shout and I don't scream at people and I have never done so. I was very hot-headed when I was about 23 or 24 but I am always fair.
Your food is quite refined but the fashion now is more casual. Is there still a place for fine dining?
What is refined? Just because I put cauliflower 20 different ways on a plate? That is not refined, that is just showing people what you can do with a cauliflower. We don't use micro cress, we don't use liquid nitrogen. We don't show you the bullshit. We use stuff in the kitchen but we don't bring it out to the table. For example, I have a dish with 12 variations of beef - sirloin, cheek, rib, brisket, flank, and so on - yes it is refined in the kitchen, but it is very rustic on the plate.
You recently acquired the Black Boys Inn. How are things going there?
It was challenging times. We have had a lot of different staff, some local, some not local. I didn't initially want a Twitter or a Facebook page there but now we have done it, and we are getting great reviews. I have a very good manager over there and my head chef is very stable so we are building it slowly.
Now that the silly season is over - Ascot Henley Regatta, Henley Festival - we will refurbish the rooms one by one. We are behind budget and target but that is only because we needed to settle after all these crazy weeks. I have never experienced Henley Regatta or Henley Festival or the Rewind Festival where 30,000 people rocked up all wanting a bacon sandwich. We didn't do that at the time but next year I want those people. This year we were completely clueless. Next year we will know better. We could have charged people £500 a room instead of £130-£140 and they would have paid it. It is a great spot and a great location. It has got so much potential.
Who are your financial backers?
They are not really backers. I have got two different friends who are involved in the business. I am the majority shareholder in the whole company. They are with me because they love food and it is more for the clients they can bring to me.
How hard is it to find the right level of staff for your restaurants?
I find it very difficult overall. London has changed so much. No one wants to work any more. The first questions you get asked are 'how many hours do I do?' and 'what is my salary?'. We had a 19-year-old boy here the other day who wanted £30,000 as a commis. Get real. But then you look at some restaurants'wages and positions, and they will pay whatever they need to be safe. Places like that are ruining it for the little ones.
We pay well but I am sensible. I'd rather stay here on Sunday and do the dessert prep for Tuesday myself than employ a pastry chef on £60,000. I am glad I have a core team in the back and front who know the way I work and are loyal to me. Whoever says I am difficult to work for, just ask my staff because if they look after me then I look after them.
How do you feel you have matured as a chef and restaurateur since the days of Juniper and the Abbey, which both closed in 2009?
I know how to look at bank accounts now, and I know what HR means! Everyone grows up. I am only 33 now and I have done a lot for my age, some of it good, some of it bad. But you learn from the bad. No-one teaches you in college or university what happens if something goes tits up, or what to do just before it goes tits up. So you have to experience it.
I don't respond to Twitter idiots any more. Let them write their shit. Look at what I have - it's mine and I worked bloody hard for it. I ended up with absolutely nothing after Juniper and the Abbey. I was nearly homeless.
To build it up again I think takes more balls than just to go and work for someone else. And I never used my parents' money, ever - not a penny. I have had it before where people have started attacking my family. Just come and talk to me personally. If you have the balls to stand in front of me and tell me what you have just written on the internet, then I have got respect for you.
When reviewing Blanchette in Soho, Rayner said he had booked an unnamed restaurant (which he later admitted on Twitter was Canvas in Marylebone) but decided not to go after he decided that "the whole proposition looked like as much fun as root-canal surgery without the anaesthetic", criticising Riemenschneider's policy of asking for credit card details on booking.