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Michelin-starred food at affordable prices

31 January 2008 by

Universally praised for their affordable menus, while also picking up Michelin stars, Arbutus and Wild Honey owners Will Smith and Anthony Demetre are at a loss as to why so few top-end restaurants match their prices. Tom Vaughan went to meet them to compile an easy guide to minimising food costs

"We probably have the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurants in the UK," says Will Smith, co-propreitor of London's Arbutus and Wild Honey. "I can't think of anywhere else that does a three-course lunch menu for only £15."

When Arbutus opened its doors in May 2006, with Smith front of house and business partner Anthony Demetre behind the stove, it garnered universal praise from the critics for its competitive pricing policy and excellent food. A Michelin star followed in January 2007, and the pair were able to launch a second site, Wild Honey, which emulated its sister outlet by gaining a star earlier this month.

When the idea for Arbutus was first mooted three years ago, the pair deemed affordability the central aspect. "One of our guiding principles," Smith says, "was the restaurant had to be able to provide a three-course dinner for two, with wine and coffee, for £80 - £100 is too much and people know you can still get rubbish in London for £50 a head."

Such a business plan is obvious, you might think, but why, Smith asks, are so few good places occupying the ground between the £20 and £50 meal? "It is an obvious thing to do but clearly not that obvious, as so few places are doing it," he says. "When we put the plan together for Arbutus, the idea for the cheap prices came from a desire to keep the place busy. Then we looked around and saw not many other places were doing it, and wondered why."

Demetre, though, has an inkling. "It's because of snob value," he suggests. "There are countless talented chefs out there, but a lot of them have a large amount of ego, and for them good cooking is about expensive ingredients. For me, good cooking is about using the less-popular cuts."

The backbone of Arbutus and Wild Honey has been Demetre's ability to keep costs down in the kitchen yet still turn out Michelin-starred cuisine. This knack is by no means a veiled secret, he says, but is achievable by any chef who adheres to three easy principles.

!Wild Honey Team
*Will Smith, Colin Kelly and Anthony Demetre (photographs by Adrian Franklin)*

Rule 1: Barter with suppliers

It's vital to be in a constant dialogue with suppliers, Demetre says. He has a list of six suppliers for each of his different produce categories - meat, fish, fresh and specialist - and uses them as a collective to get the best price available. "You have to constantly play them off each other," he says. "It's crucial. Every day we get market reports, and it's staggering the prices suppliers quote sometimes. So I'll use the price from one supplier to drive down another. Often, they'll agree to give me a lower price if I take X amount. It's a constant bartering."

Demetre's reputation buys him few favours when it comes to sourcing ingredients, he says, and any chef should be able to drive down suppliers. "To get a great price is complicated and time-consuming but worth it," he believes. "We have two senior chefs in Arbutus and two in Wild Honey, including head chef Colin Kelly, who are constantly on the phone to suppliers as well as running a kitchen."

There's also no fixed price he has in mind for each ingredient: the aim is merely to drive down prices as far as the supplier will allow. Empowering your team, constantly reading market reports and phoning across a selection of suppliers for each produce category will all help to drive down prices, generating savings which can be passed on to the customer. Smith says: "We know what we want to sell things for on the menu, and if the items we want don't come down, we won't use them."

The cheapest produce is saved for the £15.50 three-course lunch menu or the £17.50 pre-theatre menu. "Today, I've got calves' liver and gurnard on the lunch menu," says Smith. "It doesn't differ from the à la carte in terms of quality and skill, but people know gurnard is cheap, and they'd suss us out if we put it on at lunch for a silly price." Thus more expensive produce, such as brill, he explains, is saved for the evening.

Location does play a small role, and Demetre is willing to use slightly more expensive produce in Wild Honey, as the Mayfair crowd are more likely to pay for it than the customers who frequent Soho-based Arbutus, but the principle of effective buying remains the same.

Rule 2: Seasonal and indigenous

The second, and most fundamental rule, is that costs can be kept down only by strict observance of the seasons. Produce is at its most abundant when it is in season, and that is the best time to do deals with suppliers.

By sticking to indigenous produce, you won't be using, say, asparagus that has been flown in from Chile or apricots from South Africa, with the long distance from source to kitchen reflected in the price.

For example, Demetre recently learnt that one of his game suppliers had plentiful amounts of English grey-legged partridge - "For me, the most prestigious bit of game you can get" - which usually costs about £5 a bird. Because of their abundance and because Demetre bought in bulk, he was able to drive down the price to £3 each.

Following the seasons is not only financially beneficial, it is the mark of a good chef and restaurateur, according to Demetre. "The essence of good cooking is to use what's available on the market," he says. "I'm amazed at these restaurants that have a three-month set menu. They have an average price for something, and if there is an abundance of a product they'll get it for a cheaper price and pocket the change. I don't think that's fair on the customer."

Rule 3: Use cheaper cuts

One feature of Arbutus widely acclaimed by the critics was Demetre's preference for lesser-used cuts of meat. Belly of veal, shin of beef, and shoulder of pork are all cuts traditionally ignored in favour of the hindquarters of animals, but in the right hands they can be far superior. "Take the fillet of beef, for example," says Demetre. "Traditionally, it is one of the most popular cuts. But in my opinion it's one of the least flavoursome."

"However, anyone can cook it," interjects Smith.

"Exactly! But something like the beef bavette, which is much more popular in France than it ever has been here, is considerably cheaper and much more delicious in the hands of a capable chef."

Demetre buys pigs' heads for £1 each, he explains, but has crafted the cut into something of a signature dish at Arbutus. Split in half, salted overnight, rinsed, braised overnight, stripped and set overnight, they have been a huge success over the past 18 months.

All you need is an element of technical expertise and lesser used cuts can save huge amounts of money. Take venison, says Demetre. "I guarantee you, 90% of top-end restaurants will use saddle of venison as opposed to haunch," he says. Saddle sells for £13-£15 per kg and has a 20-50% yield from the cut haunch, though, costs £4 per kg and has a 70% yield.

The only mitigating factors are that such cuts need to be in the hands of a capable chef and require time to properly address. The time issue, though, is irrelevant to Demetre, who says: "These cuts take a lot of time, people say, but we're in the kitchen anyway, so I don't see it as a problem. It in fact makes service a lot easier, because all the preparation has been done beforehand."

But what about the technical expertise? Not every chef knows how to deal with venison haunch. "If they can't handle these ingredients, they shouldn't be cooks," Demetre says. "It's as simple as that. You could teach your granddad how to cook a fillet of beef."

If, as a young chef, you're not learning how to deal with such produce, then go and do work experience at somewhere that is, says Demetre. "So many chefs want to go and open bistros or pubs, but all their experience is in top-end restaurants," he says. "They've never been and worked in a pub, so they've never learnt what to do with cheaper produce."

Roots of Wild Honey and Arbutus

Despite being something of a sensation on the London scene over the past 18 months, Smith and Demetre are the first to admit that Arbutus and Wild Honey are far from original concepts, but merely disciples of restaurants such as Bistrot Bruno, which once occupied the same site as Arbutus, and the many bistrots de lux scattered around France.

"In Paris, there are bistrots de lux everywhere, where you can get decent cooking for two for £80," Demetre says. "I think if Arbutus had opened out there, it wouldn't have made a tiny splash - we'd have been another of their great bistrots de lux. And, if you ask me, there's room for hundreds more Arbutus-type restaurants in London."

On the menu at Wild Honey

Lunch - three courses, £15.50

  • Steak tartare
  • White onion soup, mushroom duxelle
  • Cornish pollack, potato gnocchi, cavolo nero
  • Slow-cooked pork belly, braised cabbage, root vegetables
  • Rhubarb jelly, vanilla ice-cream
  • Keens cheddar

A la carte

  • Red mullet, vegetables à la grecque, £10.95
  • Salad of warm roast winter market vegetables, £8.50
  • Farinette of English snails, confit garlic and parsley, £9.50
  • Market fish of the day: Icelandic cod, glazed salsify, onion squash, £15.95
  • Plat du jour: Shin of Limousin veal, braised celery, carrots, £17.95
  • Potato gnocchi, braised radicchio, fresh goats' curd, £14.95
  • Clémentine sorbet, £5.95
  • Wild honey ice-cream, crushed honeycomb, £5.95
  • Classic baked egg custard tart, £5.95

What the critics said

Harden's Restaurant Guide 2008

Gastronomic finesse, but without a fine-dining price-tag, has made a smash foodie hit of this spectacular Soho yearling, where unfussy (but intriguing) dishes are complemented by exceptional-quality wines (available by the carafe).

Marina O'Loughlin, London Metro

Now I like a bit of design. But the food here is good enough to make me choke on my shallowness. And, for cooking of this quality, it's fabulously reasonably priced: starters around the £6 to £7 mark, mains about £14, with a three-course set lunch for £15.

Time Out, London

The room is fresh and pleasant with Japanese notes to the decor, the diners a mixed bunch (and not too businessy at lunch) and the staff friendly and prescient. Wines are aimed at ordinary wine lovers rather than millionaires and are available by the carafe, showing a respect for the customers' pockets that is echoed in the excellent-value set meal.

Square Meal Guide

Restaurateurs Anthony Demetre and Will Smith have struck gold a second time with this follow-up to Arbutus, the Soho restaurant that seemed to win every award going in 2006. If anything, Wild Honey is better. The basic formula is the same - humble ingredients treated with haute-cuisine craftsmanship affordable pricing a wine list entirely available by the carafe as well as the bottle.

• Arbutus, 63 Frith Street, London W1D 3JW 020 7734 4545 www.arbutusrestaurant.co.uk

• Wild Honey, 12 George Street, London W1S 2FB020 7758 9160 www.wildhoneyrestaurant.co.uk

See Anthony Demetre video interview at www.caterersearch.com/demetre

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