When Sketch opened in 2003, it was almost universally panned. Fifteen years on, it boasts two Michelin stars and is counted among London's restaurant royalty. Owner Mourad Mazouz and chef Pierre Gagnaire reflect on their rollercoaster ride with Tom Vaughan
"A friend of mine wanted to open a nightclub in London, so I looked for a site for him," explains Mazouz, his Algerian-French zeal as lively as the vivid pink and cream wallpaper behind him. "In a week, somebody showed me this place. So my friend told me, 'Ah great, I will do it'. But then - nothing. Silence!"
Gagnaire guffaws and gives a disbelieving bounce of the eyebrows. "He had been in love with a woman in London. And now, he was not in love anymore and didn't want to come to England! So I had the paperwork for this building in front of me, and everybody wanted it - Marco Pierre White, Saatchi - so I signed it. I had no clue what I was going to do with it."
From such uncertain, impulsive moments, Sketch was born. Now, 15 years on from the launch (and nearly 20 from signing for the site) Mazouz and Gagnaire can laugh about the journey they've been on together - from public whipping boy to industry royalty.
Mazouz's impulsive site grab might have given him fertile ground for a new restaurant, but it wasn't until he cold-called Gagnaire that the seeds of Sketch were sown. "I had eaten at Pierre's restaurant in Paris and I was blown away. I had never eaten like this, never had these textures. I went to see him to ask him if he had a chef. I was quite naÁ¯ve, you know? But after three meetings, he said 'Why not me?'"
ouz's first London restaurant, casual North African bistro Momo, had been a big success but he had never ventured into fine dining. For a top-end rookie to snag one of the world's most celebrated chefs was an astounding coup. But for Gagnaire, Mazouz's vision gave him the opportunity to settle some unfinished business. "When I opened my first restaurant, in Saint-Étienne in France in 1977, it was in a big 1930s house like this," says Gagnaire. "And it was my ambition to create something like this. But it was Saint-Étienne - it is like a suburb of Liverpool. I had to close it. But when I met Mourad, I understood immediately this project - music, art, food, the mix of guests from all over the world. So I said, 'Why not me?'"
So far, so good: a prime central London site, one of the world's most revered chefs. What could go wrong? "Everything!" answers Mazouz. "The building was in a very bad state, it was leaking, holes everywhere. When we started digging, the foundations moved. It was a nightmare. It took us four and a half years - we went four times over budget. It ended up costing £12m. I had Pierre waiting for two years. I was sinking. It was like my head and body were under the water in the middle of the ocean. I was going home crying, saying I am never going to achieve it."
Yet worse was to come. When the restaurant finally opened, the critics gave it a pounding of Mike Tyson-esque proportions. "A lot of bollocks," sneered The Guardian's Matthew Fort of the design-led interiors, giving it a plump zero out of 20. "Dog's breakfast, baby sick," claimed The Independent. "The most expensive restaurant in Great Britain," howled The Guardian.
"To have spent £12m, gone through all of that, to have it so criticised - it was the worst," says Mazouz, slumping back in his chair, momentarily losing his trademark exuberance. Artisan interiors Looking around at the over-the-top restaurant, it's hard to remember a time when it wasn't anything other than a two-Michelin-star darling (an honour it achieved in 2012) or the self-proclaimed "most-Instagrammed restaurant in the world" (an accolade that is harder to substantiate). Now, diners can't get enough of the rooms' kaleidoscopic interiors and art installations - the blancmange-pink Gallery with David Shrigley prints; the towering Lecture Room complete with Moroccan lanterns, gold-lead stucco and winged wedding dress (in honour of Harry and Meghan); and, of course, the futuristic egg-shaped toilets that are just a glam-rock chorus away from *Rocky Horror*. But it wasn't always so. "When we opened, everybody thought, 'pretentious, grand, ridiculous'. And I was so shocked," says Mazouz. "It was minimal music, the food of Pierre on trollies in the Gallery, dishes on the table in the Lecture Room. It was to please people. Looking back, I was totally wrong. You push people away with that. You push people to criticise, because nobody understands it." naire was faced with his own challenges. French chefs might have seen stellar success over the past decade, but it's easy to forget that before the turn of the millennium, most big-name chefs that had crossed over from Paris had beat a hasty retreat. "It was a double challenge because it was my first project outside France. I didn't know how or if I could transmit my cuisine every day to somewhere I wasn't cooking. It was very difficult." The pair didn't just have the critics at their throats in those early days - but the bank manager as well. "We lost £2m in the first two years," explains Mazouz. Did either of them ever consider throwing in the towel? "Never! Not until the last drop of my blood," he retorts. "It's about looking myself in the mirror and saying I did the best I can. The only answer was work. All you have is work. That's the only thing I know to do." Six months in and with Mazouz, by his own admission, "sinking", he made another inspired appointment - chief executive Sinead Mallozzi. "Without her we wouldn't be open," says Mazouz. "She brought a structure - a military structure," agrees Gagnaire. Her business nous, Mazouz's passionate work ethic and Gagnaire's experience of his own misunderstood years turned good helped them battle the storm. Two years in, a glowing review from the late AA Gill was the first harbinger of things to come. "I think I cried out of happiness," says Mazouz. "It proved we were not wrong." But it wasn't until six years after opening when Matthew Fort came to the restaurant that Mazouz felt truly vindicated. "I don't know the guy, I was not accepting an apology, but he told me - 'I was wrong'." Mutual appreciation The pair wear their different roles with utter comfort: Mazouz the impassioned restaurateur with the energy of a Grand Bazaar, and Gagnaire the meditative master who listens, nods, interjects rarely - even excusing himself a couple of times to return to the pass ("When I saw the starter come out, it was not how I had conceived it," he explains). When so many business partners have split up over the past decade, it is remarkable that Mazouz and Gagnaire, who'd never worked together or even socialised prior to Sketch, have gone from strength to strength. What's their secret? "Mourad connects with people. He has a talent to read guests," says Gagnaire. Mazouz replies in kind: "Pierre is unique. I see him work, head down, for an hour, then he has a full menu and an Á la carte. All from his head. It can take some chefs three months. He is a magician. You can feel the fire inside him." However, when Gagnaire harks back to their early days at Sketch, the essence of the dynamic emerges through the saccharine haze: trust. "You know, there were many things I saw at Sketch that I was not OK with," he tells Mazouz. "But there was no reason for me to block you because I saw your energy, your creativity. When you have a team, it is built on honesty and integrity. We're not here to break down people, but to push them, let them grow and think for themselves. In 19 years we've never had a cross word." Nineteen years in, and Mazouz might not have argued with Gagnaire - but he has also yet to take a penny from Sketch. However, he insists he's not going to compromise the restaurant's ethos. "I'm not someone who sells to groups or makes chains. I've had millions of proposals but I don't want to. I want to stay small enough to be a restaurateur. That's what I am. I'm a worker, an artisan restaurateur and I am proud of it. Maybe one day some money will arrive, maybe it won't. For me, we're born, we pass by, we die. Make something. Move on." He'd much rather spend profit ensuring Sketch keeps moving forward, he says. "A big boat like this, you need to maintain your pace. So instead of staying the same, spend some money. Change." This year, the Lecture Room is undergoing a major facelift, while the revolving design installations - including a lavish floral entrance in honour of the Mayfair Flower Show - are as impressive as ever. Are the interiors a reflection of Mazouz the person? "Never!" he retorts. "I would never do my home like this. My dream is one bed and two seats either side as bedside tables. I have a summer house with just a hammock. That's my dream. But we want people to say 'thank you, I've had such a good night - you've made me travel.' That's the best compliment we can get." Fifteen years on, the pair are no longer short of compliments. "Today, I have many restaurants around the world," concludes Gagnaire. "But wherever I go, it is always Sketch that people want to talk about."
Mourad Mazouz onâ¦…the difference between a chef and a restaurateur "A chef is more focused on the plate, because food is first. For me, food is important. But for me, a restaurant is a flower. The food is the centre, but the fun, the welcome, the service, lighting decor are petals. If you take more than three petals, it is not a flower. For me, that is a restaurant. A chef is focused on the middle. A restaurateur looks at it all." …life as a 21st-century restaurateur "I used to spend time in my restaurants. Now I spend time in my office doing paperwork and dealing with TripAdvisor - people who take out their misery on their keyboards. One woman came to Momo for years, but one day she comes in and our chef is away and the food is not at its usual high standards. She goes onto TripAdvisor and she is so bitter. Fifteen years and one day it is not 100% and she is bitchy. It makes me so sad. This didn't happen 10 or 20 years ago." …the difference between Paris and London "I compare it to music. In Britain you are so proud of your rock and pop - you are kings of it. In France, the music has never been as big a thing. So we opened our blinkers - in Paris every night you can go to little gigs with music from all over the world. Now I find it so much more interesting than music here. I will say the same for food in France. They think they are the best but have closed their blinkers. But Britain has opened its doors. When you lack something you are more open. When you think you are the best you are closed off." …being an independent restaurateur in Mayfair "Momo is the last independent on its street. There are managers everywhere, I can't go in and talk to an owner. People go to the suburbs like Dalston now because they want something more real. If you are in central London like me you struggle. It's hard. I'm an old-fashioned artisan and I don't want to fail. And I'm fighting not to fail." Get The Caterer every week on your smartphone, tablet, or even in good old-fashioned hard copy (or all three!).
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