Novikov Restaurant & Bar opened in London's Mayfair last December. As owner Arkady Novikov prepares to celebrate 20 years in business, Emily Manson talks to the prolific Russian restaurateur about his London site and his 50-strong empire back home
What was your aim when you started out? It was always a matter of money; first money to get the business started, then for the business to make money. It's difficult to get a good place for a restaurant here, but it was always my dream to have a restaurant in London.
Why London now? The recession and financial crisis don't affect the top end of the restaurant business too much. The prices are more sensitive in Moscow; it's really not so bad here. All the good restaurants in London are still full - it's about having a high quality food product and then all the rest works.
Was it daunting to launch such a large site? Yes, it was scary - it's always complicated and I always worry when I do something new. It doesn't matter where that is in the world, I just worry. But I think that's probably normal. The important thing is that the feeling doesn't become a factor that prevents you from growing your business.
Why did you choose Asian/Italian cuisine for your London site, and not Russian? It was too big a venue for Russian cuisine, but if I had a smaller venue I would consider it - it just depends on the location and conditions. For this site, there wasn't really any choice - there are two very popular cuisines in London and it was an easy decision. The Asian restaurant mostly concentrates on fish, while the Italian side concentrates on meat, chicken and duck. That way between the two, all tastes are covered.
The phrase "Jack of all trades, master of none" could have applied to the eclectic group of cuisines in your Russian restaurants. How do you master them all? I'm not an expert but I understand a little bit, and my skill is to find the correct experts. The most important thing is to understand the aim and what you would like to do. You need to understand the taste and flavours you're trying to achieve. The chefs in the kitchens are the experts in their fields - the Asian kitchen has top Asian chefs, the Italian kitchen has top Italian chefs. They organise the rest as they have the depth of knowledge. It's vital to find the right key people.
What's the business decision you've been most proud of over the years? It's opening a restaurant in London. I was looking for five years for the right place and it was just a matter of chance that I got this site. Everything is derived from chance and seizing opportunities. I wasn't looking for something this big but it wasn't possible to split it into two venues, so we just divided it into sections - it has its disadvantages and advantages.
As Russia's most prolific restaurateur, what's the key to your success? There are concepts that appeal to many different social levels. Here in London we seem to be doing quite well - I don't like to congratulate myself or say good things about myself but we have a good strong team and not bad interior design and not bad cuisine.
There are still plenty of things to do but so far, generally, it's not too bad at all. We also have accessible prices, which help. You can come in and have sushi for lunch quite reasonably; it doesn't all have to be the most expensive dishes.
Do you think you have changed the face of Russian dining? Not so far but it will probably happen in the future. I am a patriot and I'm very proud of Russia and proud to open a restaurant in London being a Russian. There are so many international guests from different countries who come here and it shows there is cosmopolitan appeal. But what you have to remember is that if someone comes to the London restaurant and is satisfied with the food and service, it was all created and developed in Russia. That is where the template comes from and it proves that Russians do know about good food and cuisine.
What's the best lesson you've learnt while setting up more than 50 restaurants? Nothing is simple but you should always do something and always try to achieve what you want. If you're hard working and a resistant fighter, you can achieve your goal.
And your worst business mistake? Nothing so far, touch wood. Globally there have been no major disasters, but of course there were plenty of smaller mistakes along the way.
Your empire includes both casual and fine dining - how do you choose what goes where? Every venue will dictate the correct way of running the business. It depends on so many different issues - the market, the location, the size and the potential customers.
What's the difference between setting up operations in Russia and London? It is cheaper doing business in Moscow. You can use more people because the salaries are much lower than they are here. Having said that, although the staff here in London are more expensive, they are also more professional and better trained. They may make mistakes, but they try really hard and aren't lazy at all. In Moscow things are a little different.
Who are your target customers? The goal is to be OK for the Mayfair society - and let's face it, that's not the poorest market - but at the same time we want to be accessible for tourists. The overriding factor is that people who like good food and understand flavours should enjoy the experience. That's why we have the products and ingredients on display like in a market, or like many restaurants in Asia. We really want to appeal to people who love food and are passionate about it.
How do you feel about the cynicism from the west about Russian finances and how Russians are investing in London? It doesn't bother me. I came to London because I like the city. I don't worry about the press; I'm like an open book, and my finances are all laid out.
I had a good start with a $50,000 loan but unfortunately I didn't have gold or oil to fund my business. I just have fresh food, and the fact that this summer marks my 20th year of running restaurants and the fact that we're here in London and I'm giving this interview because I'm opening a restaurant here, means we've made it OK.
What do you think of the critics here in London? I like that some people write things from a critical point of view. We want to get it right and feedback is very important. But it was also great that the opening reviews were mainly positive and not totally negative, as they can be with some openings, where the reviews kill the place before it has a chance to get up and running properly. Feedback from guests is just as important, including complaints. It's how we learn and improve.
What's next? I'm not new in Moscow any more so it's not as important to open there. It's emotionally new here in London and I have many ideas that are interesting and can be good for different people, but it's also important to do something else. Money and business is important but I'm 50 soon and that's a time to think what to do next. Men start asking themselves, why, what for, where, with who and what - that's normal and I don't know the answers yet but health, friends, life and dreams are very special.
NOVIKOV restaurant & bar
Cuisine Pan-Asian and classic Italian
General manager Caroline Taylor
Executive chefs Jess Tyler (Asian), Carmelo Carnevale (Italian)
Bar manager Andrew Pengelly
Interior designer Geometry Design Moscow/Keir Townsend
Capacity 130 (Asian), 150 (Italian) and 155 (Lounge Bar)
Typical dishes (Asian) Dim sum, sushi and sashimi; yuzu scented miso black cod and steamed sea bass with ginger, spring onion and soy
Typical dishes (Italian) Vitello tonnato; risotto with red mullet ragu; and veal ossobuco with peas
Average spend Lunch £30, dinner £60 excluding drinks
ARKADY NOVIKOV THE PORTFOLIO
1992 Opens first restaurant in Moscow, seafood specialist Sirena
1996 Opens country restaurant Tsarskaya Ohota
1997 Opens Beloye Solntsye Pustini, one of the first themed restaurants in Moscow
1998 Opens Kavkazskaya and Uzbekistan
2001 Opens Italian restaurant Syr and Veranda u Dachi
2002 Opens China Club and forms the agricultural concern Agronom, which now has 15 acres of land and greenhouses
2003 Opens European and Japanese bar Kreek, fish restaurant the Market and Vogue Café under a licensing deal with Condé Nast
2004 Cantinetta launched in partnership with Italian wine house Antinori, as well as other openings including Vesna, Prichal and art café Galereya
2005 Forms Novikov Catering, launches yacht club restaurant Shore House and opens entertainment and restaurant complex Oktyabr with Karo Film which includes five restaurants
2006 Acquires luxury real estate firm Mainstreet and opens Ju-Ju and Aist
2007 Opens pan-Asian Nedalny Vostok, beer restaurant chain Dymov No 1, Japanese restaurant Yoko, the GQ Bar, Italian restaurant Pepperoni, a Barashka and manages the Phillipe Starck-designed restaurant Bon
2008 Opens 250-cover mansion Veterok
2009 Opens first site in St Petersburg, Italian restaurant Francesco, the White Café, Gusyatnikoff, Bolshoi and Meat Club
2010 Opens Asian and Middle Eastern restaurant Indabar, pan-Asian Mister Lee, Brazilian Macho Grill, dim sum teahouse Makao Café, Luce, Cherdak, Kurshevel, Donna Margarita, Tatler and Barashka №3
2011 Opens city café Tchaikovsky and first London site Novikov Restaurant & Bar