As the Michelin-starred London restaurant Pied à Terre turns 20, independent operator David Moore looks back at the highs and lows of the past two decades, tells Kerstin Kühn what's in store for the future and explains why he's lending his support to our SlashVAT campaign
Pied à Terre turns 20 this year. How does it feel?
It's pretty unbelievable. I don't know where it's gone - the past 20 years have absolutely flown by. I was only ever going to be here for five years - that was the original plan - so it's amazing to still be here after all this time.
How have things changed? The first few years were very tough. The London restaurant scene wasn't as sophisticated as it is now. New restaurants really had to struggle because the environment wasn't as restaurant-friendly as it is now. We opened the same week as the Square but before us there were really only a handful of big names in London. For us as new kids on the block it was very hard to get a commercial foothold.
I remember one of our wine waiters went and bought thousands of pounds worth of Burgundy without telling me and it nearly bankrupted us. Financially we winged it for a long time. But it keeps you sharp. More recently things have changed following Shane Osborn's] departure. For a long time he was a presence and now he's gone it all feels a little heavier.
What was it like working with the original chef, Richard Neat?
Richard was a genius cook, who was way ahead of his time. Getting the two stars working with him was one of the highlights of my life. It had been our goal since working together at Le Manoir - we knew what two-star food and service meant and we wanted to achieve it in our right. It was amazing when we did but then two weeks later Richard said he was leaving.
After Richard left in 1996 you promoted his sous chef Tom Aikens and after he left at the end of 1999, his sous chef Shane Osborn took over. This year, following Shane's departure you brought his former sous chef Marcus Eaves back from sister restaurant L'Autre Pied where you, in turn, promoted his sous chef, Andy McFadden, to head chef. Were you ever tempted to bring in someone external? No because it's all about giving people opportunities. When I worked at Le Manoir, Raymond gave me an opportunity by helping Richard and me in opening Pied à Terre. It's always felt right to promote from within. And because we are a restaurant that lives and dies on what we serve and our food has a lineage back to Richard, bringing in someone external who has no Pied à Terre history would feel wrong.
You've had quite a ride with Michelin. You lost the second star in 2000, with Shane regaining it in 2003. And now following Shane's departure, you've lost your second star again. What's it been like to go through all of that?
It just shows that you can never count your chickens with Michelin, regardless of the restaurant's heritage. Shane had always thought that he would have no problem cooking one-star food but if he'd had the two stars hanging over him it may have pushed him over the edge. Not having that freed him up and when he regained it in his own right no one could say that he'd simply inherited two stars, like some people did with Tom. With us losing our second star in the latest Michelin guide, the same has happened to Marcus. Of course, it's disappointing but as with Shane, this will give Marcus the creative freedom to build his own style and when he does get his two stars, there can be no sniping that they were Shane's.
A pivotal moment must have been the fire in 2004. What happened? The fire broke out in the middle of the night, with no one around to hear the alarm. Eventually someone from the hotel across the road noticed and called the fire brigade. The third floor was completely destroyed - everything was gone and we had to close the restaurant for almost a year.
As awful as it was, it gave us the chance to think about things and how to improve the business. We were able to come back with a refreshed look of the restaurant - courtesy of the insurance - and rethink how we did things. I realised that after 14 years of being on the floor every night I didn't need to be there any more. It was the love of my life to look after customers but we realised that taking the brand forward was not about me taking the next order, it was about me thinking of the next idea. We would never have opened L'Autre Pied [in Marylebone in 2007] without the fire.
Thanks to Michel Roux's Service, quite a lot of attention has been given to front of house service recently. How far do you think we still have to go? We're getting better but even the best people are only the best because they are always able to improve. There is an awful lot to be done in the mid-market. Some of the chains do a remarkable job but overall the sector really needs to improve.
You have both backed and helped other people along the way, such as Tom Van Zeller in Harrogate and the winners of The Restaurant with Raymond Blanc, JJ and James. What's been the motivation behind this? I have always had a philosophy that if someone who has worked for us asks me for help I will do everything I can to help them. Tom worked here under Richard and asked me to help him launch his own restaurant, so I did. It's taken a bit of time but he's turned a corner now and the next year will be exciting for him. I helped JJ and James open the London Cocktail Club, which is bizarre considering they were on a programme called The Restaurant. They have just signed their second site.
Despite the backlash they received after winning The Restaurant, they are the only winners of the show who are still in business. Why do you think that is?
It was down to the BBC and the poor quality of the contestants they chose. They didn't want talented people; they wanted car crash TV. In the second series I was very mindful of the people who could work with Raymond. Maybe there were contestants who would have been more successful than the winners, Russell and Michelle. But Russell could cook and Michelle was very sweet so we thought they would work well with Raymond. In the third show he wanted Sarah Willingham and me to get financially involved so we had more of a say. We chose JJ and James because they were the only contestants who really had the ability to work as a team.
How did being on The Restaurant affect business? It was great for business. Being on TV makes you real. You can be there for 15 years but then you're on TV, with 2.5 million people watching, and all of a sudden you have reached a whole different audience. It all goes back to the fire, though. If we hadn't had that time to reflect and decide to do things differently, I would never have gone into TV.
What's next? This is a year of celebration - it's our 20th anniversary - and consolidation of brand and quality. I will be more involved in consultancy work, which has come about more recently. One of my projects is One Blenheim Terrace - guiding chef-patron Ed Shaerf (ex-Ivy) through the opening was really fun. We also want to roll out the London Cocktail Club concept and over the next three years have seven sites across London. We're also investing in a microbrewery to launch Pied à Terre beer products. I think the real ale will go from strength to strength in the future.
Why have you decided to support Caterer and Hotelkeeper's Slash VAT campaign? The hospitality industry is the biggest employer in the country and helping create growth within the sector will help to reduce the overall unemployment rate. Dining out has become part of everyday culture in the UK and there's a lot of excitement about the industry. Hospitality contributes billions towards the economy and having a VAT cut will promote even more growth. Capital expenditure is a big worry and anything where we can see the Government help will stimulate expansion, which is what we need to get this country out of the situation we're in.
PIED À TERRE TIMELINE
1991 David Moore and Richard Neat open Pied à Terre
1993 First Michelin star
1996 Second Michelin star; Neat departs, Tom Aikens becomes head chef
1999 Aikens leaves, Shane Osborn becomes head chef
2000 Loses second Michelin star
2003 Regains second Michelin star
2004 Closes after fire
2007 L'Autre Pied opens with Pied à Terre sous chef Marcus Eaves heading the kitchen
2009 L'Autre Pied gains first Michelin star
2011 Osborn leaves Pied à Terre; Eaves becomes head chef; reverts to one star in the 2012 Michelin guide
By Kerstin Kühn
E-mail your comments to Kerstin Kühn here.
If you have something to say on this story or anything else join the debate at Table Talk - Caterer's new networking forum. Go to www.catererandhotelkeeper.com/tabletalk
Looking for a new job? Find your next job here with Catererandhotelkeeper.com jobs