Having opened Brazilian restaurant Cabana, Jamie Barber is tapping into the loud and laid-back trend for South American cuisine. He tells Emily Manson why he believes fine dining has had its day
How would you describe your new concept, Cabana? We wanted to bring a bit of the energy and spirit of Brazil to London without being a contrived pan-Latin experience with sombreros and all that kind of rubbish. Urban Brazil is pretty edgy and really vibrant - it's not what you'd expect from Rio the movie. We've just tried to create a concept with integrity and fun that allows people to enjoy the best bits of Brazilian food experience.
How do you do "authentic ethnic"‘ without becoming "themed"? We agonised a lot about how you can throw in the visual cues and references so people understand it's a Brazilian restaurant without having to throw in the girl from Ipanema, so we did it with humour. Our T-shirts inject Brazilian fun without people walking around in bikinis with mardi gras feathers. We're not pretending you're in Brazil, we're just trying to take a bit of the spirit and inspiration to create something fun that works well in London - and we're light-hearted about it.
What about the food? People think that traditional South American food is a really meaty experience - especially from the all you can eat places - but our food is really chalk and cheese from those. We do have the skewers but the menu has also got lots of prawns, portobello mushroom dishes, salads and other things on it.
It's hard to define purist Brazilian, it's cosmopolitan, like British food, so we've tailored what we found there to meet UK expectations. We're not serving stewed trotters for instance, but there's a lovely spicy chicken teardrop dish that is absolutely delicious. Basically we've picked out what we like and hope the public will like them, too.
The bizarre thing is we don't know how the menu is going to be used. I didn't think we'd need much red wine on the menu but we've sold almost exclusively red wine at Westfield so far. Likewise with cassava, I didn't think people would go for it and would stick with chips, but instead we've actually been throwing chips away. We just have to see how it goes from here now.
You didn't fancy revisiting your business partner, David Ponte's, fine-dining Brazilian concept then? I've said for years now that fine dining has had its day. It's just not the type of environment that people want to eat in anymore - it's too staid, people want the package of entertainment and food.
The recession was the final death knell as, even if you are the sort of person that spends £400 on a bottle of wine, it's become vulgar as it's no longer seen as the right thing to do.
So how did Cabana come about? When Mocoto failed, I said to David we should do the thing with the skewers instead. Seven months later, we're opening two restaurants having conceptualised, secured funding and found sites - it's been quite a rollercoaster.
That sounds crazy - has it been very stressful? It's actually been one of most enjoyable experiences I've been involved in. Generally it's been much more relaxed. David and I have been doing this for a while now and we're not out to prove anything. I came out of all my other projects as I was finding that I just wasn't enjoying it anymore and I wanted to enjoy what I did again.
I still love Hush, which is why I kept hold of it, but I went into this project with the mantra of not putting pressure on myself and enjoying the ride and journey as much as the end product.
How do you keep your ideas fresh and innovative? I travel a lot and I'm a magpie in terms of ideas but I think I'm also quite a good filter. I see a lot of stuff and pick on the one thing that I think will be good.
I loved Villandry as a food store, but I recognised the fact the food scene was changing. It worked well in the days when you couldn't buy organic food or specialist ingredients but now you can get truffle oil at Tesco, so I shifted the focus from food store to predominantly French bistro menu. Basically we took it back to its roots.
How has your approach to innovating ideas changed over the years? Hush was a massive commercial success from day one and 10 years on is still a blockbuster with double digit growth this year, but it never got critical acclaim. I was never a professional chef, but I used to eat out a lot and had a good understanding of what people wanted to eat and thought of as a good experience and I just translated that into a venue with Hush.
If I was being kind I would say Shumi was ahead of the game in 2004, as it was doing sharing plates before Robuchon et al but the big screw up we made was rice flour pasta - we served it with chop sticks and everyone instantly thought it was Italian Japanese fusion but there was nothing Japanese about it.
The other fundamental error with Shumi was that I was trying to appeal more to critics than to customers and that was the biggest lesson I've learnt. I was so unused to things not working out, as everything else had gone straight to number one so to speak. I went through a good three months of serious soul searching.
When do you know something is a hit or that it's a flop and you've got to pull the plug? You never know till you open the doors, it doesn't matter how much pre-trialling you do. Then you have to wait for the plateau.
When you open the doors you start to get money coming in, hopefully that then rises, but at some point it starts to flatline and you reach a level of business that doesn't shift dramatically from then on. It's only when that happens that you know where the plateau is and whether it's going to be a goer.
Is South American food the next big thing? I don't know whether South American is a real wave in restaurant trends or just a couple of South American restaurants randomly cropping up. But there is definitely more interest in the region than there was before, mainly because of the Olympics, football and World Cup.
But concepts like Wahaca have done a good job generally to help the region's perception. They presented a contemporary view of Mexican that's not contrived and I guess we're trying to do a similar thing for Brazilian.
What do you mean when you refer to up-cycling in the restaurant? It can be boring being green but if you can make it exciting and more than it was before then it's great.
The denim jean banquettes were made by a group of disabled women in a favelas out of old jeans. We commissioned the posters from three Brazilian octogenarians with an old printing press who were out of work as it's now illegal to post flyers in Sao Paulo. We've even got bins made out of recycled paper, old cocoa sacks to hold our condiments, bowls made out of telephone cables, the flooring is old scaffolding planks and our lights are made from little bits of discarded copper pipe.
It's "up-cycling" because the product becomes better than it was originally.
Laywer vs restaurateur - right decision? Oh restaurateur. I've never looked back and I'm blessed that I really enjoy contact with such different people, have varied projects, can be creative and have the flexibility to spend time with my family and manage to take kids to school.
I blame it all on Mark Sainsbury and Sam Clark as they took me to a Spa supermarket and told me they were turning it into a restaurant. I was their lawyer then and saw them set up Moro and thought it looked really good fun.
Even when you have flops, and everyone has them - from the Corbins to Ramsay and Yau - it's good to remember, it's a crazy business with huge amounts of money and time involved to essentially create a love child that may potentially be savaged and closed down if you don't get it right. It's easy to criticise and you just have to learn from flops and have the balls to keep creating new things.
Westfield Shopping Centre, Stratford Opened 9 November 2011, capacity: 100
Central St Giles, St Giles Piazza, Covent Garden Opened 19 November 2011, capacity: 100
Owners David Ponte and Jamie Barber
Jamie Barber supports Caterer and Hotelkeeper's SlashVAT campaign
I brought up the whole issue in 2008 when VAT was at 15% and warned that VAT would go to 20%. Collectively no one listened, not even the BHA. But it is crucial.
After the public sector, hospitality is the largest employer of youth in the UK and there's simply not enough being done to support us to employ people. The industry is naturally quite disparate, but we really need to club together and at least four or five big operators lobby government with a collective voice to get something done.
Show your support. Sign the petition at www.catererandhotelkeeper.com/slashvat](http://www.catererandhotelkeeper.com/slashvat)
cv jamie barber
Left law firm Harbottle and Lewis
â- 1999 Created Hush in Mayfair, London
â- 2003 Opened Shumi in St James's Street, London (closed 2004)
â- 2006 Bought Villandry with Sam and Adam Kaye
â- 2008 Opened Villandry at Bicester Village, Oxfordshire; Opened Kitchen Italia in Westfield shopping centre, Shepherd's Bush, London, with his wife, Clare. Interests in Alan Yau's new opening Sake No Hana
â- 2010-11 Sold Sake no Hana, Villandry and Kitchen Italia
â- November 2011 Opens Cabana Westfield Stratford & Central St Giles with David Ponte
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