Former director of operations of Nobu in Europe and Ping Pong founder Kurt Zdesar tells Neil Gerrard why he is keen to get back into the UK restaurant scene with his new project
Your new restaurant concept is called Chotto Matte, offering Japanese-inspired Nikkei cuisine. What is it, and where will it sit?
It is a full-service fine-dining restaurant but will be somewhat relaxed. I think this is the way the trends are going with restaurants: more informal. People like to share, and I think the idea of a starter and a main course is becoming less popular. Looking at restaurants now, I think they should be quite ambient and entertaining, lively, fun and exciting.
You mentioned that it will be cheaper than some equivalent restaurants in London. Why have you decided to do this?
I have to say I find it a little bit disgusting to spend £120-£130 on a meal these days. I look at the market and I think, "Well, if you can't get that experience at £120, what are the alternatives?" I want to be careful what I say, but I don't think that for £40 you can get a good experience in London in the Japanese sector, and if you can, I am not really aware of them. I look at the contrast between the two sectors and feel that there is a perfect opportunity in the mid-level.
Can you elaborate on how you plan to offer the quality you want at a lower price point?
The first thing you have to do is get your produce right. I will give you a really good example. You can fly in microherbs overnight from Japan. They are really important for certain dishes because they finish them beautifully. I look at a punnet like that for £7-£8 and think, "Well, that is 50p per dish. I have to get £1.75-£2 back for that." For a garnish, that is unacceptable. So how am I going to get those herbs without compromising the price?
The solution was to get vertical hydroponic planters so I can grow my own herbs in the restaurant. One of those planters from America or Japan - there are two different ones we are looking at bringing in - can grow 20,000 heads of lettuce a year. The same applies to fish. We have great fish locally. Why do I need to be flying stuff in from Japan that is caught fresh when we have a great catch here?
You were born in Australia but started out working in UK restaurants. How did that come about?
I have been working in the restaurant business since I was 14. I was a bit naughty - I don't know if you can mention this, but I think we are safe now - I lied and said I was 16 to get a job at the Riverside Racquet Club in Chiswick, which my sister helped me with. I started out at the very bottom, peeling potatoes and potwash, and then slowly getting a bit involved in the food which I was absolutely fascinated in. Then I went over to McDonald's on a training programme. It was gruelling. I always described it as being a bit like a stint in the army or prison.
You ended up at Nobu in 1996 when it was still a small operation. What was your involvement there?
I had the remit of going to New York to help package the company, because they had one concept at the time and, although they knew what they were doing, they didn't have it written down and formulated to be able to transport it abroad. I brought the first Nobu operations manual to London and we opened in February 1997. It was a huge success. I joined as an assistant manager and just by being in the right place at the right time in a young company that grew aggressively, with a proven track record of having done what I did in the UK, I became the director for European operations.
After some work helping Alan Yau develop the Hakkasan concept you eventually left Nobu to found Ping Pong. Was that a hard decision to make?
It was the hardest thing to leave my role in Nobu because he [Nobuyuki "Nobu" Matsuhisa] was like a father to me. I had been there for nearly nine years, so leaving was a very emotional time for both of us. He was very upset. I was really scared and unsure about everything, but I also wanted to test myself a little bit. I saw myself as more than an employee.
Where did the idea for Ping Pong come about?
I had the idea three years before I did it. I discussed it with Nobu, and initially he was OK about it, but then he came back and said, "Look, if you have a restaurant you are going to be distracted," and didn't want me to do it, so I respected his wishes. Three years later, I just couldn't get over the idea. Igor Sagiryan, a Russian investor, was chasing me down at the time so I agreed. "OK, let's do this. If I am not going to do this now I am never going to do it."
You sold your stake after three to four years. What happened? The project began in 2004 and we opened the first one in 2005. Within two years we had opened eight sites. But I had got to the point where the company wasn't going in the direction that I wanted. We had differences of opinion. It is not to say mine were right or wrong, or his were right or wrong, but they were just so different. The locations we were taking weren't agreeable to me, the direction of the menu - just things like that.
Since then you have been involved with developing quite a few concepts around the world. Yes. With the sale of Ping Pong my first thought was to go and do a very similar thing but with Japanese food. But in 2008, when everything was going a bit pear-shaped, I figured maybe it wasn't the best time to open in London. I went over to open a restaurant within a famous Paris club called Les Bains Douches with Hubert Boukobza. Then an opportunity came up to develop some concepts in the Middle East. I just felt that London needed time.
It was actually a mistake - the worst I could ever think of. London became so successful because everyone saw London as the safe bet and started bringing their money here. Then in the Middle East one year later we had the uprising on 14 February. The new restaurant I was working on had just opened and was doing phenomenally well, but with the first riot we went down to 30 covers, and then closed for two weeks.
I stuck it out for the two-year contract because there were about 400 or 500 people that I was responsible for and I just couldn't see myself leaving them, but when the contract was up I was quite desperate to get back to the UK, having seen the busy restaurants and all the new concepts. It was just amazing.
You are opening Chotto Matte in a former Giraffe in Soho. How big is the site? Two floors of 3,000sq ft, and there is a little bit in the basement as well. We are going to have 180 seats of dining. We have reconfigured the whole floorspace by removing staircases.
Chotto Matte is still at the early stages and won't open until around September but are there plans for a brand rollout? When I first started Ping Pong we took a central kitchen from day one. It was about £15 average spend, so it was about rolling it out and making 20 sites in 10 years. I was so excited about launching Ping Pong I didn't sleep for months before it opened. And then when site number two came I just didn't get that excited.
I realised, selfishly, that if I did it, I wanted to be completely excited about what I do every time. For that reason, I only want to have one. If I am fortunate enough that there is an opportunity to take it abroad, then I would love to, but I really have no intention to do more than one in London. Also, the other aspect is, you cannibalise your business. I would like to do 10 more restaurants in London one day, I hope, but I would like them all to be individual.
Chotto Matte is a big project - it's rumoured to be costing about £5m. Are you financing it yourself?
I wish I could, but it is a project and I have investors. They are silent partners. I can't say exactly what it is going to cost, but £5m wouldn't be far off. The premium was massive. It could have been done much cheaper if I had a site that had no premium. We are paying rent while it sits empty, and the rent is outrageous.
If I got a clean site, I would pay no premium, get a rent-free period and be open for half as much, but that is just the way things have worked out on this site. But it is definitely worth the investment on this particular site because it will make a really cracking restaurant.
You have done the whole spectrum, from starting out in fast food with McDonald's to top-end fine dining. Has your experience with McDonald's informed the way you operate?
It absolutely did. McDonald's in particular. I used to hide it from everyone. In actual fact, I have to give them credit. As much as I hate the way they produce their food, they are probably the most organised company I have ever experienced: their structures and procedures, the way they motivated everyone - we thought we were saving the world the way they had us motivated. It taught me that systems are important in everything you do.
What trends can you see emerging in the UK restaurant scene?
There are more and more restaurants now - and it doesn't matter what type of cuisine it is - that do sharing. The other aspect that I see is single-item concepts, not just in the UK, but a lot in America, too. In an environment where rents and costs are rising, these single-item operations, like Burger & Lobster, are doing phenomenally well.
You have got lots of chicken concepts coming, too. Nando's has shown the world that chicken is very acceptable, but Nando's is geared towards one market sector - it's the family. But my concern for these operators is how long will these concepts last? How many times will you want to go back and just have that one item? It is not a culinary experience that I hold close to my heart.