The Caterer Interview: Andy Harris

29 November 2013 by
The Caterer Interview: Andy Harris

In his two and half years at the helm of Restaurant Associates, Compass Group's executive dining division, Andy Harris has launched two new brands and expanded the caterer's collaborations with top restaurant chefs, including Jason Atherton and Anthony Demetre. Janie Manzoori-Stamford reports

You've enjoyed relationships and joint venture restaurants with high-profile chefs for many years. How would you describe your current offer and how do they work for you as a business? It is a really important part of who we are as a business because we want to bring it to life and re-emphasise that food is at the very heart of what we do. We've got a number of chefs that we term associate chefs, because we've tried to bring the ‘associates' back to life in Restaurant Associates (RA). Employees and suppliers are defined as associates as well because it is part of being in the RA family.

Key to that is Albert Roux and Michel Roux Jr. Albert is fantastic. He's an absolute legend and such a great businessman, which some people might not realise. He's canny and astute, with a huge amount of experience in our industry. It's great to sit and discuss business challenges and opportunities with him to get his perspective.

Michel is at Roux at Parliament Square, where Steve Groves, who won MasterChef: The Professionals in 2009, is the executive chef. In both those cases, it's as much about what they do for us quietly behind the scenes as it is the culinary thing that we do in the restaurants. They host dinners for clients and, perhaps most importantly, sit with our culinary team and share their knowledge and expertise on how to run a kitchen and how to deliver inspirational food.

What do your staff get out of working with the likes of Anthony Demetre and Jason Atherton, not to mention all RA's other collaborations? A number of different things. For example, Jason did a workshop for our culinary team on menu planning and seasonality. They'll sit and chat with one of the most successful chefs of the moment, take that learning and inspiration back to the business and bring it to life for their clients in the dining room and employees in the staff restaurant.

We had Michel come to a client in the City recently. It was just a quiet, private dinner, but the client went away buzzing and so did our employees. Everyone likes to be associated with the best in the business. It makes you feel proud.

How did the collaboration with Anthony Demetre come about?
We knew our contract with Gary Rhodes was coming to an end, and through late summer we were thinking about what to do with the space. We all liked the idea of a pop-up and spoke with a number of people.

Culinary director Jeremy Ford and [RA business director] Sue Thompson take ownership of our associate chef relationships and they know Anthony, who was really keen and a perfect fit for us as a business. He brought Patrick Powell in as head chef. Patrick worked with Anthony at Wild Honey when he joined his business two years ago. They work with Jamie McCallum, the sous chef at AD12 atT42, who spent the past three years at Rhodes 24. It's a great combination.

The level of interest here for something different, fresh and a slightly more informal style has been really good. It's reawakened everyone to a great restaurant space and it's a great sharpener for next spring [when Jason Atherton opens City Social in the space].

Can we expect to see RA and Anthony Demetre working together again if it goes well? I hope so. We're obviously concentrating on getting these 12 weeks spot-on and we're so busy already. We like to work with a range of chefs in the London culinary community and we don't just work in a contracted way. We also have people who come and help us with guest chef appearances or client events. If Anthony is as enthused as we are, I'm sure that's something we'll do more of in the future.

It's going to be absolutely amazing. Clearly we're really focused on and excited about what Anthony's doing at Tower 42 at the moment but what that has also done is really reignite interest in the location. The plans we have for when we open in spring next year are fantastic. A restaurant, a bar - quite art deco-inspired. The revamp will be substantial. There's still some work to do, as always, to get everything lined up in terms of the contract, but we're not far off. We're really confident it will come off.

Should the contract process run on a little longer than planned, as these things sometimes do, is there a chance that you'll extend the pop-up with Anthony Demetre? Possibly, but we're really focused on the timeline. The pop-up is for 12 weeks. We know when the builders are coming in to start doing what they need to. We've got a really well-managed plan, we know when we want to be handing the space back and training the staff and we know when we want to open.

We've got fantastic support from our clients at Tower 42, who are equally as excited as us, and I know Jason is really excited, too. We've worked with him since 2010 and he feels like part of the family. He knows us, we trust each other, we like each other and we couldn't be more excited.

How did you come up with the idea of working with Jason Atherton on the project? When we're making plans for what the future of any contract should look like, my executive team talks about what we would like to achieve. When you've got consultant chefs like Jason sitting with you, it gives you great choice. We love his approach to food. It fits in extraordinarily well with how we approach things. He's very busy, but what strikes me about Jason is that he is incredibly well organised and very clear about what he wants to achieve. That really fits with how we work too, and it was an obvious fit.

How will City Social differ from the very classical style of Rhodes 24? Jason talks about there being no such thing as rolling out a concept, which I love. My experience of working with him shows me that he looks at each project on its own merits and gets the best out of the space. He'll look at what will work best for the demographic.

A power dining room would be great to have back in the City, and I think he feels that, too. We've got some great plans in the design to really bring it to life in a different way, even though you don't have to work too hard when you've got a view like the one Tower 42 has.

Roux at Parliament Square has had a few chefs in a relatively short space of time, but you seem to be settled with Steve Groves. How is that relationship going? Steve has really settled in and his move from senior sous chef to executive chef has worked really well. We're starting to get really busy. The restaurant has had fantastic trade from word of mouth, with people returning again and again. All have been good chefs. Toby [Stuart] did a fantastic job.

I was talking to Albert about a Michelin star and how it would be great for Steve and the team to get recognition there. He was very wise and said: "All in good time. Stars are great, but bottom line profit is even better".

RA has a foot in both the restaurant and foodservice camps. Do you think the two sectors are starting to converge? It doesn't feel so separate from the inside - it's just that the setting changes. One might be available to the public and one not, but the way we approach business - the food and customer experience - is the same. It's the same team of people running all sorts of businesses. They're not separate divisions because they're so closely aligned with what we do every day.

We have dining rooms that, if they were available to the public, I'm convinced would achieve a Michelin star. The employee dining experience in some of our restaurants is extraordinary too, and benefits from our restaurant approach.

Tell us about front of house services business Rapport Rapport launched in January 2012 and it's a great example of understanding what we're good at and identifying new revenue opportunities. Clients liked our hospitality approach to food and wondered if we could bring that to their front of house services as well. It was a recognisable market opportunity and potential revenue stream and Rapport was a great response. The front of house team for Rapport winning the Foodservice Catey for their work at two London KPMG sites was amazing. The client was very pleased.

How has your events business Radish been performing since you launched it in June? From a standing start, we've done a series of events for existing clients. Of course, we're coming into the busy quarter leading up to Christmas, so the order book looks extremely healthy. The interest level is fantastic and that's the point. If you can be sure that you're adding to something that is exactly what you're good at - and it may be something that you haven't done before - and people can see the connection, then you'll grow nicely. At the same time, your business as a proposition for potential new clients is stronger if you can show breadth of capability within a specialist field.

How has 2013 been for your part of the business? I've had the business for two and a half years, with quite a bit of sorting out and shaping up to do in that first 12 months. My to-do list when I started included getting the right people on the team, building fantastic client relationships and the brand refresh. The aim was to reposition who we were and to get greater clarity on what we were trying to do. That has all got traction now, so we've had an extraordinarily good year.

It really seemed to resonate both with our existing and potential client base, as well as with our people. They're prouder to work with us and our employee engagement score has gone up about six percentage points as a result.

How has your growth strategy changed?
It's all about looking for growth in the right areas. We've done the forming and storming, we've started to perform and now I think there's the dividend for all that hard work.

When you have a successful year, it gives you time to plan properly for the next three to five years because you've stopped having to put fires out. We spent a lot of time this summer looking at where we want to apply focus and where still needs improvement. We just want to get better at everything. Then the rewards will come.

Restaurant associates
Annual turnover: £140m
Number of clients: 75 (including Rapport)
Number of employees: 3,500
Recent client wins: Eversheds, Amazon, AIG, Tower 42 (Rapport)


Anthony Demetre opened his 12-week pop-up AD12 atT42 in Tower 42 last month, and he's already smitten with the culinary culture of the City of London. He tells Janie Manzoori-Stamford how the collaboration with Restaurant Associates might inspire his next venture

How have things gone at AD12 atT42 since it opened last month? It's been fantastic. I've taken over where Gary Rhodes has left off in a fantastic site. Everything seems to be happening in the City right now, as far as restaurants and high-rise buildings go.

It's something that I think needed to happen. Gary had been here for 10 years and the place was tired, but I think that's what happens when you are here for so many years. With very minimal spend we've given it a lick of paint here, changed a few lightbulbs there and changed the carpet. I'm here for 12 weeks so
I don't expect Restaurant Associates (RA) and Compass Group to spend a whole heap of cash on it, only to rip it all out when Jason [Atherton] takes over. That would be pointless.

How different is the experience of running a pop-up? It's been exciting. It's a very enviable site. Most kitchens are self-inflicted prison cells, in terms of basement cooking and artificial light, but this is far more glam. I was kind of nervous. It is just 12 weeks and you worry whether people will bother to come. It's a real juxtaposition of what we do in terms of Arbutus and Wild Honey, which are where 'bistronomy' is. It's the modern bistro - affordable and approachable - and that's what I wanted to bring to the City.

This is your first operation in the City. How have you found it? I've always strived to find a site in the City, but found it a hard nut to crack. I've almost been fearful of it because of the traditional Monday to Friday operation, but that's been eclipsed by recent openings. It's hugely exciting and it makes me want to look for a permanent site in the City once this is over. That's the next game plan for myself and [business partner] Will [Smith]. Ideally, I would like to collaborate with RA, but if not, I will look for something else.

How did you approach the menu at AD12 atT42? The menu changes daily and we have an evening tasting menu, which is the way a lot of restaurants are going at the moment. Look at Dabbous, the Clove Club - that kind of thing.

I hate the phrase tasting menu because it sounds so old-fashioned and old hat, but what else do you call it? I don't want something cheesy like 'a celebration of autumn' because I hate that too. It's a smaller menu that's constantly changing and bang up-to-date in terms of seasonality, and it's affordable.

You're undertaking this venture independently from your partnership with Will Smith. Why is that and how have you found it? I was approached by RA. Will is front of house and the front of house here is fine. It's more of a culinary collaboration. This is my first collaboration with a foodservice business and I would do it again as long as the caterer involved has the same ethos and approach conceptually as Compass.

Tell us about your head chef Patrick Powell. Patrick has a very eclectic CV. He's worked in Melbourne, Sydney and Ireland, and he worked for me at Wild Honey for a couple of years. It's his time now. I love to nurture and bring on new talent and I believe we don't do it enough in this country. He's one of the chefs of the future to watch out for. He's very hard-working, ambitious and passionate. He has the right attitude.

How do you plan to make the most of his talent once the pop-up comes to a close? I've told him not to worry, that if he has to come back to Wild Honey, I will find him something. It's always going to be hard when he's run a kitchen for three months to come back down to a subordinate role. But it's up to me now to find him something within our stable. Patrick has definitely proved himself. I've made it crystal clear that I'm here two days a week - Patrick runs it the other three days. He's the man who's running the place.

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