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The Caterer

The Caterer Interview – Joel Kissin

23 August 2013 by
The Caterer Interview – Joel Kissin

It is nearly 20 years since the famous London restaurant Boulestin was closed and turned into a Pizza Hut. Joel Kissin, co-founder of Conran Restaurants, tells Neil Gerrard why he chose to bring back the Boulestin name for his first London restaurant opening in more than a decade

Why did you decide to resurrect the Boulestin name?

It took you 18 months until you found this site on 5 St James's Street. Did you ever consider taking Boulestin back to its original site in Covent Garden?
There was an opportunity to do that. The original site, though, was a basement and I didn't want to be in one. However, the site above it also became available and that whole building is being redeveloped. I was told by the agents for the landlord that I wouldn't be considered because I was opening a French restaurant and Balthazar (in nearby Russell Street) was also a French restaurant. They have, however, allowed three or four burger restaurants. It was a slightly silly thing but I didn't really push it.

Boulestin closed in 1994 after 68 years in business. Was the reason you wanted to bring the name back anything to do with its rather undignified end?
Yes, that was part of it. I think I also realised how important Marcel Boulestin was in food history - Elizabeth David was a big admirer of his. And when I opened Quaglino's with Terence, it was such a boost to the restaurant to have that history behind it. The original Quaglino's was actually not in that location, it was very close to it. And there is something to be said for the fact that this is not the original location of Boulestin, I am not related to Boulestin, 
I didn't buy the original restaurant. And that is one of the reasons I say that we are not trying to emulate the original. I have been inspired by the books, by the man, by the restaurant, too, but this is just a reimagining of the whole thing.

How many Boulestin books do you have?
There are about a dozen different books and I have spent a lot of time on them. There are also German and French translations, written just for the French market. I also have some books that aren't cookbooks, and some commercial pamphlets as well.

How do you plan to make sure that the restaurant is relevant for today? As far as the look of the restaurant is concerned, I am not sure I entirely like the expression "luxury bistro", but no one has come up with a better one. The look of the restaurant is nothing like the original. The original was very ornately decorated with heavy curtains. Funnily enough, the new Boulestin is more apropos of his first 
restaurant, which was called the Restaurant FranÁ§ais (originally just off Leicester Square). That one had a black and white floor like this.

Who designed the restaurant?
It is a bit of a combination. Design LSM were the architects on board. I also had Frank de Biasi Interiors from New York but some of the big ideas were from myself and my partner. The chairs, for example, are inspired by chairs by a designer called Marc DuPlantier and it is quite an interesting chair. Some come up for sale in Sotheby's and they are not a copy but they are certainly inspired by them.

How did you decide what to put on the menu?
I have spent a lot more time on the menu for this restaurant than any restaurant I have ever done and that is because I didn't have this chef until much later. And so I researched the books and started putting this huge list of dishes together. When the chef (Andrew Woodford, formerly head chef of Colbert) did finally come on board - which was a couple of months ago - he was able to take the bones of what I had put together, and he has changed some dishes and taken some out. We have tried to do some fun things: we have got a boudin noir there, oeufs en gelée - poached egg, cold, in aspic - which is one of my favourite things. That one is not coming off my menu if I can help it, unless the chef throws them off, in which case I will just eat them myself. The plats du jour at the moment will tend to be quite classic dishes. The wine list is about 150 wines, red and white, 60% French I would think.

Do you know what has become of any of the 
old staff? I have spoken to Kevin Kennedy (former chef- patron of Boulestin for 15 years until it closed) on the phone - he is running a gite in France somewhere. I rang him and asked him if he had any memorabilia and, sadly, a couple of years ago he got rid of it all. I had never seen an original menu or a menu from the 1920s or 1930s before.

There don't seem to be any published in books. There is a special menu written for an event in Elizabeth David's book. I am hoping that through the publicity some other memorabilia will show up.

You were known for doing much bigger sites than this. Why did you choose a smaller one this time?
Well, I have actually turned what was a 50-seater restaurant into a 90-seater restaurant. You have got 60 seats in the restaurant, and 30 in the café at the front. That is the difference between 50 - not that profitable - and 90 - hopefully profitable. The tables in the café are slightly smaller, and there will be no reservations, with a lighter, faster menu. But you can have the main menu, too, if you want to.

How much did you pay for this site?
I don't really want to go into details but it was a price that I was happy with.

You spent a lot of time out in the USA after you launched Guastavino's in New York. What have you learnt from your time out there?
I learnt a lot about breakfast, about cocktails, and lots about food in general. People eat earlier in New York, so it is easier to turn tables. You don't ask for tables back much in New York - maybe the top restaurants do but others don't. And when you have a reservation for 9.30pm quite often you will arrive and you will have to wait at the bar. The one thing that I have learnt a lot about in the years since I have actually done a restaurant is to look at them from the point of view of a customer, because restaurateurs forget. So I will try to remove things that I think will irritate a customer. Customers are irritated by lots of things in a restaurant - that they are expensive, for one thing. So we are doing filtered water. It is £6,500-worth of equipment, so we are still going to charge for it, but it will be a lot less than mineral water and certainly a lot greener.

What are the biggest challenges and opportunities on the London dining scene?
In London one of the biggest challenges is just finding premises. The rates have also rocketed while I have been away. What do restaurants get for their money? I can't think of anything really. I suppose they get environmental health. But you don't get your rubbish collected - you have to pay on top for that. What do councils give a restaurant for the £60,000-£70,000 they pay? I think it is sucking the life not just out of the restaurant business but the retail business, too, particularly in the centre of London.

Will we potentially see more restaurants from you after this one?
I have to open this and see what its success is and if I can make money from it. And if it is successful I may well do more. But I am not sitting here with a grand master plan to open umpteen restaurants. We expanded very quickly with Conran Restaurants but we had a substantial financial strength with Terence and I don't have anywhere near the same financial position as he does.

There were reports that you fell out with 
Sir Terence Conran at the time. Apparently it has been patched up now. But what happened there and what is the situation now? Well it was a combination of things. Guastavino's had had a fantastic launch with great reviews from the New York Times, and it was very successful. We then hit our second summer - summer in New York is not great - and things weren't very good. Things were just about bouncing back after the summer, and then 9/11 happened. It was very hard because this horrible thing happened in New York and we all lived through it, but for some of us it was much worse than for others. Business went right down, and it was decided that the business couldn't afford me. And then at the same time Terence's book, called Q&A, came out. I think someone asked a question about me and I was mentioned briefly in passing. And so I was pretty miffed about that. I wrote a letter and said I was a bit irritated about it. The book also said that the best day of my life was the day that Bill Clinton came to the Pont de la Tour. Well that was a fun day and a lot of anecdotes came out of it, but by no stretch of the imagination was it the best day of my life. I don't think he said it in any derogatory way, he just said it in passing. The Times and The Telegraph discovered I was leaving and rang me up and I said rather jokingly to both of them that the best day of my life was the day I left London clutching a large cheque from Terence Conran. He was pretty upset by that. So then I wrote him a rude letter and said that, under the circumstances, perhaps we shouldn't have lunch when we were in New York next month and we didn't speak after that. I regretted it, and I am sure he regretted it. I imagine if I had called him two or three years later we would have spoken then, but I got on with my life and he got on with his.

Have you spoken to him since? Oh yes, he invited me to his 80th birthday. We speak not a lot, but regularly. He was an enormous influence on my life. He wasn't the only enormous influence on my life but he was certainly one of them. He taught me a lot. I have always said that and I have always believed that. On the other hand, I have always said that I think I taught him a little bit. He has not often admitted that, but I wish he would. It wouldn't hurt him.

Would you consider working with him again? I admire him and I think he has done a huge amount for this country, so yes I would work with him again.

â- Boulestin is due to open on 10 September

Who was Marcel Boulestin?

Xavier Marcel Boulestin (1878-1943) was a French-born restaurateur, chef, and author. He also became the world's first TV chef when he appeared on Cook's Night Out on 21 January 1937, showing viewers how to cook an omelette. Following the success of his cookbook, Simple French Cooking for English Homes, published in June 1923, he opened his first restaurant, the Restaurant FranÁ§ais, in 1925. He later opened his long-running restaurant, Boulestin, in 1927 in Covent Garden. 
It was reputedly the most expensive restaurant in London for a time. It closed in 1994 when it was converted into a Pizza Hut. Among those influenced by Boulestin was food writer Elizabeth David, who quoted the French chef in several of her own, later works. Boulestin's Simple French Cooking for English Homes was recently reprinted by Quadrille Publishing (£12.99).

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