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The Caterer

The Caterer Interview – Xavier Rousset

08 November 2013
The Caterer Interview – Xavier Rousset

Since gaining a Michelin star at Texture in 2010, Xavier Rousset and Agnar Sverrisson have gone on to establish a more casual brand based on a passion for wine. Rousset explains to James Stagg the inspiration behind 28°-50° Wine Workshop & Kitchen, how they expanded through the recession, and why operators should care more about wine

You opened Texture in 2007 when the economic landscape was very different. Has it been tougher than you expected? Much tougher. When you open a restaurant it will probably always be tougher than you expect. If you knew what it took you wouldn't do it. You have to be a bit naive and crazy. 2007 was fine but everything collapsed dramatically in 2008. It was hard work and stressful. But everybody at the time said that if you can get through it, you'll be stronger for it. Now I feel customers are much more relaxed.

Did it mean you had to change the offer?
We adapted the menu to offer as much value as possible and be as flexible as possible. We have kept it that way, so it has been good for us. At the time we didn't think so, but it meant we were grounded and didn't go crazy.

Looking back, was the business an instant success or was there a turning point?

How have you and business partner Aggi Sverrisson managed to grow the business through the recession? It's about taking your opportunities. Texture turned around after three years, which was more or less when we opened the first 28°-50°. That happened when a customer at Texture asked if we wanted to put some of his wine on our list and said we could pay him when it sold. So we ended up talking and 28°-50° was started with our regular as an investor. At Fetter Lane we were testing the water and the reaction we got was amazing. We had good people involved from day one.

So in 2010 Texture was performing well and 28°-50° was doing well and we had the opportunity to look at a site in Marylebone. Once we'd gone that far the biggest challenge for Aggi and me was to step back and manage.

What has the rapid growth meant for you and Aggi? One good thing has been that we could step back. It's hard to do but as soon as you're capable of stepping back and seeing the bigger picture, your business is better for it. You also need to be a customer elsewhere. I go out a lot and it helps me understand what I want and don't want in the business.

Has it always been plain sailing for you as a partnership?
I'm sure Aggi doesn't agree 100% with some of the decisions I make and I don't agree 100% with some of his, but overall it works. No business partners agree on everything.

Texture is now well established. How do you make sure it remains relevant and exciting? We've just refurbished with new tables, chairs and bar. We also have many regulars. The day we lose them, I'll be worried. It's about keeping them and you soon see the snowball effect.

We're maintaining the standard to make sure it's as good as ever in terms of food, wine and service. There is no formula. It's about getting those three things right. I forgive average food but I never forgive average service.

More and more restaurants are about having a good time.

Is there more pressure on fine dining now than in 2007 when people were less cautious with cash? There's a massive trend towards casual and that's perhaps why 28°-50° is doing so well. I think Texture is relatively relaxed for a Michelin-starred restaurant. But right now fine dining is not the thing of the future. However, it goes in cycles and perhaps more rigid service and a stiffer room will come back. At the moment there seems to be more fine dining but with a casual approach.

I've just been to New York. Where they get it right is that a New York restaurant is a place to socialise, whereas here it's still just a place to eat, alhough it's starting to change here. Those places that have really nailed it have got the vibe right.

Was 28°-50° designed to be something more accessible and casual? The idea was to have Texture as the flagship, high-level operation and other more casual sites. But one thing I've learnt is that it has to come naturally. If you force it too much it won't work. 28°-50° came naturally out of a conversation with a Texture regular and one thing led to another.

How did you come up with the food concept and wine list for 28°-50°? This may sound controversial but for a wine to really shine you need simple food. There's nothing better than a good well-seasoned côte de boeuf and a glass of red. So the idea was to offer something simple that was well seasoned and nicely cooked. Simple can be difficult.

There is a real focus on wine at 28°-50°. Did you see that as a greater opportunity in terms of margin than food? Everything is by the glass or carafe. We offered small measures that weren't quite legal when we first opened. But we also have another list, a collectors' list, which has a small mark-up.

You can make more money on wine, but not necessarily on the more expensive wines. If we were purely profit-driven, our collectors' list wouldn't exist. But it's what makes 28°-50° unique - that's how we started.

How do you engage guests in the wine andensure they're trying new varieties? We do quite a bit of staff training but also guests can see we take wine seriously. They see the wine list and they open up. It creates a conversation
with the staff and they will try things they won't try elsewhere. When you commit to a 75ml serving at £3, there is no big risk. It's not like you've bought a bottle.

Is it important to offer the whole range by the glass? Not necessarily, but it is something that we do at 28°-50°. At Texture we have six whites and six reds by the glass that are rotated. They need to be well chosen. The hardest thing is keeping them from being oxidised, so you need volume.

Can the whole restaurant team speak confidently about wine? If only. To understand a list like ours takes a lot of knowledge and experience. I don't expect anyone to walk into a job and know everything in a few weeks. The staff will know up to a point but I love honesty and they can always ask a colleague. There are always one or two people on site at 28°-50° that can tell a guest everything about the wine.

Is the food led by the wine at 28°-50° or vice versa? The wine list covers a wide spectrum of flavours and so does the menu. Wine is a personal choice and what goes well with food for one person doesn't for another. If I want to have a glass of heavy Shiraz with my Dover sole I can - I take full responsibility for it. In my head it's working and that's all I need to know.

We still suggest wines and one thing that matching does is create a conversation. But nobody has the truth. Nobody is right and nobody is wrong. A sommelier or waiter shouldn't impose their opinions on the customer; they should guide them.

When you go to a restaurant you know what you want to drink and what you want to spend. A guest should be able to tell the sommelier, who can then make a suitable choice for them. And if you find a grape you've never heard of, that's perfect.

What's the balance between wine and food sales? In Texture it's more food than wine but at 28°-50° it's 50/50. The best-selling dish here is the squid on the bar menu.

You've expanded fairly fast, opening three outlets in three years. How have you managed to grow so quickly? We are at a point now where we need to stabilise and rest a little. Maintaining consistency and getting good staff is tough. The bigger you get, the easier it is to maintain the standard as you can have some crossover. So staff from one operation can help another. In that respect it's easier. But the most difficult thing is to control the culture. We need to be at a new opening to ensure staff do things in the 28°-50° way.

You do some work outside the business these days, speaking about wine and promoting your brand. How important is this type of work? Brand building is one thing but the important thing is learning. I give some of my ideas but I like to get other people's ideas too. So at conferences you get to meet more people, see what they're doing and learn how to improve.

Every six or eight weeks we do a restaurant manager dinner where we exchange ideas and tips. I like attending these events because you
can improve.

Are operators missing a trick by not taking enough care over wine?
I get so annoyed with wine lists. I can go to a restaurant and get good food and service, but I look at the wine list and ask myself: why do you not care? They put so much money into the actual plate and glass but they don't care about the wine. It's there simply to make money. So I get frustrated. It's a shame. And yet it's probably 50% of the revenue.

It doesn't need to be a big wine list - five whites and five reds is perfectly fine. Although a small list is harder. Every wine has to justify its inclusion.

XAVIER ROUSSET AND AGGI SVERRISSON

Xavier Rousset and Aggi Sverrisson met at Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisonswhere Sverrisson worked as head chef and Rousset as head sommelier.

They opened Texture in 2007 and gained a Michelin star in 2011. The same year the pair won the Best Newcomer Catey. The first 28°-50° Wine Workshop & Kitchen was launched on Fetter Lane in London in 2010. It was followed by a second London site, in Marylebone, in 2012. In September 2013, Rousset and Sverrisson opened the 28°-50° Wine Workshop & Kitchen in London's Mayfair.

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