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The Rousset interview with Nick Lander

06 February 2015
The Rousset interview with Nick Lander

In the first part of a new series of interviews by Texture owner Xavier Rousset, he speaks to restaurateurs to discover what they think makes a great restaurant. In this issue, he talks to The Art of the Restaurateur author Nick Lander about the philosophy behind the dining room, the longevity of trends and why being a waiter is the ultimate test in hospitality

Xavier Rousset (XR) The idea of this series is to pick restaurateurs' brains to see, from their point of view, what makes a successful restaurant, because the more I know, the less I understand. There are restaurants where you look at the business model on paper and think, it's not going to work. Burger & Lobster was one of those and yet they do 1,000 covers on a Sunday. You think you need to give people choices, and it is expensive for a
burger, and yet people are queuing to get in. Then I go to other restaurants that I think are brilliant and fair value and they're empty. Do you think location, location, location is still important?

Nick Lander (NL)

What's inside your front door has to match what's outside your front door. So you can be expensive and extravagant in Mayfair, but you couldn't be in Shoreditch or Hoxton. And youcan't have a series of tattooed, bearded, capped waiters, chefs or baristas in Mayfair. I think a lot of people forget that this is absolutely the most crucial thing when customers come in. But that's one extreme - the other is where a restaurant is so good, is so distinctive, that it actually doesn't matter where it is because people will seek it out.

Our lives are increasingly governed by our phones and if you're on a list - whether it's a Michelin ranking or whatever - then people will make that pilgrimage. Restaurants have become something they weren't when I started in the 1980s. They have become a real talking point.

XR So location is one thing, but do you think it's very important as a restaurateur to spend a lot of money on a restaurant?

As I said to my friend: "If you spend money on a restaurant, people will spend money inside". It's unusual for people to spend a lot of money in somewhere that doesn't look finished, but when they go to places where they feel the environment suggests they should spend more, they feel relaxed about spending £120 a head.

NL Our son and his business partner have taken this place over [the Quality Chop House on Farringdon Road]. For the past 20 years, it had been quite an ambitious restaurant, but the chef who had it never did anything about these seats. You can't physically change them, because this room was built in 1870 , but what Will's business partner Josie Stead did was to attach padding. If you place your hand underneath the cushion you'll feel how narrow the bench is. If you were sitting on this with the bench digging into the back of your thighs, you would buy one glass of wine but no more.

So many people now spend their lives in front of a screen in a shared office, and that's not a particularly social environment. They are only usually taken into a private office to get a telling off. So restaurants provide a social atmosphere that used to exist as part of a working life.

XR They are places to socialise, but that brings me on to my next question. I went to New York and I thought it would be ahead of us - on food, drink, design - everything.

But I came back thinking the food is better in London, the drinks lists were better there, as was the knowledge of the staff. Where Americans have got the edge, as far as I could see, is that they present restaurants as more social environments. It's changing here, but when people go out in the UK they
look at the food and wine very carefully and they want the top level. In New York it's the whole atmosphere that counts; not just the plate, and people there eat out all the time.

NL It's a function of rent. If you can't afford an apartment with a dining room or a kitchen, where do you live? You live in Starbucks in the morning, and you live in a restaurant for lunch. It's becoming like that in Japan. People come into work at 7am.

XR So what should we learn from the US? Are they ahead or behind?

NL Over the years there's been a lot of espionage on both sides. I think one of the most exciting aspects of the restaurant business is that there are absolutely no secrets. Everyone knows the selling price. It doesn't take long to find out what the rent is or what the wages are, so I was delighted that, through the book [The Art of the Restaurateur], I was able to collate so many restaurateurs who were prepared to talk quite so openly about their
successes and failures.

I thought, if I tried to get 20 bankers or lawyers or surgeons or professionals in any other field, they would have said no; we're not prepared to talk about why we've been successful or unsuccessful, and how we almost went bust. But restaurateurs do and that's a great thing. That's something that young people coming into the business need to be aware of - they should never be frightened to ask questions, because there are so many people out
there willing to pass on advice.

XR In New York, the service was wow, but in this country front of house is still a way of paying the bills when you are a student. In the US, as well as France, Spain and all the Latin countries, people are waiters or head waiters in their 40s, 50s or 60s, and they are very proud. They seem to be respected by customers. I'm sure if an 18-year-old in this country said, "Mum, dad, I want to be a waiter", their parents would say "Oh, you can do better than that!"

NL I think it's changing and I think the standard of service in this country has changed considerably, partly because if people work in a busy restaurant they can make terrific money, but of course the hours are long and it's tough.

XR And they need to be skilled, don't forget that. When new people start with us as waiters, they may be sharp or clever, but the skill is still required - human skill, restaurant skill. They need to think fast and be quick. Back of house, it's expected - people know you have to be skilled to be a chef.
But if I wanted to open a restaurant tomorrow, what would you advise?

NL I would advise you to work in as many different roles as possible and find out whether it suits you or not, because this is a very demanding business and it suits some people better. That's the first thing. Go to someone and say, 'I want to do two weeks as a waiter' and if you survive that, nobody will say no. After that it's more a question of whether it suits you, rather than you suiting it.

XR I remember when Aggi [Rousset's partner, chef Agnar Sverrisson] and I came to London to open Texture, and we were very naÁ¯ve.

NL The naÁ¯vety is the result of optimism, and if you don't have optimism, well, you might as well not open. I think this leads to a very serious mistake a lot of restaurateurs make. They are optimistic, they find a site, they open and throughout the whole period, because they are besotted with it, because it takes over their life, they always make the same mistake, which is assuming that the rest of the world is either waiting for this restaurant to open or understands what they are on about. And they don't.

The world can survive without another new restaurant, and that's a very humbling thing. The second thing is that because of this a lot of places open without the public knowing what it is that has driven this individual to open this particular restaurant.

XR Do you need a clear angle?

NL It's very difficult to create something completely new, but I do think it's the passion of the individual more than anything else that will make people come, try it and appreciate it and forgive the first few hiccups. I know of a new neighbourhood restaurant that's just opened and on their website it said, 'Please come along, but forgive us for any initial mistakes'. That's really very honest.

XR How do you feel about restaurant critics visiting within the first few days? When we opened Texture, Fay [Maschler] was there in two days. It's like having a baby and saying it will be pretty when it's two days old - you don't know, do you?

NL Well, all babies are pretty or brilliant! But getting back to the restaurant critics…

XR Do you think it's fair?

NL I don't know if it's fair. It's war between the newspapers and, as somebody once said, the first three letters of news is new.

XR Marina [O'Loughlin] usually waits for you to settle down and Richard Vines normally comes three times before he makes a judgement. The pressure is massive. But Fay's experienced enough to see through the mistakes, so maybe she sees through them to the sheer quality of the restaurant.

NL But it's also a compliment to the industry - it wasn't like that when we started 30 years ago. I remember when novelist Kingsley Amis was a reviewer. He always used to judge a restaurant on whether it had a good bar or not, because his idea of a good meal began with two large whiskies. I think we can't have it both ways - we can't have it now that restaurants are the most idolised of professions and also not have the media coverage.

Thirty years ago The Caterer was one of the few restaurant magazines around, but now you see how much attention the Chiltern Firehouse is getting -
it's extraordinary.

XR What I've learned from Texture is that, when you first open, everybody has a view on everything, and then after a year they don't comment, even though you've kept the walls the same colour.

NL You can't win. Just relax and enjoy it. They're coming through the door, that's the main thing. Enjoy it.

XRSometimes the criticism is very valid.

NL What's hard is to take the criticism but stay true to the vision, because if you waver too much you dilute what you are doing and it's been a completely wasted experience.

XR PR Maureen Mills gave us some advice right at the beginning of Texture. She said: "You're pretending to be a Scandinavian restaurant, and Aggi is Icelandic, so why don't you write something on the menu explaining your vision and your philosophy?" And ever since then, we have had Aggi's introduction in the menu. If you are clear about what you do, people will say: "I've just been to Texture the Scandinavian restaurant" - not Texture
the half-Italian, French, Chinese, Asian, Japanese-inspired restaurant. She said be clear, tell the world exactly who you are, and I thought it was a very valuable and valid point.

NL It is valid. And the name is important.

XR Very important. I have been told that a very famous hotelier would not come to Texture because he didn't like the name!

XR Do you think the future of the restaurant now is all about food?

NL I've never thought that it's all about food. I'm married to a wine writer, and you're passionate about wine, so you know that if you don't get the wine offering right you'll go out of business tomorrow.

XR Very quickly, yes.

NL I think the issue is that it's getting better for customers and harder for restaurateurs. We're continually having to raise our game. Prices have to be perceived as good value, rents are getting higher and staff are in shorter supply. The only single ray of light is that it is increasingly a great profession.

This idea of instilling happiness into your customers' lives for an hour or two a day is becoming more important. Regardless of my view of what's happened over the past 15 years, during the 1990s life was good and things were easy. Chefs were allowed to come up with increasingly experimental
food - it was fascinating. But since 2008, we live in a much more uncertain world and what you're actually seeking from a restaurant is more care. And that's what the restaurateur can do; take the weight off your shoulders.

XR Do you think design is important for restaurants?

NL Yes, I think designers are incredibly powerful. The challenge is to find something that's going to last. I think light is very important.

XR Yes, I agree, it's 50% of the design.

NL It's important to give your chefs as much natural light as possible.

XR It's about the square footage. A ground floor costs twice as much as a basement. So naturally, we prefer to put tables and customers in the better environment, and then put all the kitchen stuff in the basement.

XR How hard is it to have two people involved in a partnership with a restaurant?

NL Very hard. But then that applies to everybody. A restaurateur can't manage without a chef. It's just like marriage!

XR We can make it work because we're both firing in a direction where we know can make it work, but there's definitely been moments. In the beginning, because I had a clear idea of what I wanted the business to be, and Aggi had a clear idea of what he wanted the service to be, we clashed, for sure. It was interesting, but we got through it - it's part of life. Now he knows me very well. It's funny.

NL But you have to innovate, you can't stand still.

XR Yes, it's so fast nowadays. I don't think you can sustain that for 20 years any more. What do you think?

NL Every year seems to be different, and I can't begin to understand when people ask me what the next trend is going to be. I couldn't tell what the last 10 were going to be, and if I had, I'd have backed them. I'm not sure if we haven't exhausted all the countries and styles of cooking and cuisine that we can plunder.

XR But there are a lot of trendy restaurants opening, such as Burger & Lobster.

NL I don't think that's a trend, though, that's just going back to something basic. Would it be so successful if it was called Chopped Meat & Crustacean?

XR Do you think it will be around in 20 years?

NL Well, it's been around for a while. The owners started as a steak restaurant, and if they hadn't had that experience, they wouldn't have had the courage to do Burger & Lobster.

XR I had a very good meal at a restaurant earlier this year, and I went back to try the wine list and meet the owner. He said that the hardest role to fill in the restaurant was the runner, because the restaurant is on the first floor, it's a very narrow staircase and there's no lift. They can't get a runner to last more than a month.

NL I do think the biggest mistake restaurateurs make before and after they open is not putting themselves firmly enough in the seat of the customers. When they're constructing it and walking through the building, they should be asking, how does the customer see this? That's vital.

XR I had two people in 28°-50° who were having an aperitif, and they had a lunch table booked at a two-star restaurant. They said, let's cancel that and stay here in the wine bar. That made me think, wow, they must go to two stars every day, but they prefer the casual environment and that's good. They would have had better service and food where they were going, but they wanted a casual environment. Casual is the future, I strongly believe it. We're going back to the American style of service. This is what Marcus Wareing is doing - less French, more American. The consumer is becoming
more picky. They don't forget. People play the competition card all the time by saying, oh I got this cheaper across the road, for this amount - you can't win.

XR We have talked a lot about London restaurants, but what about outside London? Do you think that what makes restaurants a success outside London is the same as in it?

NL I think the core values are the same: you have to have an identity, passion, the vision. But you need a much bigger, masochistic streak if you're going to do it outside London. And you have to have a really good story to tell, which lots of people do, like L'Enclume, Le Manoir - they're successful.

Nick Lander

Nicholas Lander has written The Restaurant Insider, a weekly column for the FT Weekend edition for the past 25 years. A restaurant industry consultant, he is also the author of The Art of the Restaurateur. He studied at Cambridge University and Manchester Business School before proving himself as a restaurateur when he owned and ran L'Escargot in London in the 1980s. He is married to wine critic Jancis Robinson and their son, Will Lander, is the owner of Quality Chop House in Farringdon Road, East London, where Lander and Rousset met for their interview. Will has just opened his second restaurant, Portland, in Great Portland Street in London's West End

Xavier Rousset

Xavier Rousset became the youngest Master Sommelier in the world when he passed the exam aged 23. After working at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons as head sommelier, he met Icelandic chef Agnar Sverrisson and the duo went on to open Texture restaurant in 2007, in London's West End, which picked up a Michelin star in 2010.

They also opened wine workshop and kitchen concept 28°- 50° in Fetter Lane in the City of London in 2010. Decribed as "a comfortable and relaxing lace to enjoy good food and wine", the restaurant is named after the latitudes in which most wine regions are located. A sister restaurant was launched in Marylebone in 2012, and Maddox Street opened in 2013.

Next month

Xavier Rousset speaks to Hawksmoor co-founder Will Beckett on staff, steak, New York and how he and partner Huw Gott would be a disaster if they ever ran a restaurant floor.

Northern Restaurant and Bar

Nick Lander will be headlining the second NRB Debate at the Northern Restaurant and Bar Show on 17 March at Manchester Central. Tickets are £60. To find out more, go to www.nrbdebate.co.uk.

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