Third time lucky for Murchison

01 October 2004
Third time lucky for Murchison

It is no secret that Alan Murchison quit L'Ortolan because he disagreed with the direction taken by Peter Newman, the computer entrepreneur who bought the Grade II-listed building from John Burton-Race in 2001.

Despite rave reviews and awards, covers were plummeting and profits were proving elusive for the famous restaurant in Shinfield, Berkshire. Newman drafted in his IT-specialist brother Jeremy to try to stem the tide, but he lost his chef-director in the process.

Murchison felt that he had lost control in the face of "shifting goalposts", a focus on "administration and spreadsheets" instead of food and guests, and myriad small decisions that affected the operation - not least the decision to extend opening times from five to seven days.

However, business was booming at the start of this year, so some of the staff were shocked when Newman closed the venue in February for a £250,000 refit - and then put it on the market while he talked to potential buyers or partners.

With this chequered history, many might have been surprised when the 55-seat restaurant reopened its doors last Tuesday with Murchison back in the driving seat.

"I have unfinished business at L'Ortolan," explained Murchison, who first worked there under Burton-Race. "I was responsible for reopening this place and we had such phenomenal success in the first 18 months, winning a Michelin star, three AA rosettes and 7/10 in the Good Food Guide. I am looking to build on that and realise this place's potential to be one of the best restaurants outside London."

What has changed is that he now has carte blanche to run the restaurant as he sees fit, under a management services contract with Newman that gives him an option to buy the lease or freehold in the future. "It gives me the opportunity to run a first-class restaurant without having to find £500,000 to £2m," Murchison enthused. "Success is purely on our shoulders. The only limitation is myself and my staff."

Although Murchison checked out other sites, nothing gave him the same "wow factor" as L'Ortolan. "My heart was here," he confessed. "There is nothing in this place I did not choose myself - not a piece of crockery or cutlery or furniture - it's like coming home."

This sense of homecoming extends to the staff - all but two of the 19-strong brigade have worked with Murchison in the past. Restaurant manager Paul Shanahan and front-of-house manager Abigail Lloyd are veterans of L'Ortolan and Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, while head chef Matthew Weedon was L'Ortolan's sous chef before moving to Seaham Hall hotel in County Durham.

Murchison's focus is firmly on his food, a modern slant on classic French cuisine. "People are driving to the restaurant for one reason - for the food," he stressed. "If I get that right, everything will follow on."

But he understands the need to widen the restaurant's appeal. The days of "bottomless pit" expense accounts and two-hour lunches are long gone, and customers can now eat a "bloody good meal" in gastropubs at a fraction of fine-dining prices. "L'Ortolan needed to evolve, to be more flexible and versatile," explained Murchison.

One solution is to offer cheaper and swifter meal options. The menu now incudes two- and three-course lunches for £18 and £21, and there are high chairs and simplified dishes for children.

Murchison has also jettisoned Newman's plans to add 30 more seats to the restaurant. Instead, the chef will spend £100,000 building two themed private dining rooms upstairs to target the corporate market and parties of eight to 20 people.

He always felt that large tables spoilt the ambience for other restaurant diners, while L'Ortolan's former private dining room did not suit corporate diners. "It was a compromise," he said. "There was no privacy, and the only access was through the restaurant."

The new dining rooms, which open in November, will be run quite separately, with their own dedicated kitchen and staff.

Murchison has teamed up with Champagne Pommery, which will collaborate on events and provide the house Champagne, rare vintages, and the theme for one room. The room will be airy and feminine, finished in silver, gold and glass. The second room will have a "masculine, clubby feel".

An earlier plan to add bedrooms has become less crucial, said Murchison, as the rapid growth of nearby Reading has brought local customers closer to his door. Now, hundreds of homes are just a five-minute walk away, rather than several miles, and many businesses have sprung up within a short drive.

Murchison is unfazed by rumours that L'Ortolan may lose its Michelin star. While he intends to regain or even add to his star status, his immediate focus is to consolidate the business and get through Christmas.

L'Ortolan was once one of the UK's temples of fine dining.

Murchison's Michelin route
Murchison got his first taste of Michelin-starred cooking at Inverlochy Castle in Fort William, working there in 1990 at the age of 19 and again in 1996.

His next stop-off, between 1996 and 1998, was two-Michelin-starred L'Ortolan, where he rose to junior sous chef under John Burton-Race.

From early 1998 to mid-2001, he drove through the ranks at Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in Oxfordshire, to senior sous chef and acting head chef. For his last two-and-a-half years there, he headed Blanc's Ecole de Cuisine.

Murchison returned to L'Ortolan in May 2001 as chef-director for owner Peter Newman. Since June 2003, the route back to L'Ortolan has taken Murchison through Hampshire, where he worked as head chef at Chewton Glen and helped set up the Running Horse gastropub in Littleton.

Alan Murchisonis hoping to get the business back on course, but he knows the restaurant needs to be more flexible and versatile
L'OrtolanTel: 01189 888500 Opening: Tuesday-Saturday The Grade II-listed building was named after a small finch, the ortolan bunting, once prized as a delicacy. Fattened in a cage, the bird was traditionally drowned in Armagnac and eaten whole - head, guts and claws. The venue was named by John Burton-Race, who won two Michelin stars during his 13-year tenure there from 1986 to 2000. Its previous owners were Nico Ladenis and Milton Fanford. Opening menu selectionA la carte - Stinking bishop cheese twice-baked souffl‚, Pinot Noir jelly, caramelised walnuts and walnut vinaigrette, £13.50 - Dry aged fillet of beef, gratin potatoes, wild mushroom duxelle and Shiraz fumet, £29 - Roasted grouse, cider fondant potato, braised salsify, blackberries, £33 - Tasting dessert plate for two, £18 - Caramelised apple tart, yogurt and vanilla sorbet, Calvados sauce, £11 Menu du jour Two-course lunch, £18; three-course lunch, £21 - Smoked haddock and spring onion risotto, crispy poached egg, fresh herb velout‚ - Caramelised puff pastry, goats' cheese and Brie de Meaux, white truffle honey - Lemon tart with honey ice-cream The other contender Daniel Galmiche, who replaced Murchison last year, was also eyeing the restaurant but decided he could not justify paying £1.5m for a business that turned over less than £1m a year. He was advised that he would not break even until year three. He suspected that Newman expected a quicker return on his hefty investment in L'Ortolan, which had cost nearly £1m to buy and the same again to refurbish. Yet Galmiche is convinced that he could have broken even by June, by introducing a £20 three-course lunch option. He reckoned that L'Ortolan needed to average 60-70 covers a day to make money - and, like Murchison, he planned to develop two private dining rooms upstairs. Galmiche stayed at L'Ortolan until this month, recalling staff when the restaurant hosted small functions in June and July in a bid to retain its star. His current employment options include joining a restaurant in Switzerland, forming a partnership in a new Reading restaurant, and buying a small country house hotel in Scotland.
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