To celebrate the digital launch of The Art of the Restaurateur by Nicholas Lander, we caught up with the Financial Times’ restaurant correspondent and former owner of L’Escargot to discuss sake, dating, and his experiences in the industry over the last 30 years.
And for those who have yet to enjoy Nick’s fascinating book, Phaidon have given us five copies to give away with all the entry details at the end of our interview.
In your many years as an insider in the restaurant scene, what do you enjoy so much about dining out?
Well I’m naturally greedy and in fact I don’t think you can be in the industry for so long without being so. I love the fact that all aspects of human life is there and I also love simply walking by, looking at a menu, then dining out there. I’ve been in the business for so long yet every meal is an opportunity to learn a little bit more about the fascinating business.
The Art of the Restaurateur is now available as an iBook for the first time.Your book is engaging in its style and varied in the types of restaurateurs you interview. What are restaurateurs like in person and are there particular traits you notice that make them successful?
The restaurateurs I chose were varied in type and that’s why I chose them. They are also the ones I admire the most in my profession. I think that there are three things that unite them, which is the love of food, wine and fellow human beings. But what makes them so exciting, which I realized after writing the book, is that each of them were so honest and they were fully prepared to talk about their failures as well their successes.
I don’t think that there is another such group of professionals – can you imagine being in a room of 20 bankers, lawyers and surgeons and asking to talk about their failures? They would say: “No, thank you very much.” However all the restaurateurs would delve into where things went wrong just as much as where things went right. And that was simply amazing.
When you were a restaurateur yourself, what were the challenging aspects?
Well it was a huge building, 5,500 square feet on 5 floors so physically it was hugely demanding. We now take the internet, digital printing and all that kind of stuff for granted as back then it was incredibly difficult and slow. We used to try and print the specials of the day, but it just took us such a long time and you were clipping things on to the menu with a little paper clip, which now seems 200 years out of date.
Those were the kind of practical things, but the biggest challenge was that the whole restaurant industry was so much smaller. There weren’t that many suppliers of very good fruit and veg or very good fish for that matter and you had to work much harder to cultivate them. At the same time the level of knowledge of cuisine amongst customers was not what it is today – television has done an extraordinary job.
We were just in the beginning of it, but the biggest influence by far for anyone who worked in the business in those days was France. The French had a very set way of how things should be done. French chefs were pretty inflexible and French waiting staff equally so.
There wasn’t this huge influx of young people from all over the world that we’ve seen over the last 10-15 years, which makes going out to restaurants now so much more diverse and innovative. For example, recently I’ve been looked after by Aussie and Kiwi chefs, many Spanish waiters and all of which makes things not only more diverse for the customer, but also breaks down the rigidity that the French had had presided on so many of the restaurants.
In 1981, we were one of the very first English restaurateurs and also one of the few that printed their menu in English. In those days if you wanted to be taken seriously it had to be French.
And the rewarding aspects?
Well I would say witnessing the pleasure that people gain in restaurants, which is just marvellous. People celebrating, singing and being jolly. We used to see that on an enormous scale. For me personally, it’s the bringing the building back to life again. Because when I saw it first in 1980, it was in a terrible terrible state and within two years it was packed and serving 400 customers a day. That was really wonderful.
What are the main differences in the restaurant scene now compared to the past?
One of things that stand out is the level of customer knowledge because back then, 35-40 years ago, you were really an exception to the rule if you were interested in food and wine. Now it’s an exception to the rule if you’re not.
I think that’s the fundamental difference and that has so many positive effects. As demand increases the level of knowledge and sophistication among the waiting staff increases and so does the competition and that produces induced restaurateurs who innovate and try harder and harder and harder. My son is a restaurateur in the Quality Chop House, and I sometimes watch what he does and he is miles ahead of what I was doing in the same stage of our careers.
What kind of new trends are there in the restaurant scene and which ones excite you?
Well it’s hard to imagine that we’re going to discover any more types or styles of cuisines or finding anything else undiscovered. I think almost everything is now in London. I really don’t think I can predict what can be around the corner. I think the biggest change is going to be in the style of service and it’s going to be very interesting because restaurateurs are finding that labour costs are going up, customers are finding less disposable time and so there’s going to be some interesting changes in the design and the layout of restaurants, where there will be more people served very well, but in a shorter space of time.
With so many new types of cuisines entering the London restaurant scene, there are also many different types of beverages. Besides wine what drinks have you taken a liking into?
Well I love sake. With its history, it goes with Japanese food that I also love.
So yes that’s the one that really excites me. You know if I wasn’t married to a wine writer I would spend more time drinking sake.
In light of recent programs on restaurant management, how important is service for a restaurant?
Well it’s the thing. There’s no excuse for bad cooking but it’s the way that you’re looked after that makes the difference between a good meal, a great meal and an unforgettable meal.
It’s what distinguishes restaurants as a form of entertainment. For example, when you go to the theatre or cinema, there’s no interaction, everything is finished and sealed, but in a restaurant the interaction goes on all the time and that’s why it’s so important that you’re looked after and somebody takes care of you while you’re sitting down and having a good time.
And finally, if you had to choose which restaurant in London would you suggest your readers to take their dates out to?
Well ooph, gosh it’s been 34 years since I went on my last date. So I’m a little rusty on that front. One of the problems with finding restaurants in London is that there’s so much choice and you owe it to yourself to give a few minutes thought on where exactly you want to go. Also if you’re going out on a date there’s no point going somewhere you can’t talk or have a style of food that one of you don’t enjoy. So its really worth standing back and to really think where you’ll both have a good time; perhaps find common ground before you go on a date because if you do then you’re more than likely to have a great evening.
Through profiles of twenty of the world’s leading restaurateurs, Lander shares what it takes to create a successful restaurant including finding the right location, deciding what kind of food to serve and hiring the best chef.
Competition closes: 12.00 (GMT) Friday 9th May.
This eBook is available for exclusively iPhone and iPad on iBooks