Juggling Act – 1995

July 3, 2013

It looks as if 1995 will be the year that many of the nation’s top chefs turn their attention to the cooking of simpler fare. No, they will not be forgetting the exquisite food that has earned them their name and status. Neither will they be turning their backs on their starred establishments.

What they will be doing is putting more time, effort and money into new, bigger and bolder restaurants. Brasseries are going to be big business for Britain’s leading chefs.

It is no great coincidence that the urge to expand is happening simultaneously in big towns and cities nationwide. As the UK emerges from recession, so the economic climate is making it a little easier for established chef-proprietors to think about expanding. A fall in the number of restaurant failures and receiverships last year is an indication that now could be the right time to start a new business.

But rather than extending existing businesses or open a replica of what they already have, the trend is to open big, buzzy restaurants, serving high-quality, mid-priced food. They aim to be accessible to a far wider audience than would ever walk through the doors of any starred establishment. The reality is that cooking Michelin-starred food is not necessarily the way to making a fortune.

The success of restaurants such as Kensington Place, dell’Ugo and Quaglino’s is no doubt spurring on the present trend. And Marco Pierre White’s experience in running the larger, simpler restaurant in The Canteen, as well as the three Michelin-starred The Restaurant at the Hyde Park Hotel, is proof that a high-profile chef can successfully juggle two different styles of operation.

White has never hidden the fact that it will be the former restaurant where he will make his fortune.

But the trend is not completely new. John Tovey opened the Miller Howe Kaff in the mid-1980s to complement the grander and original Miller Howe, both in Windermere. The Roux brothers, too, owned a succession of less-ambitious restaurants during the 1980s, in addition to their Michelin-starred Le Gavroche in London and the Waterside Inn, Bray, Berkshire.

In France, even the most prominent three Michelin-starred chefs have expanded their interests into establishments serving simpler food. Michel Guérard has added La Ferme aux Grives serving “cuisine villageoise” to his long-established and very glamorous Eugénie les Bains in the south-west of France. In Paris, Joël Robuchon recently took on responsibility for the bistro Le Relais du Parc in addition to his own eponymous restaurant at CIP’s Paris hotel.

In the UK, there is certainly more interest in premises suitable for a large brasserie-style restaurant, according to property agents. David Newman of Christie & Co says there is a constant demand for premises of around 3,000sq ft, suitable for 200 covers, in central London. “There are not enough properties to keep up with the present demand,” he says. “As a result, the shortage in supply is pushing up prices.”

Rather than rely on the availability of existing restaurant premises, prospective buyers are looking at buying up office premises and applying for change of use. This alternative is not necessarily any cheaper as the new owner will be simply paying for a shell. The costs of fitting out the premises and bringing it up to standards acceptable to both fire and environmental health regulation standards will have to be met.

Christie & Co recently sold a leasehold brasserie in Hammersmith, suitable for up to 200 seats, for £175,000. A 2,000sq ft freehold restaurant for 100 covers in Kensington has gone for more than £400,000.

Once a property has been found and the finances are in place – usually from a supportive bank or encouraging private backer – the next step is to find the right staff to run the operation.

For most chefs this is the vital ingredient to the success of any new venture, given that they are unlikely to leave the kitchen of their first restaurant to cook in the new one. For three Michelin-starred chef Pierre Koffmann of La Tante Claire, London, this is the very reason he has never ventured down the brasserie route. “I have thought about it, but I am not the type of person to delegate my job, so I think I will just stick with what I’ve got,” he says.

Paul Heathcote in Preston, Lancashire, has made the staffing of his new 200-seat Heathcote’s Brasserie a priority. He has no intention of cooking in the new restaurant when it opens in Preston. To do so would hurt his two Michelin-starred restaurant seven miles away in Longridge, where he made his name.

“As soon as I am seen to be cooking at the brasserie, the rumour will go round that I am no longer at the restaurant. People will start questioning why they are being charged an average of £53 per head at the restaurant compared with £45 for two in the brasserie.”

Instead, Heathcote will rely on a strong team of about 40 staff, of which half will be part-time. He is adamant that they will be the key to the success of the brasserie. And to ensure that this will be so, he is installing his sous chef from Heathcote’s, Max Gnoyke, as head chef. The front of house will be headed by Andrew Morris, who has worked with Heathcote for nearly four years. A further five staff, who have all worked with Heathcote in the past, have also been lined up.

“They know exactly the way I think and the high standards I expect of them. The brasserie will carry my name, so it is vital for this and the restaurant that all the food is freshly prepared and of a high quality.”

The new leasehold venture is costing £250,000 to convert an existing wine bar. But while Heathcote hopes to recoup this, making money is not the driving force behind the expansion. “It is the challenge of opening a different style of restaurant and making a success of it,” he says.

“I would not want to run another restaurant like Heathcotes because it is too much hard work. In particular, I want to be able to serve good food on a large volume and I believe the market is there to support it.

“Once you have got Michelin stars, your customers expect certain things from you and it can restrict your menu. It will be nice to have a restaurant where we will be cooking simpler dishes such as Lancashire hot pot and roast chicken.”

For John Burton-Race, opening a brasserie in central London later this year could provide him with the means to expand his two Michelin-starred L’Ortolan restaurant in Shinfield, Berkshire. He knows that he will not be able to finance his ambition to add bedrooms to the 65-seat restaurant from his existing business. “I need a large operation with 150-200 covers with a fast turnover of seats and high profits,” he says.

Like Heathcote, Burton-Race will not be cooking in the new operation himself. “I still want to cook beautiful food and be at L’Ortolan,” he says. As a result he will probably make the head chef a minor shareholder of the new business to ensure its smooth-running.

The cost of Burton-Race’s plans, including the brasserie, bedrooms and other developments, is expected to amount to £3m. He is now looking for both a backer and a prime site in the capital.

In Belfast, Paul Rankin, chef-proprietor of the one Michelin-starred restaurant, Roscoff, plans to open a café in the city centre. This will serve mainly sandwiches, pizzas and pastries. Elsewhere in the country, Rick Stein has opened St Petroc’s, a budget alternative to the long-established Seafood Restaurant in Padstow, Cornwall. And in Newcastle, Terry Laybourne’s one Michelin-starred restaurant, 21 Queen Street, has spawned Café 21, in the fashionable suburb of Ponteland.

Although only a 40-cover operation, Café 21 has captured a strong following since opening last October. It is serving up to 90 covers on a Saturday evening and around 60 on a midweek night.

Dishes on the menu are fairly typical of those his counterparts around the country offer. Plenty of rustic, slow-cooked dishes such as braised ham shanks and daube of beef, together with Mediterranean-inspired flavours as in bruschetta with roasted vegetables and roasted tomato soup with pesto, are proving winners with local diners. The average bill of £21 for three courses at Café 21 compares favourably with an average spend of £46 per head at 21 Queen Street.

“The reasons for the difference in price are obvious,” says Laybourne. “As well as the difference in ingredients and preparation of the food, at Café 21 there are no canapés, no petits fours, no booking system and no comfy sofa for aperitifs.”

While opening Café 21 has entailed extra work for Laybourne, the advantages have been threefold. As well as the increased turnover it has brought to his business, Café 21 has provided a welcome introduction to 21 Queen Street for some customers and an alternative career progression for existing staff.

Not all brasseries operating in addition to a starred restaurant have been a commercial success, however. Raymond Blanc now describes Le Petit Blanc in Oxford as “a disaster”. He hoped to run Le Petit Blanc as a brasserie after the two Michelin-starred Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons opened in Great Milton, on the outskirts of the city.

But the standards of Le Petit Blanc crept beyond the simplicity usually expected in a brasserie and it earned itself a Michelin star. Unfortunately Oxford was unable to support two starred establishments and Le Petit Blanc closed.

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