The Art of the Restaurateur
As avid restaurant-goers we’ve often wondered just what it is – that magical mix of tasty food, special ambiance and attentive but not overbearing service – that makes a restaurant feel right. This elusive combination is what’s explored in Nicholas Lander’s excellent book The Art of the Restaurateur which focuses not on the chefs involved in a dining establishment, but on all the other elements that contribute to a eatery’s success. Before the rise of the celebrity chef, it was the restaurateur who founded and ran dining establishments with the chefs focusing on what they know best: cooking This under-acknowledged field is one with humble roots, deriving its name from the French word restaurer meaning “to restore” and restaurateurs initially began their profession by restoring the well-being of weary travellers in early 19th century in France by offering a hot meal.
Once a restaurateur himself as owner of the buzzing L’Escargot London during the 1980s, Lander has since written a column for the Financial Times for more than 20 years called The Restaurant Insider. It’s a testament to his industry respect that he’s managed to secure candid interviews with several scions of the field including Maguy le Coze who helms Le Bernardin in New York with Eric Ripert, Gilbert Pilgram who is Judy Rodgers’ partner at Zuni Café in San Francisco, and Joe Bastianich who runs Babbo with Mario Batali in New York. Lander points out the creative ways restaurateurs have changed their diners’ experiences – Bastiniach’s innovation at Babbo was to serve wine by the quartino (quarter litre or a third of a bottle) which was initially a surprise to customers but since has been widely copied in London. Enrico Bernardo’s Il Vino is a “wine restaurant” where all the waiters are sommeliers thereby ensuring wine is not an afterthought but instead has a starring role in the evening’s deliberations. Lander documents even the small behaviours he believes contributes to the restaurateur’s success: when he met with Danny Meyer at Untitled, his café at the Whitney Museum, he noted that Meyer conscientiously greeted every person who recognized him from the doorman to the security guard through to his staff and his guests.
Through his meetings with his notable subjects Lander is able to pinpoint their guiding principles, those philosophies that inform their decision-making and bring clarity of purpose to their diverse enterprises. Some of the values expounded are remarkably simple but potent – Michelle Garnaut, founder of a series of M restaurants serving Western fare in China, follows a few succinct principles according to Lander: “the menus must be smart, carefully thought out and executed, and receptive to what is currently available in the market.” At the helm of St. John restaurant in London is Trevor Gulliver whose former life involved running a T-shirt printing company for rock bands. He states the profession’s fundamental requirement: “if you can’t run a business or read a balance sheet, then you shouldn’t be a restaurateur.” He also insists that a restaurateur should never compromise pointing out that St. John doesn’t serve farmed salmon because it lacks flavour but also refuses to serve wild salmon on grounds of sustainability. Gallantly, he also notes that as the boss, it’s his job to “stand up and take responsibility,” compelling him to respond to every complaint St. John receives.
What’s particularly refreshing in this PR-dominated era (particularly in this industry) is the honesty Lander is able to extract from his colleagues – and you learn as much from their triumphs as their failures. They share not only the secrets to their success but also admit to their mistakes and explain what they were able to glean from them. Bastianich’s Bistro du Vent closed for basic reasons he explains succinctly: “The location was bad; my heart wasn’t in it; and if you invent a restaurant to fill a space, as we did here, then it’s sure to fail,” capturing the idea that committing to a space rather than the concept first is really putting the cart before the horse.
The Art of the Restaurateur is illustrated with charming line drawings and written with a fluency that only comes with being immersed in this world for decades, making it an enjoyable read for anyone curious about this fickle and often guarded industry. But with the proliferation of shows like Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares in which the British chef visits failing kitchens and restores them to some semblance of a profitable business, it is apparent that the completely uninitiated open eateries regularly with no industry experience or even basic business skills. The Art of the Restaurateur should be required reading for anyone even toying with the idea of taking on such a venture.