Being a restaurateur is an art says Belsize critic
Nicholas Lander reveals the secrets at the top of the food business in his new book
When Nicholas Lander was 28, his father’s death forced him to reassess his life. He had a good job, as a metal trader, but what he really wanted to do was open a restaurant. So, a year later, he took a 25-year lease on one of London’s oldest restaurants – L’Escargot.
Thirty-two years later, after eight years as the head of the famous eaterie, Lander, who lives in Belsize Lane, is The Restaurant Insider at the Financial Times, writing weekly on the restaurants that are worth a visit. His inside-out knowledge of this world has led him to his first book: an homage to the people who bring restaurants together: The Art Of The Restaurateur.
“I’ve always felt that restaurateurs have been neglected. I think they are magicians: they look at a space and they see what it can become and how exciting it can become. They pull everything together and they do it without inflicting their personality in the space on the customers. They don’t go around introducing themselves and interrupting the customers – they just lay a fine layer of magic dust over a space and they bring the best out in their chefs and sommeliers.”
Lander has interviewed 20 of the best restaurateurs in the world in the course of the book. Each potted story neatly conveys a sense of where each restaurant came from and where each is now, with some lessons that the extraordinary people at the top of them have learned along the way. From a female entrepreneur who was the first person to open a western restaurant on the Bund to the man responsible for the game-changing Brit legacy of St John, Lander has cherry picked not only the good restaurants, but the good yarns.
“I knew that these particular restaurateurs had had fascinating careers and, in a way, that’s what dictates what I write about in the FT as well. I’m very lucky that I write for a discerning audience. I don’t have to spend my time explaining this dish, that dish, they know them already. What they want is pointing in the right direction and good stories.”
“I wanted to get as many women in as possible. Interestingly, the women in the book and their restaurants are universally the best in their class.
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“Hazel Allen put Irish cookery on the map. Maguy Le Coze has one of the most admired restaurants in Europe. Marie-Pierre Troisgros is highly respected in France and I’ve always been interested by what Michelle Garnaut was doing in China – that’s an exceptional woman.”
The book also offers tips for would-be restaurateurs, that Lander, now also a restaurant consultant, has amassed. His time as the leader of L’Escargot was some of the best in his life and he was sad to say goodbye. “Having been a restaurateur, I still have one foot in the camp, so people will talk to me. At 60, I’d be bonkers to do it again. But our son is about to open a restaurant and I’ll feel very sympathetic to him. He’s taken over a building near the quality chop house near Exmouth Market.”
Lander’s experience in the industry also puts him in a position to make rather astute observations about it. “The biggest change in my career is the average age of a restaurant goer. When I started, people under 35 never or rarely went to a restaurant. Young people met in a pub.
“Pubs failed to adapt and a whole new wave of places have come out. I think the characters, restaurateurs in my book, have been instrumental in this change. Alan Yau (of wagamama) was told by his builder that he was making a huge mistake because the British would not “do” communal seating. If he’d not done that, you wonder whether every restaurant would now have a large communal table.”
So chefs and sommeliers have enjoyed their time in the limelight. Does Lander hope this is now the year of the restaurateur? “I hope so. In many ways, all I’m doing is acting as the conduit to get the public to appreciate them. If restaurateurs start behaving badly then I’ll have scored an own goal. In the book, Joe Bastianich, the New York restaurateur remarks: The restaurateur’s biggest enemy is not the critic but his ego and if that comes out too much then it is over.”
The Art Of The Restaurateur is published by Phaidon priced �24.95.