September 7, 2012 8:18 pm

At your service

What makes an exceptional restaurateur? Nicholas Lander, finds out in his new book by talking to the creators of the world’s finest dining rooms – and reliving his own adventures as a proprietor

Marie-Pierre Troisgros

France

Marie-Pierre Troisgros in the kitchen of Maison Troisgros, Roanne©Roberto Frankenberg

Marie-Pierre Troisgros in the kitchen of Maison Troisgros, Roanne

When Marie-Pierre Troisgros and I first sat down to talk about her career as a restauratrice (the profession listed in her passport), she confessed that this was the first time she had formally discussed her work, despite having been the force for change in the three restaurants with which she has been so intimately involved since marrying chef Michel Troisgros in 1983. Today, the name Troisgros, with its large “T” logo, is synonymous with the very finest French cuisine, and Maison Troisgros, their main restaurant with rooms, has held three Michelin stars since 1968. Its importance to the town of Roanne in eastern France is reflected by the signposts that point the way to Maison Troisgros as soon as you drive into town. The Troisgros restaurants spread the name of Roanne, and the culinary reputation of France, around the world.

Our initial discussion took place in Troisgros’ tiny office at La Colline du Colombier, a restaurant with rooms 18km north of Roanne. It was 6pm on a Saturday evening and Troisgros was just gearing up for the busiest night of the week. “I will stay here until about 9pm because we are very full,” she said. “Then I’ll drive into Roanne and spend some time at Le Central [their café-épicerie], before finishing up at our restaurant next door. I will be there until the last customer has gone to bed.”

Born in Valence into a house where her father loved to cook, Marie-Pierre had wanted to carry on her studies at university, but her parents insisted on a vocational training. On her visits to an aunt who lived in Grenoble, she had seen the hotel school there and, simply on the basis of this brief encounter, decided to enrol, thereby joining the ranks of the world’s many accidental restaurateurs.

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Nicholas Lander

In the same class as her was Michel Troisgros, grandson of Jean-Baptiste Troisgros, who had opened Maison Troisgros as a humble café in 1930, and handed it on to his sons Pierre [Michel’s father] and Jean. The brothers were part of the new wave of French chefs who challenged, and then changed, the much richer Escoffier style of cooking.

Marie-Pierre and Michel finally became a couple in their last year as students, and in 1976 she came to Roanne for the first time, where she met the family. The following few years certainly tested their love and the strength of her character. She accompanied Michel while he cooked at Frédy Girardet’s restaurant in Switzerland, The Connaught in London, and at hotels in New York and Brussels, but in that era the top hotels were extremely reluctant to take on couples, particularly unmarried ones. In early 1983 they returned to Roanne, ostensibly to work there for six months before setting off for Australia. But Jean, Michel’s uncle, died suddenly in August, and by the end of the year she and Michel were married. She was now Madame Troisgros and part of a restaurant dynasty.

Returning to the events of the early 1980s, she recalled that “the problem we both had to face up to at that time is that there had always been only two Troisgros, Jean and Pierre, as far as the world was concerned.” Michel’s brother Claude had already left, so Michel had to stay to cook alongside his father: he had no choice, and nor did she. Ten members of the family all lived on one floor above the restaurant, and there was very little separation between work and home. “Nobody would survive in an atmosphere like that today,” she laughed. “They would probably all kill one another.”

She lasted only two months before finding herself and Michel a separate apartment to live in, while establishing her own sphere of influence in the restaurant. This began at the reception desk, and then, having won her mother-in-law’s confidence, she was able to introduce their first computer and began to modernise their style of service.

On my return to Roanne, Marie-Pierre and I met for lunch at Le Central, which they opened in 1996. As its name suggests, this was a place for the local Roannais, who were beginning to find the main restaurant too expensive and whose custom, support and loyalty both Marie-Pierre and Michel were determined not to lose. “It’s your clients who make a restaurant, who fill it and who in turn give us our living. We have to respect them.” My only complaint about Le Central is that it is too far from London for me to eat there once a week, because it manages to combine so many fascinating and attractive aspects of what a restaurant should be. It occupies the ground floor of what used to be a hotel, right next door to the Troisgros’ main restaurant, so it is a mixture of the old – a splendid early 20th-century wash basin, high ceilings and a tiled floor – with modern features such as cheerful floor-length curtains and polished wooden tables.

But as we sat down to eat, Marie-Pierre began to talk, unprompted, about the pitfalls and attractions of life as a restaurateur. “It’s a wonderful life, but it’s a façade,” she explained. In order for everything to seem so effortless, there must be a series of teams, all doing their jobs well. “That’s the misunderstanding so many people have when they decide to open up their house and run a bed and breakfast, on even a limited scale. I know what is involved and I would never do that in my own house.” What she and Michel still find so fascinating, though, is the absence of routine. “Michel and I hate routine, and in this job there certainly is never anything routine.”

As she sipped a hot citron pressé, I put to her the one question that she chose not to answer directly: would she and Michel have been happier in their own restaurant in Sydney? “I dream all the time – I’ve opened more than 50 different restaurants in my head. But now that we have three, I know that that is enough. I couldn’t do a fourth.”

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Hazel Allen

Ireland

Hazel Allen at the entrance to Ballymaloe House, near Cork©Steve Ryan

Hazel Allen at the entrance to Ballymaloe House, near Cork

Hazel Allen, along with her sister-in-law Darina and mother-in-law Myrtle (respectfully referred to as Mrs Allen), make up a triumvirate of remarkable women. Together they have established Ballymaloe House, near Cork, south-west Ireland, as one of the very finest restaurants, country-house hotels and cookery schools in the world since it first opened for business in May 1964. Hazel is married to Myrtle’s son Rory, Darina to his older brother Timmy.

The beginnings were unambitious. Myrtle Allen and her late husband Ivan bought the house because it came with the surrounding farm. Overwhelmed by its produce, and revealing the skills and determination that have been her hallmark ever since, Mrs Allen put an advertisement in the Cork Examiner headed “Dine in a Country House”. Since then neither Ballymaloe nor the Allen family, nor the quality of cooking in Ireland, have looked back.

While both Darina and Mrs Allen have received justifiably extensive coverage, it is always Hazel’s presence that I have felt pulling the strings behind the scenes. Yet she has always seemed to slip away before I got a chance to ask her too many questions. For the past 40 years her priorities have been listening to her guests, not talking about herself.

My last visit to Ballymaloe began with the ritual I always go through when arriving. Once through the gates I stopped the car, lowered both front windows and let the air sweep across my face. I knew I was in a very calm haven and that, until the moment I left, I would be wonderfully looked after.

Dinner that evening was in the best Ballymaloe tradition. Comfort came with a potato and herb soup; simplicity with a plate of peeled prawns from Ballycotton harbour, with herb mayonnaise; culinary dexterity via half a local lobster, diced and returned to its shell with a butter sauce; and generosity with the trolleys of cheese and desserts.

“Ballymaloe is not run by fashion but by quality, by the confidence we have in what we’re doing and the determination to go the extra mile for our guests,” Hazel explained. The quality she exudes is of extraordinary proficiency. She would have made an exceptional occupational therapist, the career she had initially planned, but her mother steered her towards a course in hotel management. “In those days you didn’t argue with your mother.”

As part of her studies she took a job working in a hotel in Montreal, Canada, in 1970. “I wasn’t looking forward to coming home,” she said, “because most hotels in Ireland at that time were pretty dreary. I was on a train and I just happened to read an article in a magazine about Ballymaloe. I decided that’s where I wanted to work.”

She applied to Ballymaloe on her return to Ireland in October 1970 and, rather to her surprise, was taken on to start on December 26. When she arrived the system was chaotic: there was only one phone in the hotel, and it was at the opposite end of the hall from the office where all the bookings were written down.

Ballymaloe is not run by fashion but by quality, by the confidence we have in what we’re doing and the determination to go the extra mile for our guests

- Hazel Allen

After marrying Rory and travelling to Australia and New Zealand, they both returned to Ballymaloe. Hazel’s quiet accession took place over the next few years, at first alongside Darina and Mrs Allen in the kitchen in the early 1980s. Then, in the winter of 1982, the Allens decided to run their first 12-week cookery course. While slightly chaotic, it was extremely well-received. So much so, in fact, that the following year Darina and her husband Tim decided to establish the school on separate premises at Shanagarry, three kilometres away. It is now one of the most highly regarded in the world.

The school has also allowed Hazel to blossom in her role as restaurateur and hotelier, since it gave her and Darina separate spheres of influence to grow into. And though she also looks after the bedrooms, it is at 2pm every afternoon that Hazel’s professional heart begins to beat a little faster.

“Two pm is when Jason hears what the boats have landed at Ballycotton, then the rest of the suppliers start arriving and we can plan that evening’s menu,” Hazel explained, before rattling off the names of their regular suppliers. “There’s Brenda O’Riordan who runs a local fish supply company and brings the fish from the boats; Mrs Ahearn, a farmer’s wife, who brings the ducks and guinea fowl; hams come from Gubbeen, also the source of one of Ireland’s best cheeses; pork from the land our son farms; Angus and Hereford beef from two other farmers; and chickens from Annie Fitzsimmons. Bill Casey and Frank Hedermann bring the smoked fish and the eggs come from our own chickens. And then there’s the mackerel my husband Rory catches.”

The goal is converting all these ingredients to meet their guests’ expectations. “Accommodating your guests is what is most exciting,” she added. ‘Those who only want Tanqueray gin before dinner or soya milk with their breakfast, those who come to eat here at the time when they know we will be harvesting fresh peas.”

Hazel was emphatic about the different skills required in running a hotel and a restaurant. “I don’t believe that there are many skills on the hotel side that require training, it is more a matter of aptitude. But the principles of restaurant service certainly do. Those skills have to be ingrained.”

One predicament resulting from Hazel’s long reign at Ballymaloe is that she has never been able to find a restaurant manager who she believes can match her demanding standards. But in reality she never will, because although Ballymaloe employs over 150 people, there is still only one restaurant and one family that guests want to be greeted by.

As Tom Doorley, the Irish food writer, pointed out, “Perhaps the credit should go to the Allen men, who seem to have the knack of marrying such extraordinary women.”

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Michelle Garnaut

China

Michelle Gaurnaut in her restaurant Capital M, Beijing©Ben McMillan

Michelle Gaurnaut in her restaurant Capital M, Beijing

Michelle Garnaut is the most peripatetic of restaurateurs. Born in Melbourne, Australia, the eldest of nine children, she came to London in the late 1970s to train as a cook before travelling back east. Hong Kong became her resting post in the mid-1980s, and it was there in 1989 that she opened M at the Fringe in the centrally located Fringe arts club. This was the first in a trio of memorable restaurants that reverberate with her style and bear the trademark capital “M”, symbol of her inimitable presence.

Against everyone’s advice, Garnaut was the first western restaurateur to open on the Bund, Shanghai’s waterfront area, in January 1999. China was the logical next step after her success in Hong Kong, and she could see that the opportunities, as well as the challenges, were huge. In 2006 she added M the Glamour Bar on the floor above the restaurant. Garnaut then decided to open in Beijing: proof, as if any were needed, that all successful restaurateurs have a very strong masochistic streak. Negotiations began in 2002 on a site on the corner of Qianmen Street, which overlooks Tiananmen Square, with an opening in time for the Beijing Olympics in 2008 as the ultimate goal. Planning and building delays, and then politics, intervened, so that Capital M finally opened its doors in 2009.

My encounters with Garnaut over the years have always been exciting. The first time we met was in Shanghai during the International Literary Festival, which Garnaut founded in 2002. Watching her in action during this period revealed a woman of great charm and iron determination. “You know I am very pig-headed, don’t you?” she once commented.

Garnaut has a true passion for restaurants, coupled with a clarity of vision for what she wants them to be. Both were demonstrated when we met at The Groucho Club in Soho, London, en route to lunch at Hix on Brewer Street. First, she wanted me to take her on a mini restaurant crawl, so we called in at the new next-door establishments, Duck Soup and Cây Tre on Dean Street. As we passed Randall & Aubin on Brewer Street she stopped and walked straight in. The interior of this restaurant, built in 1911 as a butcher’s shop and still replete with hooks, marble tops and mirrors, had charmed her. “There are very few properties left in Asia that have any sense of history,” she said sadly. “In Beijing I was shown a few fascinating temples, but we were told that a gas supply couldn’t be fitted in them, so that ruled them out. In Hong Kong the price of property and the fact that the property companies want an almost immediate return on their investment is strangling the development of any independent restaurateurs.”

This is particularly ironic for Garnaut who, having established the role of independent restaurateur with M at the Fringe, was forced to close it in 2009 because her lease had expired. At the time of writing she is still looking for the right location for its reincarnation.

I want to sustain a long-term, full-time business, not go for broke, and that means not being overpriced to begin with and remaining good value

- Michelle Garnaut

While it is easy to see Garnaut as an extremely determined pioneer, she is also an educator. From the beginning she realised that she could never survive commercially if she were to serve Asian or Chinese food, so her menus have always been western in style, albeit eclectic in their origins. It takes courage and good management to write, and deliver, a menu at Capital M that comprises a torchon of French foie gras; an Iranian dish of soft eggs, smoky aubergines and Persian feta; a Moroccan chicken tagine; crisp suckling pig; a mango jelly and fool; and a plate, described with complete honesty, as “the best cheeses we can find”. It is not just the sourcing of these ingredients that has made executing such a menu difficult but explaining them and training the staff, many of whom have never tasted such dishes before.

Garnaut herself attributes her success to the generosity and warmth of a Jewish mother and the frugality instilled in her as a trainee cook. The best flavours, she recalls being taught, are those left behind at the bottom of the pan. Her most important mentor was a tiny, elegant restaurateur called Mietta O’Donnell, who ran Mietta’s restaurant in Melbourne in the 1970s. She was reserved, not particularly warm and never cooked, but said something that Garnaut has never forgotten. “She said, ‘Don’t make it all about the chef,’ and that is a maxim I have always stuck to.” If it is just about the chef and he or she chooses to leave, then the business suffers. And if it is just about the chef, what is the role of the restaurateur?

Not everything she has attempted has been a success. An Italian restaurant she opened within M on the Bund closed after eight months. “Failure,” she explained, “is the greatest teacher.” One rule that Garnaut has never deviated from is that she will not discount, ever. Nor will she issue the VIP cards that allow hefty discounts to the recipients and are extremely common in China. “I want to sustain a long-term, full-time business, not go for broke, and that means not being overpriced to begin with and remaining good value.” She instead responds to economic vicissitudes with her own initiatives. The Sars epidemic of 2003 saw M on the Bund offering a glass of champagne and caviar for the giveaway price of Yn10 (just over £1), which drove the business out of trouble.

Has she at any time wanted to give the whole thing up? “Oh yes,” she replied, “but the loneliest time was undoubtedly before I opened in Hong Kong. Since then each opening has been relatively easy because there have been other shoulders to share the burden. But then I was on my own. I can still recall sitting on the floor, polishing the old cutlery I had insisted on buying. It was impossible to find any staff because seven new hotels had just opened in Hong Kong. I was in tears when my old friend and business partner, Annabel Graham, came in and scolded me. ‘Pull yourself together,’ she said. ‘If not, it all falls apart.’”

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An accidental restaurateur

Nicholas Lander

Nicholas Lander outside his former restaurant L’Escargot, in Soho©Steve Ryan

Nicholas Lander outside his former restaurant L’Escargot, in Soho

I woke up to the life of a restaurateur on the morning of June 2 1981, when my restaurant L’Escargot, in Soho, London, finally opened for business. Aged 29, I had absolutely no professional experience for the job. I had never worked in a restaurant. I had no training as a cook, let alone as a chef. None of my friends was in the business. It was certainly not a profession I had ever envisaged for myself, although it has since taken me around the world, given me a good living for over 30 years and provided far more fun and friends – not to mention good meals and wonderful wine – than I had imagined possible. I was very much an accidental restaurateur.

The accidents that led directly to the opening of L’Escargot began when my late father suffered the first of a series of strokes that were to lead to his premature death. As the eldest son of a close-knit family, I promptly took a leave of absence from my job as a metal trader in London and went home to Bowdon, just south of Manchester, to assist my mother with his recovery.

As he got stronger I faced a predicament: should I go back to my old job or, at 28, footloose and fancy-free, do something on my own? An advertisement from a Californian winery looking for a UK agent caught my eye, and I decided to pursue it. Along with an old friend (with whom I soon parted company) I secured the agency, believing that the wine was better than it was, and that all the talk of the British pound constantly strengthening against the US dollar would make our wine unbeatable value. We were also in love with the Californian dream, and wondered how anyone could turn down our enthusiastic sales pitch.

It quickly transpired that nearly everyone could. Sales were extremely difficult: with a limited range of wines to sell, I found it almost impossible to get in to see any of the supermarket buyers. What I needed, I told myself, was a wine bar through which I could sell the wines at a decent margin.

The reason I ended up with a 25-year lease on one of London’s oldest restaurants was primarily due to the charms of the building itself, plus a superabundance of naivety. L’Escargot Bienvenu at 48 Greek Street had opened in the 1920s as the first restaurant in London to specialise in French bourgeois cooking. The owner also farmed snails in the basement kitchen, making it the first restaurant in Great Britain to produce its own. And from the moment I walked into the building I fell under its spell. It had been built as a townhouse for William Cavendish-Bentinck, the third Duke of Portland and twice prime minister of Great Britain, and it exuded history, charm and character. The ground floor housed the main restaurant, complete with lampshades held at each corner by plastic snail shells. There was a stunning private dining room on the first floor with all its original features intact and windows overlooking Greek Street, which was to play host to numerous wedding lunches, including my own. The top floor, with a glass barrel-vaulted roof, was perfect for wine tastings.

I secured the lease with the help of Archie Preston, a friend of my father’s, whom he had helped to establish his first business in Manchester in the 1940s. Now the director of a property company, his son-in-law Stephen Lindemann very generously bought the freehold for about £150,000 for 438 sq m (5,200 sq ft) of central London property. He granted me the 25-year lease and an option to buy the freehold at a fixed price, which happily I never exercised. Had I done so, I would have tied up too much cash, and when my health deteriorated in the late 1980s I would not have been able to sell so quickly. Restaurateurs are principally traders, I quickly learnt.

Between the time that the purchase was completed in September 1980 and the opening of L’Escargot in June 1981, many momentous things happened and many have been forgotten, partly due to the first of a series of grand mal epileptic fits that the stress of opening the restaurant caused me, and which first made their presence felt in the month before we were due to open. I do remember, though, a great party we held in the restaurant on a Saturday night before the builders moved in.

And I recall going for lunch that day to Bianchi’s, then a renowned Italian restaurant one block away, and telling its highly respected manager Elena Salvoni about my plans and the party that night. She came over to join us and, excited by so many young faces, promptly decided that she would come to work with me. This was to prove a great blessing, since she brought all her loyal customers with her, but in the short term I had a problem. I had just hired London’s best maître d’, but I hadn’t really planned to open a restaurant. Well, I told myself, at least I had the two empty rooms at the back of the building.

Two other women were to play a significant role. The late Sue Miles was once a hippy, then a midwife, before turning to cooking. She was redoubtable. Long before it became the norm, she had an unwavering belief in good, simple ingredients and the charms of Italian cooking, combined with a will of iron. I remember the bollito misto she cooked for me one night at her house in Kentish Town as though I had eaten it only yesterday. Sue was to be my consultant on all kitchen-related matters: its redesign, the purchase of the new equipment, the hiring of a full-time chef and, together with that chef and me, the menus.

I would have achieved only a fraction of what I have been able to do during the past 30 years had it not been for a chance encounter with the wine writer Jancis Robinson, whom a year later I was fortunate enough to marry. When I met Jancis in autumn 1980, she had already written her first book, The Wine Book, and was the wine correspondent of The Sunday Times. Wine brought us together at a tasting, and then in early 1981 we travelled together along the west coast of the US, buying wines for the restaurant’s list. When she finally realised quite how inexperienced I was, it was too late – she was already married to an accidental restaurateur. There were compensations: most notably on the night of October 22 1981, when we were married, as our wedding lunch took place in the private dining room and that night’s party took over the whole restaurant. We drank our entire stock of Bruno Paillard 1973 champagne, and for some time afterwards it seemed worth opening the restaurant just for that party.

Aged 29, I had no professional experience. I had never worked in a restaurant. I had no training as a cook, let alone as a chef. None of my friends was in the business

- Nicholas Lander

As so often happens, we had gone significantly over budget before we opened and I had been turned down in my application for a wine-only licence on the ground floor. Eventually, though, I looked back on this as a very lucky break, because it meant not only that the average spend on the ground floor was higher than I had initially budgeted, but also that L’Escargot remained distinctively different from the nearby pubs and clubs of Soho.

Gradually, an experienced team gathered around me. Nick Smallwood, who had worked at the Hard Rock Cafe and Zanzibar, a members’ club in Covent Garden, strengthened the management and introduced me to a bookkeeper. Sue Miles found us a chef, a young man called Alastair Little, one of the first of the home-grown British chefs who were to become so well known in the 1980s. Alastair valiantly saw us through the first six months, but was clearly better suited to smaller establishments such as the eponymous restaurant he was to open one street away in Frith Street.

As we got busier, Martin Lam (now at Ransome’s Dock in Battersea) came to work in the kitchen, initially just in the evenings, and then as head chef on a permanent basis. His culinary principles, based on seasonality, were to guide L’Escargot. He also had an easy-going approach: Martin wanted to get on with everybody, and this proved important when Elena wanted to accommodate all her customers’ foibles. Martin and I often used to laugh at the number of times Elena marked her order VIP, which seemed to be in the majority of cases.

Though we opened during a recession, the timing was better than I realised. Channel 4 television had recently opened offices nearby and because it did not have its own production facilities, it immediately gave a new lease of life to all the service industries that had long had their homes in Soho. All of them needed somewhere to meet, discuss, pitch for business, eat, drink and, from time to time, celebrate.

The restaurant quickly attracted a fascinating clientèle. Princess Diana, Ella Fitzgerald and Mick Jagger (whose cup the waitress assured me she would always keep because it had had his lips on it) all came, and a visit from someone well-known always sent a frisson of excitement through the waiting staff. It obviously delighted Elena, too.

Eventually, my years as a restaurateur took their toll, and I was forced to sell the restaurant in 1988. I now know that I have been suffering from ulcerative colitis all these years. I was hospitalised twice and while lying in hospital the second time, it became obvious to me that I had a rather one-sided choice: to carry on as a restaurateur at a significant cost to my young family, or to sell up and try to find a less stressful profession.

Selling a single restaurant is not an easy proposition. We had never pursued profitability as an end in itself and I had always planned to expand; towards the end I even dreamed of buying the small Italian restaurant next door. Sadly, it was not to be. However, any restaurant’s most valuable asset – its lease – was in good condition.

There were still 17 years left on it and the first rent review in 1986 had not been too onerous. Interested buyers soon appeared; the difficulty lay in negotiating with them while the restaurant remained busy, as I did not want to lose key staff or customers in the interim. I had told Elena and Martin (both of whom I had made shareholders) of my decision, and because they were both very keen to stay at L’Escargot I had also made them a promise: in the event of two buyers offering me the asking price, I would defer to them as to which one they would prefer. Ultimately, this promise was to prove costly because when the situation arose, the buyer they had declined immediately increased his offer by 5 per cent, but by this stage we had shaken hands on the deal. An anxious month followed, as the transfer of the funds was far slower than anyone had anticipated, but finally it came through.

 

By May 1988 L’Escargot was no longer mine. I remember walking out, having said goodbye to all the staff and turning left towards the Tube station. At the first corner it finally hit me – I was no longer a restaurateur and, most importantly, I would no longer be working with such a fascinating team, nor having my life enriched twice a day by interesting customers. I felt very empty. I also believed that I had reached the end of my restaurant career. In that I was to be proved quite wrong, and much more quickly than I could have imagined – it was really just the end of the first course.

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This is an edited extract from ‘The Art of the Restaurateur’ by Nicholas Lander, published by Phaidon (£24.95)

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FT readers can get 30 per cent off ‘The Art of the Restaurateur’ (plus p&p) only at www.phaidon.com/restaurateur with coupon: FTAR001 (expires 31.12.2012) or by telephoning 020 7843 1234

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