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At the end of a radio discussion on what 2014 will hold for restaurant-goers, the other panellists and I repaired to a nearby watering hole. Not surprisingly, the conversation about restaurants continued.
And as we talked, I was asked a question that has been put to me more frequently than any other over the past 15 months. My son has become a restaurateur, and what everyone has wanted to know is: what did I try to do to dissuade him?
The answer is nothing, and not just because he is taller and stronger than I am. At this stage in the evolution of the restaurant business, success demands the fitness, exuberance and optimism of youth. At the same time, a phalanx of talented restaurateurs who have earned their spurs is emerging to offer support. Hooked on a profession that is extremely difficult to say goodbye to, they form an accessible bank of expertise. Advice can invariably be gleaned by eating in one of their restaurants or by asking for guidance.
Andy Bassadone, whose latest restaurant Jackson + Rye has just opened in London’s Soho, is a prime example of such expertise. Sitting by the window of his new restaurant, he hazarded a guess at the number of restaurant openings he has supervised: “over 140”.
Bassadone co-founded Italian restaurant chain Strada with entrepreneur Luke Johnson (who writes a column for the FT), Nick Fiddler and former chef Chris Benians. Then, with Richard Caring, Bassadone launched French-style bistro chain Côte, before both were sold very profitably to venture capitalists. He is currently masterminding the expansion of Bill’s, an all-day very English café, restaurant and shop based on the original Bill’s in Lewes, Sussex. And he plans new forays into this highly competitive mid-priced market with Jackson + Rye and Grill Shack.
Over glasses of Arnold Palmer (iced tea and lemonade) and dishes of well-priced, well-executed and generous servings of shrimp and grits, buttermilk fried chicken and crab cakes, I managed to draw out a few common threads to his approach. They included giving equal importance to the chef and general manager for each opening; looking for sites that were once restaurants, even failed ones, as this means that kitchens are already in a suitable location; and being prepared for the unexpected, particularly regarding the ever-increasing need for kitchen extraction.
But most important, Bassadone stressed, is the need to deliver value for money. So from the all-day menu at Jackson + Rye you can have a number of dishes for around the £10 mark, such as truffled mac and cheese for £6.95, or a cheeseburger for £9.75; cocktails start at about £6.
Bassadone has drawn inspiration from the casual cuisine of the east coast of the US. Travel is always an education in food, and in our post-broadcast discussion the other panellists pondered where we would most like to go to broaden our knowledge.
Answers ranged from the Basque country to Mexico, the Amazon, Laos and Vietnam. There was also a general sense of regret that we had all missed the opportunity to visit Syria.
My response, greedily perhaps, consisted of four road trips. The first is a repeat of a trip we took for my 50th birthday one late spring. We flew to Venice, then drove west, visiting the churches, trattorie and restaurants of Verona, Mantua, Padua and Cremona before ending up in Milan.
My summer trip would be to Japan and the northernmost island of Hokkaido, renowned for its fish and shellfish. My attraction to the very finest raw food would then see me heading in late autumn to Denmark and Finland. This is the best time to visit, according to Noma’s René Redzepi, as all the produce foraged so close to the Arctic has by then had the benefit of long, sunny summer days.
Finally, I’d go on a two-part tour of the southern hemisphere. The first leg would be to Lima, Peru, to experience its unique cooking style. Then it would be on to the Margaret River, Western Australia, where a happy combination of beach, surf, good food and wine made this region so memorable on a trip 28 years ago.
Back on terra firma in London, there is at least the consolation of so many new restaurants, driven relentlessly and creatively by the young people who, like my son, won’t be dissuaded from a life in food.
More columns at www.ft.com/lander
Jackson + Rye
56 Wardour Street, London W1D 4JF
020 7437 8338; jacksonrye.com