Central London looks different to James Lee. As we drove through town, passing famous restaurants, hotels and clubs, Lee talked about one thing: their kitchens. As a professional kitchen designer, he had much to say about why some establishments had been tricky to work on and how awkward it had sometimes been to get paid by others, but how much fun he had had on them all.
Lee occupies a unique position in the British restaurant trade. For the past 30 years, he has been one of its most respected kitchen designers, involved in the opening of about 2,000 restaurants. But for the past 12 years, he has also owned a significant shareholding in two very successful restaurants, Racine in Knightsbridge with chef Henry Harris, and as Heston Blumenthal’s partner in the highly acclaimed Hinds Head pub in Bray, Berkshire, now serving 1,200 customers a week. More recently Lee has put his expertise alongside his partner’s money into re-opening the Beeches Grill on the edge of a 500-acre wood near Farnham Common, Buckinghamshire – an adventure that has been driven more by sentiment than profit. “It’s the pub we used to drink in when we were younger,” he explained.
His time around chefs and their kitchens has left its mark. Lee boasts a considerable girth and a very ready smile, as well as a rapid delivery of all the information that will be required to make a kitchen perform. No sooner had we sat down than he gave me a handy calculation on what a professional kitchen will cost. “For a middle-of-the-range restaurant that does not include bespoke Rorgue ovens, the cost is roughly £2,500 per cover. So, for a 100-seater restaurant, the kitchen will cost around £250,000,” he said. “That’s a lot of money for something the customer never sees but has to work efficiently if the restaurant is to prosper.”
Not only has Lee’s love of food been appreciated by many chefs over the years, but it also brought him into contact with Blumenthal. “I used to deliver the pots and pans he bought because I lived nearby and I started eating at The Fat Duck before it became famous,” he explained. “Then the opportunity came along to take on the pub, but Heston could only afford the lease. I helped him out and then ran it for three years.”
With new projects, once the layout of the interior has been fixed, Lee has only one priority. “It’s all about the flow between the kitchen and the restaurant,” he said. “If there is a contra-flow between these two areas, then the whole thing will collapse.” At this point, Lee’s face fell, as though even the mention of an ill-functioning kitchen had upset him.
He brightened when I asked him whether the size of a kitchen determines its success. “No,” he replied. “There are very few big kitchens in London and lots of places serving great food. But any kitchen will inevitably be at its most efficient when a chef only has to take a single step in any one direction to get all he needs. The kitchens at J. Sheekey are like that – compact but very efficient.”
In Lee’s view, the revolution in the food many chefs produce today has not been matched by changes behind the swing door: “In practice, there are still only two successful layouts – the linear approach, with a long cooking line opposite a long service line that is the norm in high-volume restaurants, and the more classic layout for the fine-dining restaurants, with the meat and fish chefs on one side and the vegetable and sauce cooks on the other, feeding the pass at which the head chef stands.”
Nor has technology impinged greatly. The most obvious advance is induction cooking, leading to considerable energy savings and a cooler environment. Water baths, championed by Blumenthal for slow-cooking meat and fish, are also increasingly common. And combination ovens are another of Lee’s favourite toys.
But whatever and whoever is in the kitchen, Lee added, it’s all about the flow. And with that he was off back to his “dungeon of an office” to design kitchens for a bowling alley, a golf course at a Scottish castle and a pub in Norfolk. And to work out how to fit a two-tonne grill from Argentina into the new Scott’s restaurant in Mayfair.
More columns at www.ft.com/lander
Hawthorne Lane, Burnham Beeches, Bucks SL2 3TA