Ten questions for FT restaurant critic, former restaurateur and best-selling author Nicholas Lander
The former L'Escargot owner turned restaurant critic on the importance of good table manners, psychic waiters, the charms of Korean cuisine, and why, for some reason, bankers suddenly want to be bakers
What did you learn from writing the new book, The Art of the Restaurateur? I’m not sure. It certainly reinforced an opinion I’ve held for years and years: everyone loves the restaurant business. They think it’s incredibly easy, because they do it at home for four to six people, so why not do it every night of the week for 60? The most satisfying aspect of writing the book was coming up with the smaller chapters which follow each of the profiles. These deal with distinct aspects of the business, like what you should put on the walls, or how you’re going to light the place, or how you keep up with continuous innovation. Interestingly, everyone in the restaurant business has picked up on those, and said how useful they are.
You used to own L’Escargot restaurant in central London. Did you ever need to turn people away from the door? No, I don’t think so. We were in Soho, so dress code was never an issue, and I had this wonderful manageress, Elena (Salvoni); if she told you off it was worse than a prison sentence. In terms of rules, I think you either always have an open door, or if you want to put up some ridiculous rules, then you should make them very clear from the start. I don’t think rules work though. However, I do know that currently for some restaurateurs, dress code is an issue. Smart casual means nothing, and people still want a night out. So when they go out, they dress up. They then sit next to someone who is earning considerably more than they are, and is wearing torn jeans, a t-shirt and a hugely expensive jacket. For the customers who’ve dressed up smartly, it’s a bit of a disappointment. How does the restaurateur handle that? I don’t think there’s anything you can do.
So did writing the book make you want to go back to running a restaurant? No, instant divorce! I had to sell because I was ill, and the illness was stress-related, so I knew that if I went back into the business it would ruin my health again. It's completely out of the question. Being a restaurant correspondent has allowed me to have one foot in the restaurant business without having to run one. It has just strengthened my love for the business and the people in it. Being a restauranteur is very like being a sportsman. You’re at your best in your early twenties; you can get better, but as you get older you have to learn to delegate. All those in the book have learnt that.
So what, for you, constitutes a good restaurant? A place that makes you welcome when you come in; a place that makes life easy for a customer; a place that’s flattering for women too. Life’s tough, we all work very hard, any time spent in a restaurant, other than for a business meeting, is usually a break from the working life. It’s got to offer good food, good wine and good service, and its got to be done with a sense of elegance and humour. It can’t take itself too seriously. The most common reason for a restaurant failing is over optimism combined with lack of finance. They used to say the same number of covers come onto the London market each month as come off, and I think that’s probably still true.
You’ve been The Financial Times’s restaurant critic for the past 20 years. Are there as many city boys cashing-up and moving into the business as ever? Well, there are a lot of people who are looking for a more ‘lifestyle’ career. I’ve just written about the E5 bakehouse in London Fields, and the guy there is being called up quite regularly by professionals in The City, who want to swap their high paid jobs for getting up at 4am and becoming a baker. It’s now done far more openly nowadays. In my day, you only went into cooking if you weren’t good at anything else. Thirty years ago, I was the first young Englishman to open a restaurant. In London, it was a profession for the French, the Spanish the Italians, and lots of Germans, because of the hotels. Restaurants used to be something for 40 to 60-year-olds, somewhere where you had a drink in the bar before you placed your order. It’s changed a lot.
What sort of cuisine interests you at the moment? I’m fascinated by everything, but I’m particularly interested in Korean food; it’s hot spicy, a lot of slow cooked dishes that I really enjoy. There’s a nice place just opened in Soho called Bibigo, it’s really good. I think property is key. And for a variety of reasons, as the East of London has opened up, with the Olympics , Kings Cross, its opened up an enormous amount of space; you bring in a kitchen and you have some fun.
From your research for the book, how would you characterise a good restaurateur’s motivation? It’s social; they do it because they love their fellow human beings. They’re not in it to get rich. I think all of those profiled in the book love food, and I think all of them enjoy being in the kitchen and the running of the kitchen. I don’t know them well enough personally to know whether they’re good cooks.
You live in London, how have the city's pop-up restaurants, its food trucks and informal restaurant culture changed the dining scene? It’s been amazing. It’s come about through symbiosis – landlords and property people being more appreciative of what a restaurant can bring. It’s opening up the east of the city and bringing in more and more real estate. Unfortunately, it’s one aspect of London that’s very difficult to write about, because once you’ve written about it, it’s gone. But the French are incredibly jealous. I was interviewed by someone from Le Figaro, and she said, “we have no pop up restaurants in Paris and we have two food trucks.” Of course, they do have a million bars and bistros.
Stick your neck out: which city serves the best food: London, New York or Los Angeles? Well, I find that a slightly invidious question. If you’re in London, it doesn’t matter how good the food is in New York or Los Angeles, you can’t satisfy your appetite, even with the fastest plane. And once you’re away from the city in which you work, everything tastes better. You can switch your mobile off, you don’t have to worry about the baby sitter, you can have some fun. Nevertheless, we are very lucky to be in London at the moment, and it’s going to get better. I think there are a lot of young people coming into the business and they know unless they offer very good value for money, they won’t be open for long.
How important are good table manners? They’re vital, but it's not just about table manners. I think a lot of restaurant-goers assume waiters are mind readers, so they sit down and have a bad experience and assume its the waiter’s fault. They haven’t said to the staff that they’re there for a particular reason and want to order straight away. The waiter won’t be upset, they’ll be thrilled. As far as good service goes the best service is just anticipating what the customer wants and being there for them 30 seconds before they want it. There’s a restaurateur in the book who says he knows if the service is going well if he walks in and sees that peoples eyes are fixed on each other – that’s the sign of good service.
And lastly, where did you eat last night? At home, I cooked and it was very good fun, but tonight we’re (he and his wife, legendary wine expert Jancis Robinson) going out to a very nice place called the Green Man and French Horn, which is a wine bar that specialises in cooking from the Loire, on St Martins Lane.
We're offering Phaidon.com readers the chance to have dinner with Nick Lander at Quo Vadis in London. Find out more here.