I raised the money for my first restaurant by asking 15 of my friends to lend me the equivalent of £5,000. I told them I already had lots of capital but in reality I didn’t have a single penny.
I have no explanation as to why my restaurants are successful but I always try to make something that feels different to anywhere else. But I also think I’m lucky because at the start I had no idea what I was doing and even now I tend to fall into things.
I started working in restaurants when I was travelling in the US, first in New York and then LA. I did some cooking and waiting but have never had any formal training. I ended up getting deported to France in the mid-1980s because they found me cooking in a restaurant with no papers.
Sketch [in Mayfair] happened by accident. I was looking for a site for a friend and ended up signing the pre-lease for him, but then he left the UK suddenly. The building was in a bad state and I had no permissions to open a restaurant. The whole process took four-and-a-half years from first signing the lease. It was a nightmare.
Club Gascon is a business I’m involved with. I met Vincent Labeyrie because his father is a big name in the foie gras industry and used to supply me. I helped Vincent and Pascal [Aussignac] find a site but it was their show. I’m still a partner in the business.
International restaurateurs that set up in the UAE always target the expats. I targeted the locals with my restaurants [Almaz, with branches in Dubai and Abu Dhabi] and they loved it.
All my restaurants are independent and I don’t have a head office. I don’t like my restaurants being referred to as an empire. I do what I can do when I can do it, there’s no master plan.
I am the founder of the Mo’Zik record label. It’s dormant right now because the music business is difficult at the moment.
This interview appeared first in the April edition of Restaurant magazine. To subscribe, click here.
I opened in Beirut in 2006. It worked well at first but the war has made things difficult. Lots of my regulars have left, there are no tourists, and the economy is terrible.
I ended up in England because of a woman. I came to see her every weekend from Paris and started looking at sites after realising there were no North African restaurants in London. I spent all my money on her before I opened Momo [in 1997], so I had to find a partner to make it happen.
Work-life balance is the most important thing. I maintain a good equilibrium by not taking on too much.
My childhood in Algeria offered little in the way of culinary experiences, although I now love North African food. It wasn’t a great country to be in as there had just been a revolution – I left when I was 15.
404 [in Paris] was my first North African restaurant. At the time restaurants that served that cuisine were like UK curry houses – the venues were seriously uncool and the staff behaved like servants. I opened something more rock ’n’ roll in 1990 and it worked immediately, and I haven’t had a free table in 24 years.
I met Pierre Gagnaire [the three-Michelin-starred chef behind the food at Sketch] through a friend. He made me visit him three times in France to make sure I was serious. I was after one of his chefs but at the last minute he decided to do it himself.
When I opened my first restaurant in 1988 [Au Bascou, in Paris] I planned to run it for a couple of years, make some money and carry on travelling. That didn’t happen and 25 years later I’m still in the restaurant business.
I’m a Londoner now. I live in St John’s Wood with my partner and our children.
This business has changed a lot. Twenty years ago you were either a restaurateur or a chef. Now you have to be a businessman or a chef-restaurateur. Today it’s more like chess – you have to pick the right people and put them in the right place. I prefer the old way.
I love to do pop-ups. They allow you to be creative and you know when you’re going to start and when you’re going to finish, which is a rare thing in this business.