How is your refurb going?
The builders are now on site and we’re having the floor taken up. It’s a big project: a new entrance, new bar and new furniture. We’ve timed the work to coincide with the restaurant’s 10th birthday. It’s in pretty good condition but it does look a little dated and hotel restaurant-y.
What will the new dining room look like?
Like before it won’t be overtly Italian. We’re not going to have chianti flasks and Doric columns. The look will be more contemporary and a little more intimate with up lighting as well as down lighting and a sensational terrazzo floor. We’re changing the layout too to make it a bit less open and more cosy. The designer is SuperFutures (Quo Vadis, Chotto Matte).
Will the number of covers increase?
No, the number is actually going down. But the configuration of the restaurant will change to allow us to maximise our covers. The 22-cover private dining room is going to make way for a larger private dining room that can either seat 70 or be split to seat 45 and 25. It can also be used as overflow for the main restaurant, which will seat 90. We’re also putting in two raised tables that allow diners to see the pass.
Is the food going to change?
We’re making a lot of changes to the menu but the style of the food will remain the same. Introducing new dishes is not without its challenges. When you’ve run a restaurant for a decade regulars expect their seasonal favourite to be available. With that in mind we’ve tried to strike a balance between the classics and new dishes, but I’m still expecting a few moans. New dishes include split roasted langoustine with
chilli lemon and oregano as well as Dover sole with lemon parsley and capers served with carciofi alla Romana and chard.
We hear you’re also launching a separate bar menu…
Yes. I love going to places like Barrafina, which lend themselves to a quicker more casual meal. I want to offer that to our customers here. I’m going to go big on fish and shellfish. The dishes will be simpler and the menu will be very short and change every day.
What is it like operating a restaurant in such an international part of the capital?
Our customer base is eclectic but yes we do pull in a relatively affluent crowd and a lot of international guests. At certain times of the year this can be a challenge because some diners demand more obvious Italian dishes that aren’t necessarily on the menu. You have to accept a certain amount of that without dropping your standards. I’m not so proud I won’t swap the tagliatelle we serve with our ragu for spaghetti,
You were exposed to authentic Italian food from a young age…
My family is very arty so we spent a lot of time going to galleries and museums in France and Italy. As I child I found this quite boring, but the saving grace was the food. My mum was a great cook too. Food was a big part of family life.
How did you get into the industry?
I did an apprenticeship with Max Magarian at Chez Max in Surbiton and ended up staying with him for four years. It was tough, but I got a solid grounding in classical cooking. From there I went to The River Café. This was back in the very early 1990s when Italian food in London was quite dull – there was a lot of chicken Milanese about. What [owners] Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray were doing was a revelation. It just blew me away. I soon became their right-hand man and ended up staying there for 16 years in total.
You were running the kitchen when Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall were there. what were they like then?
Hugh worked on the pastry section and was very entertaining. Jamie turned up as a young kid that wanted to learn and was asking questions every five seconds. He was extremely bright, quick witted and a little gobby. He’s a good friend now and he hasn’t changed much at all. Like most of us his success was partly about being in the right place at the right time, but also because he absolutely loved what he did.
How did you end up consulting for Ask Italian?
I was the first chef to design a range of pizzas for PizzaExpress back in 2008 and that led to the work with Ask a year or so later (the two businesses were at the time both owned by Gondola Holdings). It’s going well. I’m now an investor in Azzuri Group (the parent company of Ask Italian, Zizzi and fast casual chain Coco di Mama). I’m not doing anything with Zizzi, but I have worked with the guys at Coco di Mama on their pasta sourcing and sauce making. Basically I’m another pair of eyes with a different background.
Some of your peers have closed restaurants recently. What are the challenges that come with running upscale Italians?
I think that running any kind of restaurant is a challenging undertaking. You’ve got to make sure people are recognised and welcomed and you need to work hard to promote what you do. For me, that means a lot of media of various types and also being there every night of the week. I talk to customers and make sure they keep coming back. It’s simple stuff but you’ve got to nurture your business and that’s only
possible if you genuinely love what you do. It takes over your life, but that’s restaurants. They’re bloody hard work.