Making ends meat: Interview with Anthony Demetre

By Joe Lutrario

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Menu

Making ends meat: Interview with Anthony Demetre
Anthony Demetre’s two Michelin-starred restaurants have set menus that make even Pizza Express look expensive. And it’s not just down to using cheap cuts either. So how does he do it?

Anthony Demetre`s two Michelin-starred restaurants have set menus that make even Pizza Express look expensive. And it`s not just down to using cheap cuts either. So how does he do it?

A cavalcade of delivery vans are bustling for space on Frith Street. Half a rose veal, rabbits from France, salsify and wild ducks are being hauled down the narrow steps outside Arbutus. Cooks vie for a spot on the ranges where pots boil and pans sizzle. If success can be measured by the buzz and clatter of a kitchen at 9.00am on a Tuesday morning, this Soho restaurant is doing very well indeed.

The ducks are of high quality, as you’d hope for £6 a piece cost price. Each one needs to make the restaurant £24. They come long legged, just shot and plucked, their glistening green heads the only parts, bar the guts, bound for the bin. As they are drawn their contents are separated; the gizzards and hearts will be confited for a first-course salad, the liver used for a terrine, the legs braised down to a ragot and the breasts roasted on the bone for a main course. Nothing in the restaurant is wasted.

In these beleaguered times restaurants are having to rein in their expenditure; costs must be cut without any impact on quality and service, and there aren’t many outfits making a better fist of it than Anthony Demetre and William Smith, the back and front of house partnership behind London’s Michelin-starred restaurants Arbutus and Wild Honey. When it comes to this juggling act, Demetre and Smith are exemplars.

For a start, there are no bins in the kitchens. Instead, chefs put waste into small containers on their work stations, the contents of which are scrutinised by Demetre and senior members of the brigade. “We monitor wastage closely,” explains Demetre. “If I find something usable in the bin, I ask the cook if they’d use it at home. The answer is invariably yes. But that normally happens only once. We’ve had cooks from the top kitchens come here and it’s been a culture shock for them.”

This is echoed by Alan Christie, head chef at Arbutus, who has been with Demetre and Smith since Putney Bridge, which closed in 2005. “Chefs come in from multi-starred fine dining places and you look at the way they work with a knife,” he says. “They’re careless about waste.”

Demetre’s attention to detail extends much further than looking at what goes into the bin, however. Portion control is also closely monitored, especially on fish and meat. “Controlling the amount on the plate is important,” he says. “It’s not an efficient use of time making the brigade weigh everything but after a while my cooks just know.” There is no dry store, just a couple of small cupboards in the kitchen, because it’s not worth having all that equity in stock. The same goes for wine. “We’re in central London where we can get five deliveries a week, so why carry excess stock? It’s very important for our cashflow.”

The two restaurants’ innovative approach to wine is well-documented. A small number of carefully chosen bins are available in a 250ml carafe for the same pro rata price as a bottle. “The wine has been a revelation,” explains Demetre. “We throw hardly any away – any left in the carafes is turned into vinegar or used in cooking.” In fact nothing from the table is thrown away. Butter is taken off the tables and used for cooking and the leftover bread is turned into breadcrumbs.

It’s not just food. “My chefs get one oven cloth for lunch and one for dinner. It all comes off the bottom line, that’s the critical thing to remember. Even the amount of washing up liquid that goes in the sink. All the pieces matter.”

Find the right price point

Arbutus and Wild Honey opened in 2006 and 2007, respectively. Both won a star shortly after opening and are doing between 2,000 and 2,500 covers a week combined. Today Arbutus will do 200 covers. Spend per head is roughly £45, comparatively small beans for a Michelin-starred establishment. But it only takes a few taps on the calculator to see that this is a lucrative business.

Volume is critical for the restaurant, which is only shut three days a year. It may take grit but it is logistically easier to run a business that’s constantly open. “We’re so competitively priced we rely on it completely,” says Demetre. “If I was to do 50 per cent less volume we’d close. Putney Bridge was a big learning curve for me. It was top-end, special occasion stuff. And that taught me what not to do. I didn’t want to go down that route again. It was everything I didn’t like in a restaurant.”

Staff numbers are skeletal. Half a dozen chefs and even fewer bodies on the floor provide pared down haute cuisine and a solid, professional service but not, as Demetre calls it, a “hovering service”. Tables will be turned, a reality that Demetre makes no bones about: “If people come in at midday we want them out by 1.30pm – that’s long enough for a three course lunch.”

Prices are extremely keen. The set menus at Arbutus and Wild Honey are a mere £15.50, rising to £17.50 for pre-theatre (to account for a slight hike in portion size), making it probably the cheapest Michelin-level meal not just in the capital but in the country. “It’s staggering that we`re able to offer this in Soho and Mayfair. I don’t travel around the UK much but when I do I’m amazed at the prices. London is the best value eating arena in the UK.” A la carte is good value, too. With a £10 cap on starters and £20 on mains (with some coming in
for as low as £12) the two restaurants undercut the more upmarket chains, let alone their Michelin starred peers. Offering an a la carte menu with individual prices (rather than prix fixe) gives the restaurants a feeling of informality.

“Customers can come here and have a starter, or a plat du jour for £16.50, with a carafe of wine for less than £25," says Demetre. “I would not feel comfortable doing that in a lot of restaurants and they are losing customers because of it. You’ve got to cast your net to as wide an audience as possible.” 

The percentage of set lunch menus sold as opposed to a la carte varies. As food costs are worked out in exactly the same way, it would be better for the bottom line to sell three courses from the a la carte, where one main course can cost the same as the three course menu. But for Demetre the fundamental thing, and the central reason for his astonishingly cheap menu, is that the restaurant is full. “If I sell 80 per cent of my customers the cheaper menu it’s not a problem. It won’t be the best day we have but the restaurant is full and they’ll come back. That’s the key.”

Location is everything. Arbutus is in Soho, where customers don’t want to sit for three hours and have a fixed price menu. “The same goes for ladies who lunch. They want one dish or a salad and a glass of wine. It’s within their time frame and budget – most important in today’s climate.”

Every detail has been thought through. Each of the restaurants is simple, approachable, not too grand. “We’ve made it as accessible as possible. Who’d have believed that two and a half years ago, when we were thrashing the idea out, the world economy would be in the state it’s in today? It’s almost as if we were crystal ball gazing. This recession will sort out the mediocrity. If you offer a good product, if you’re price sensitive and you’re seen to be doing the right thing with your food, you’ll survive. If you’re perceived to be too specialoccasion and not value-for-money you’ll struggle.”

Getting to grips with suppliers

The restaurants use at least 50 food suppliers, ranging from a bloke who forages wild herbs and plants to mainstream butchers. Playing them off against each other for the best price is a daily task.

“The reality is sifting through invoices and a constant dialogue – if they can’t offer the price we’re looking for, we’ll shop elsewhere.”

Keeping an eye on the produce as it comes through the backdoor is equally critical. If a
product is not right it goes back, simple as that.

“You must build a working rapport with your suppliers, let them know how fussy you can be,” says Demetre. “Some suppliers know they can push it with some clients, but not us. I’ve been cooking for 20 years and a lot of the suppliers are still around and know how we work.”

His menus are conspicuously lacking in what Demetre calls “luxury produce” such as lobster, truffle, foie gras, langoustine and line-caught turbot, ingredients that are, seemingly, a prerequisite for most Michelin menus. The reason he eschews extravagant ingredients is his staunch refusal to raise prices or put any sort of supplement on the menu.

“Nothing is worse than a fixed-priced menu littered with supplements. You rock up to a restaurant that’s ‘£50 for three courses’ and find that half the starters and mains carry supplements. What you initially perceived to be a fairly good value meal ends up costing a third more.”

While there is absolutely no doubt that Demetre is passionate about food, he is a realist. If
something is not financially viable, it’s not an option. “At the moment the strength of the Euro
against the Pound is a catastrophe,” he says. “I might have to stop using France for my fish because it’s just not cost effective. France is a Garden of Eden for food – foie gras and tame rabbits aren’t available from the UK – but I’ll pass them up if the numbers don’t add up. That will be the case for many restaurants.”

Sourcing exceptional produce is all very well but there are technical aspects too. The cooking is not rocket science but it’s certainly on the money. The staff have to be extremely well drilled. “It’s an haute cuisine environment,” says Demetre. “The best thing about having Michelin-starred restaurants is the staff. What we’ve done is taken that platform of our training into the bistro level. The produce we get is the same as a three-star restaurant and we’re using the same techniques they would use but cutting everything back – there’s no amuse bouche and no truffles. I don’t have to justify my prices by bombarding customers with `freebies` that they don`t choose but do pay for - I`m passed that now."

Meticulously planned yet flexible

A restaurant that knocks out 200 covers a day needs to be organised. Some produce is ordered weeks in advance, but Demetre is constantly in touch with his vegetable suppliers looking for the best quality at the best price. “From a quick chat with one of my key suppliers I’ve got Turkish quince and pomegranates coming for lunch. I’m planning a winter salad based on it,” he says.

Menus are planned up to a point but are not finalised and printed until all the produce has
come in and been checked. “Be meticulous, plan everything but be ready to change at the last minute,” he advises. “I’ve got 30 wild ducks coming in today. If a lot of them are damaged or completely splattered with shot then they’ve got to go back. That’s why we don’t print the menu until 11am.”

Arbutus has built up a reputation for a couple of ‘signature dishes’ and while Demetre clearly squirms at the term, he accepts that Braised Pig’s Head, Bavette of Beef, Saddle of Rabbit and his famous Squid and Mackerel Burger will seldom leave the menu. “We do roughly 1,200 covers a week at Arbutus and sell over 200 Bavettes. It would be foolhardy to take it off the menu. The menu must be accessible in terms of commerciality – the usual suspects are there but it’s not esoteric – we leave that to the temples of gastronomy.” Arbutus and Wild Honey are indeed temples of gastronomy, whether Demetre admits it or not. But it’s certainly not the prices that give it away.

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