Jamie Barber turned his back on successful careers in law and music to open hip celebrity haunt Hush 10 years ago. He bought the ailing bistro and food store Villandry in 2006. He talks about his latest concept - a sophisticated Italian restaurant chain called Kitchen Italia, his re-positioning of Villandry and his plans for its future, plus what went wrong with Shumi, the restaurant he opened in St James Street in 2003.
On Kitchen Italia:
The first Kitchen Italia opened at Westfield London in November 2008 with the second site following in Covent Garden a year later. "It’s a place where students can sit next to lawyers on bench-style seating. It’s a classless environment"
"What we did at Westfield didn't make a lot of sense. We took chefs who had cooked for kings and queens and stuck them in a shopping centre. But although the architecture of the price structure is very similar to what you get in the rest of the market, the quality is a step above, and the attention to detail is a step above. My view is that's the way that sector is moving. People are becoming a lot more sophisticated in terms of their eating tastes."
On Kitchen Italia's place in the casual-dining sector:
“Every five years there are new entrants on the market that raise the bar and suddenly everything else feels a bit tired and dated.
“When Wagamama came on the market it was a breath of fresh air. It was extremely exciting. It was the same with Carluccio’s. I hope we’re doing the same sort of thing.”
"I term this as 'aspirational dining'. It has the same kind of pricing but it's got that extra element of design, quality or sparkle that just sets it apart from the rest. And a lot of that is in the attention to detail, the authenticity."
On what went wrong with Shumi, the high-end Italian concept that became confused as an Italian Japanese venue, which he sold on to Alan Yau:
"Some people say Shumi wasn't a successful restaurant, but I disagree. I say it was an unmitigated disaster."
"As I've said before, I think we got everything right except for the design, the service, the menu, the pricing and the execution. It was an extremely difficult period."
On moving forward after Shumi:
"I'd taken everything I'd learned with Hush, all of the brand loyalty and chucked it in and done something completely different. After that point I said I wanted to develop something as a brand that I could take to other places"
On re-positioning Villandry:
Barber decided the menu was too chef driven and complex for what was a local restaurant when he took it over, so he replaced it with simple, more accessible food, scaled down the food store and established a charcuterie bar where fresh salads and sandwiches are made to order.
"It was smoked eel tortillas with horseradish dressing, pork loin with anchovy and raspberry crusts. It wasn't repeat-custom kind of stuff."
"That re-energising of Villandry was about connecting with customers. That's what I didn't do at Shumi, and that's my one mantra now: I have to put myself into the mind of my target customer."
On plans for the future:
Barber wants to add two more sites to the Villandry and Kitchen Italia brands in 2010 and plans to overhaul Hush by Easter with a refurbishment of the brasserie and by repositioning the menu.
"I'd like to put in a wood-burning oven and put some wood-roasted dishes on the menu. And I think there's the opportunity to use some dead space to increase the number of covers. Next year will be an exciting one for Hush.
On the industry:
"When I started in this business 10 years ago we were just coming out of that phase where people said the UK is the most appalling food place on the planet and there weren't any decent restaurants anywhere. And now I think London is the most exciting, vibrant capital in the world for food. There's been a massive shift in the last 10 years."
Jamie Barber timeline:
1971: Born in Hampstead, London
1994-1998: Works as a lawyer for Harbottle & Lewis
2000: Opens Hush in Mayfair with Geoffrey Moore
2003: Opens Shumi in St James's Street
2004: Shumi closes
2006: Buys Villandry in Great Portland Street
2008: Opens Villandry in Bicester Village and Kitchen Italia in Westfield in Shepherd's Bush
2009: Opens a second Kitchen Italia in Covent Garden
For the full interview see the January edition of Restaurant magazine