Pearls of Wisdom: Will Smith

By William Drew

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Covent garden, Restaurant

Will Smith, co-owner of Arbutus Restaurant Group
Will Smith, co-owner of Arbutus Restaurant Group
The co-owner of Arbutus Restaurant Group opened Les Deux Salons in London's Covent Garden a year ago with Anthony Demetre. They have recently refurbished Soho-based Arbutus.

Restaurateurs are now waking up to the fact there are good opportunities in Covent Garden​, even though The Ivy and Sheekey’s have been doing phenomenal business here for years. Now we’ve got Da Polpo, the new Corbin and King place [TheDelaunay], as well as Balthazar next year.

I did a geography degree and actually had a career lined up with a transport consultancy​. But I took a year out aftergraduating to earn some money in order to travel, started working in a hotel in Gloucestershire and got the bug.

Opening Les Deux Salons was a roller-coaster.​ We set it up operationally too like Arbutus, but it’s very different. Themanager here needs to be a mâitre d’, as well as command a big room and run a big team. And that is not easy.

I went up to Cameron House in Loch Lomond as restaurant manager with very little experience.​ So I kept my mouth shut – unusual for me – and surreptitiously watched and learned from the waiters.

Anthony [Demetre] and I are quite chalk and cheese​. He’s a fiery passionate chef who will explode; I’m quite relaxed, so we balance each other out in that respect. But we have the same philosophy and we’re both prepared to work damned hard.

Working in London is completely different to anywhere else​. My first service at L’Odeon, we did 80 people for lunch on a Monday. The waiters were moaning that it was too quiet. I don’t think I’d ever served that many people in a single session before.I was terrified, but that’s how you learn

In a job like this, it’s dangerous to jump off the treadmill​, as it can be difficult to get back on. I’m 43 and Anthony’s 45 and while we’re running restaurants, we want to stay hands-on.

We learnt our biggest lessons at Putney Bridge​, where we successfully made a loss for seven years. The product was great, but it wasn’t what the local market wanted. We had a team of sommeliers, amuse bouches, tasting menus, petit fours, fine china, fine glassware, a massive wine list – and a massive rent. In hindsight they were rookie errors, but it was 10 or 12 years ago now.

Arbutus was a conscious antidote to Putney Bridge.​ There were plenty of places to get good food in London, but all at a price.We thought we could be a bit cleverer about it: still offer great food, but cutting out some of the unnecessary costs, using cheaper cuts, menus printed on plain paper and a simple room.

Some people were surprised when Arbutus got a star​ [in 2007], but it showed you didn’t need a bow-tied sommelier to do so. The Hand & Flowers getting two stars this time is absolutely phenomenal. It sends out a message that Michelin has changed.

Running front of house, you need to have eyes everywhere,​ to be passionate but disciplined, firm but fair.

For Wild Honey, we thought we could simply pick up Arbutus and drop it into Mayfair​. They are only 10 minutes’ walk apart, but either side of Regent St is like the left bank and right bank of the Seine. Within a week of opening we’d changed the menu:pig’s head is a staple at Arbutus, but we realised it was never going to sell in Mayfair.

We don’t have sommeliers​. At Wild Honey, we could probably extend the wine spend if we did, but I’m nervous of pushing for an extra £10 or £20. It’s not our style – and if the customers feel squeezed, will they come back?

I love eating in Soho:​ Bocca di Lupo, Polpo, Koya and Barrafina. Ducksoup is a great new place. And you can’t beat the steaks at Goodman.

Culturally, front of house is still not seen as a proper career, which is a shame​. It’s perhaps to do with the British thinking that serving people is somehow too servile, which it’s not.

I don’t think we’ll do another big restaurant like Les Deux Salons​. We’ll look at doing a smaller, more relaxed place, possibly next year.

Related topics: People, Restaurants, Pearls of Wisdom

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