Small Talk

James Walters on taking Arabica from the streets to a successful restaurant

By Carina Perkins

- Last updated on GMT

James Walters (r) and Bunmi Okolosi (l) opened Arabica Bar & Kitchen
James Walters (r) and Bunmi Okolosi (l) opened Arabica Bar & Kitchen

Related tags: Borough market, Restaurant, Menu

James Walters has spent the last 14 years selling food and produce from the Levant at food markets and festivals across London and beyond. He opened his restaurant, Arabica Bar & Kitchen, in Borough Market earlier this year.

Tell us more about Arabica Bar & Kitchen

Arabica Bar & Kitchen is an 80-cover restaurant in Borough market serving Levantine-inspired food, cocktails and an eclectic wine list from various different regions around the world. It was really a natural evolution of what we were already doing at various markets across London and in Selfridges Food hall.

It is a casual restaurant, with a relaxed atmosphere, and the menu is based around mezze and sharing plates. It is very unlike traditional Levantine restaurants, where you break the table with mezze and then move onto a main course such as a mixed grill with salad and rice. At Arabica everything is for sharing and so you can completely customise your meal. You can have some grilled meat and then choose which salads you want to go with it, or you can leave the salad and rice out altogether and just have a selection of dips with some meat and fish.

Why Levantine cuisine?

I have been fascinated by Levantine food since I first came to Borough market around 14 years ago and met Jad, who is Jordanian and was running a stall selling mezze, just three or four dips and a couple of flavoured oils. It was at the very beginning of the market and I was here hooking up with some people I met travelling. His was one of the stalls I visited and we just had a bit of a connection, so over the following months we became friends. I was really excited about the food, the simple style of cooking and the focus on ingredients. I thought it sounded like an adventure. Here we are 14 years later and I haven’t looked back.

How was transition from street food to permanent site?

It has been great. I did open something a very long time ago with Jad back in 2002 - a small restaurant on a little back street in Notting Hill that we called Cafe Arabica. So that was my first ever experience of opening a restaurant. I really knew very little looking back on it and this time it was a lot easier.

I think it is about finding the right people to work with. In this case I met Bunmi, who is our general manager and has a really good pedigree after working with the likes of Terence Conran and Heston Blumenthal and then opening Lima.

Part of the ease of the transition was doing it with Bunmi and both of us having clearly defined roles. We get on well, we communicate brilliantly and we bounce off each other. We were working together on it for about 2 months pre-opening and thankfully it just worked and has been very busy since day one. We haven’t had a chance to look up since opening.

Why did you choose to open in Borough market?

We were looking at sites in Soho and Bermondsey when the Borough market trustees presented an opportunity that we just couldn’t resist. The business was born here - this is the birthplace of Arabica - so it was just like coming home.

How do you divide your time between your different projects?

Thankfully I have a really loyal team who have been working with me for several years so there are managers in different departments. At the moment I would say that about 80 per cent of my time is dedicated to the restaurant and the rest is spent on the existing business and finding new opportunities. Up until a few weeks ago the majority of my time was spent in the restaurant but I am now slowly trying to move away and I would like to be in a position by Jan/Feb next year where I am spending 50 per cent of my time the restaurant, 40 per cent in the rest of business and 10 per cent on new projects.

Can you tell us about those new projects?

 We are thinking about doing a cookbook. We were always delaying it until we had bricks and mortar and now we have that it seems right that we do something that tells the Arabica story and gives the customers who use our products some ideas and inspiration. We have just agreed to start working with a larger retailer who is looking at taking a small range of our products into quite a few of their stores, but I can’t say much more about that now.

What do you love most about being a chef?

 I am still not sure that I would define myself as a chef. I looked it up recently because I was trying to work out whether I was a chef or just someone that likes cooking. I found out that a chef is someone who understands the rules and regulations, is able to write a menu and can run a profitable kitchen. So I guess in that respect I can call myself a chef, but am I a chef, chef? I am not sure. Mostly because I haven’t spent the last 14 years in the kitchen, I have been out learning how to run a business.

The restaurant threw me in the deep end because initially we were going to have a head chef. I had written the menu and conceptualised everything but I wanted to find someone to run it because I didn’t have time, I had the rest of the business to look after. But that fell through at the eleventh hour and I found myself heading up the kitchen literally four or five days before the soft launch. It was a pretty brutal experience - I wasn’t used to working those hours and I had never run a kitchen pass before. But I caught up quickly, so that was a brilliant experience that gave me a huge amount of confidence.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to open their own restaurant?

Make sure you have a solid team around you that understand all the elements of running a restaurant - it is not just about the food, it is about the service as well, and the entire offer.

One thing I have realised is that if you find good people make sure you keep them and look after them and make them happy. Look after your people, because they are your business. Take good care of them and in turn they will look after your business.

Related topics: Openings, People, Profiles

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