How did you get involved with The Strand Dining Rooms?:
I’d heard of the restaurant, but didn’t know much about it. It had received some bad reviews and needed some help so a friend put me in touch with Mark Harris (the restaurant's founder) and I went for a meeting there.
When I walked in I went: "Woah, this place is amazing, it’s fantastic". The décor in the restaurant is beautiful. It's how I imagine a restaurant on The Strand would have been like in its 1920s/30s heyday.
I suppose I’ve always looked at Simpson’s on the Strand and the Savoy Grill through rose-tinted spectacles, as somewhere where people went in the old days for an elaborate breakfast before carrying out their day's business. When I walked into the Strand Dining rooms it struck me as a modern version of that sort of thing with beautiful banquettes and a mezzanine floor, so I agreed to take it on.
It was a partnership which is good for me to be involved in. It will be a long-term thing, I don't go in for short-term stuff, there wouldn't be any point.
What does the partnership involve?
I’ve completely overhauled the menu. The thing that struck me was it was an incredible location, but the menus they had just didn’t fit.
The restaurant, to me, needed a great British style menu. It was quite disjointed, so we’ve simplified it. My belief is if you have three or four ingredients on a plate done well, the provenance is good and ingredients are well-sourced and in season, you don’t have to faff around too much.
In those surroundings you want to have a great steak with brilliant chips, so for example we've got a 28-day aged Angus Porterhouse steak with chips and onion rings on the menu, a fish pie and we've brought Pork Holstein back.
I don't expect that the menu we started with will be the same in six months, we'll tweak it as we go, but I think you've got to get the basics right first. Marco Pierre White once said ‘simplicity has always been the key to everything’ and he was bang on.
None of my restaurants I’ve opened will chase trends and I don’t say that’s a bad thing because fashion has a place in the industry, but I’m an old timer in the industry now. The places I want to do will have menus that are consistent and will evolve and are great for the next 10 or 20 years, like Scott’s and Sheekey’s, like Le Caprice. They are not trying to push the boundaries in culinary art. What they are doing is providing an amazing ambiance in stunning surroundings with great quality food.
Will we see you behind the stove?
I’m very open about the fact I don’t cook everywhere, which is why I haven’t put my name above the door there. This is very much a partnership, like the one I have at the Great Northern Hotel, whereby it's good for me to be involved.
Cooking in the kitchen isn't what I want to do now. Like Mark Hix did - very cleverly - I've moved out of the kitchen to become a restaurateur and learn something new. I did 20 years of cooking and now it's time to start learning another side of the business. There's so much more to running a business than spending all your time in the kitchen.
Your businesses are in different parts of Kent and London, how do you manage them all when they are located so far from each other?
I live my life through an iPhone. I can control seven businesses through a phone, so I can be anywhere and keep in touch, but I’m the same as Gordon was, I'm only as good as the people who work with me. I say with me, not for me, because I see it as a partnership - not financially, but certainly in terms of bouncing off each other with ideas.
I don’t pretend that I can possibly do everything on my own, which is the reason why I haven't put my name above the door anywhere. I want to be known by association, not by name.
I have great teams at Rocksalt and The Smokehouse - Rocksalt's head chef and deputy restaurant manager are helping me set up the Duke William for example.
The restaurants are doing well and don't forget my partnership with Plum & Spilt Milk at The Great Northern Hotel, which is still a great thing for me. I'm into year two of my partnership there and it's going great guns.
What do you do to develop those people who are working with you and potentially could be working with you?
We had our own recruitment company - Rocksalt Recruitment - and it was great to start with, but we had to dissolve it because it was losing money. We had amazing clients on our books – Tom Kerridge, Daniel Clifford, The Hind’s Head - but there were no chefs. The chef de partie is elusive, they aren’t anywhere to be found. I think the problem is that today the 24 or 25-year-old is skipping ahead to try and do their own thing or is expecting to go straight into a sous chef role so there isn't anyone at the chef de partie level anymore. However, I don’t want to go into the politics of the whole thing. We know there are things that need to be done.
In terms of what I'm doing. I’ve been wanting to set up an academy or training school for some time. I was talking to East Kent College a year and a half ago about setting up the Mark Sargeant Academy and I talk about setting something up with Josh (De Haan, Sargeant's business partner) all the time. The intention is all there, it’s just a case of finding the time really.
The National Chef of the Year competition is something I’m really passionate about and I’m heavily involved with ISS and the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts, but these things are always done in your spare time and it's not always easy to find the balance. I’m hugely supportive of them all, but when business gets busy there is less time to focus on it.
I'm 42 now and redressing the balance is in my big 10-year plan. The first half of my 40s will be about building up business and then, hopefully towards the end of my late 40s I'll have more time to focus on the training and education side of things.