You’re opening Fucina – an organic, high-end yet relaxed Italian concept – in autumn this year. What will be new about it?
I'm particularly fond of Italian food, and it's been my favourite since I was a child. I love going to Italy, seeing the highly-rated restaurants, the trattorias, the enotecas, and I have the most phenomenal experiences.
We have great Italian food in London, but I love the rustic element of it, and how varied it is. I've really been keen to do Italian, and now is the time. I've always enjoyed creating new concepts, and I think London is one of the greatest cities in the world to open restaurants.
If it works in London it will work anywhere. But I'm pretty terrified, to be honest!
Much of the food will be organic, and created in-house. But there's a lot of ‘homemade-style’ Italian food in London. How will you stand out?
We have a great chef – Stefano Stecca, who is a real rockstar [previously of London sites Zafferano, Rosmarino, The Wellesley Hotel, Toto’s, and Novikov], and that's a good starting point.
The chefs are phenomenal, between Jordan [Sclare, Zsedar’s group executive chef] and Stecca. Jordan Sclare is involved in all my sites. He's my go-to guy, I don't go anywhere without him.
So we have a great chef, a baker, and architect, and the product will be organic. I don't want to ram that down people's throats, but nowadays with how processed everything is, operators have the responsibility to source the right ingredients for paying customers. I am a big advocate for organic food. This is about beautiful, artisanal Italian cuisine, that happens to be organic.
The planned exterior of new site Fucina
When you're talking about Italian food, you don't just mean pizza and pasta…
We'll have them on the menu, but there's going to be a huge arrangement of game and wild boar, and the fire pit, which will take centre stage. Hence the name Fucina, which means forge: working with fire. Fire is social too, there's just something really lovely about that. It's glowing; warmth; it feels really primeval for me.
We will use UK produce but import from Italy too, which is how we're going to get those flavours right. We'll also have the bakery, and then have freshly-braised meat going into fresh bread, and we'll have dairy products, soups, and broths, and fresh pasta. There will be a deli, organic ice cream and cold juices.
Fucina will have a relatively high price point – about £65 per head. Why is that?
Well, we will be in Marylebone, with 106 seats, and rents are not cheap. Also, the operation itself is huge, the staff and products are the absolute best. We will also have a burrata counter, and downstairs we will have a glass wall that will divide the dining area and the kitchen.
Your newest site, the 60-cover Pacific Rim-style Black Roe, is on the site of Bouillabaisse, which closed in March. What made you finally decide that Bouillabaisse wasn't working?
I've opened between 20 and 30 restaurants in my time, and you know within a day or two, if it's done what it's supposed to do. I knew straightaway. I wasn't sure if it was a question of timing – opening in summer, maybe ‒ but I knew it wasn't right.
So we waited for the Christmas period, where things picked up beautifully, but I already knew I was going to have to change something.
It's difficult to say. Everyone who ate there would say the food was great: fish as fresh as possible, on a barbecue, with olive oil and lemon. And people that have had that elsewhere ‒ like in Mykonos ‒ understood, but everyone else said, why am I spending £50 for a seabass? It was obviously not right for the market. I had to accept that, and quickly come up with something else.
The seafood and fish bar at Black Roe, Mayfair
Bouillabaisse was quite a high-profile opening, and then by extension a high-profile closure. Did that worry you?
I never had to worry before because it hadn't happened before! But I never go into any project thinking it's a slam dunk. I'm always so worried. But that's part of the thrill. You're putting yourself out there for criticism, and it can be harsh.
When I left Ping Pong for Chotto Matte, I had panic attacks because I thought, oh god if this doesn't work, I might not get another job! But I just had to throw myself into it. And thank god it worked.
With Bouillabaisse, I guess I didn't realise it could fail until it did. Now, I try to do things true to myself, not worrying so much about what I 'should' do. With Black Roe, I brought back the music, the dark decor - my style...and it seems to work for me.
You do seem pretty good at spotting trends in London. How do you do that?
I'm fortunate that I get to travel a damn lot, and when I travel, I do my favourite thing: eat. I have to work very hard to not be ten times the size that I am! But if you get the opportunity to taste something great, you can say, wow, we don't get this in London. I think I have quite common taste buds, which isn't a bad thing: what I like, most people also like.
It's just a gut feeling, I never proclaim that anything will be the next trend. I just always try to do something different. Italian has been done a thousand times in London, but I'm hoping that the way that I do it will be different.
The planned interior of Fucina
How do you come up with all your varied concepts?
Firstly, I think of the style of food you would eat, then I start to imagine what sort of atmosphere would work, and then the level of service: is it high-end, fine dining, a counter, something in between? Then you try to understand where the competition is. I then put an image bank together of what it might look like, and show the chef.
And then we travel to where the food comes from, and that’s where the fun starts. How do we make it better, and do it our way?
What is it about London that makes it a good place to launch concepts?
We have a big population, and the lifestyle here dictates how much time people spend cooking. Eating out has become less of an occasion; people always eat out. That's true of any city today. The tourism factor is an element too. It's a very affluent city; it supports the rest of the country pretty much, and people can afford to eat out here.
I love London; it's been good to me.
Why new concepts? Why not just roll out concepts that you know already work?
I don't know! I just love it. It's like asking an artist to paint the same picture every single time. I'm not saying I'm an artist, but there's something really exciting about the new challenge. I lie in bed with a notepad next to my bed, and I dream things up and write them down.
Ideas come flooding in and I lose sleep! I have to listen to other stuff at bedtime to block them out. So many ideas, why would you stop them? It's about great ideas, and then figuring out how to do it.
Talking of ideas; have you had to evolve your first solo site, Chotto Matte, since opening in 2013?
Successful brands always evolve. You have to constantly engage and attract more business. It also keeps current customers entertained. I believe in making customers think it's better than the last time, every time they come in. I push myself to constantly re-invent what we're doing.
Our spaces are always adaptable: for example, I always make sure the lights in the restaurants move 180 to 360 degrees, so we can change them to focus on tables when we move them around.
Chotto Matte, Soho
You're also expanding Chotto Matte in Miami and Toronto. Why not open another London one?
It's nice to take already-established ideas to a new audience. What I learned from [previous venture] Ping Pong, for example, is that opening the first one was really exciting. But then the second site didn't excite me as much, because it was a replication in the same city. Even the customers weren't as excited.
We did have very fast growth, but I didn't find myself as enthusiastic. So I want to travel abroad with Chotto Matte. I'm going to handpick. It could be like opening it again for the first time!
Do you think you're in danger of setting up ‘trend’ sites, which are at risk of being taken over by the next big thing?
Well, the thing is, food is addictive. If you grow up having spaghetti Bolognese the way your mum makes it, it's very hard to really appreciate another one, because you'll always say 'My mum's is better', even if others don't agree. We get used to food.
So if people come to us regularly in the first year, they'll be hooked. If we can deliver our product and give good service consistently, we will be OK.
What's the next big thing in London?
Well, I would say that poké [Hawaiian-inspired raw chopped fish] is the next big thing! But the Millennial generation - they know more about trends and what's going on in the world more than people my age did. So we look at what they like. For example, they are interested in health, but their interpretation might be different; for example, it's not about carb free, low sugar, fat free…
They care more about real products and whole produce. They eat out more often than everyone else, and they like convenience. So we're giving them what they want.
How do you feel London dining has changed overall, with your experience of different concepts?
We're seeing great restaurant openings, but in London the rent levels are so high, so it's impacting the concepts that can succeed. It's about how to deliver a good product at a price people will pay, and make a profit.
I think it's about value for money. You want things to be the best you can get, whether it’s for £5 or £65.