Finn Scott Delany of BigHospitality's sister publication MCA Insight speaks to one half of the duo, Luke Cowdrey, about blood, sweat and tears, the relationship between food and music and Michelin stars.
When Luke Cowdrey and his business and DJ partner Justin Crawford first set foot inside Manchester’s The Palace they felt out of their league.
The pair were used to big spaces having run a host of club nights and festivals, but the 10,000 square foot space in front of them was vast compared to their critically acclaimed 40-cover restaurant Volta in Didsbury.
It was Robbie Bargh, founder of Gorgeous Group and also a director of Dishoom, who advised the new owners of the hotel, US private equity group Starwood Capital, to avoid a generic, rolled out London operation, or a stuffy fine dining room.
Step forward local stars Cowdrey and Crawford who had created a buzz at Volta and came into the frame to run the food operation at the soon to be renamed Principal, a vast listed Gothic Victorian Revival building in the heart of Manchester.
The scale of the operation left the self-described minnows of hospitality feeling wondering whether this was a step too far – and one month after opening it’s a feeling that’s not entirely gone away, though it is one that keeps fledgling the operators on their toes.
“When we first saw it we thought, ‘no way this is too big, this out of our league”, Cowdrey recalls.
Cowdrey and Crawford were initially brought in as consultants to try and replicate some of the Volta magic, but they soon realised they needed total control over the space to realise their vision, which included careful choices over everything from the beer and coffee, music and heating, to the staff uniforms.
Their relative inexperience running such a mammoth operation has led some to question how long they will last. But though The Refuge is still just five weeks in, despite some minor teething problems, the restaurant and bar has had a confident start, generating plenty of enthusiasm from locals and the London media.
Cowdrey is under no illusions about how unconventional the arrangement is but is single-mindedly determined to make the space work, no matter how many sleepless nights.
“Any model based on a marriage between a multi-billion-pound investment company and someone who runs a 40-cover restaurant – that’s unusual. It needs work, understanding.” Cowdrey said. “We are the minnows of hospitality in the city, we were odds on to be out before Morinho. We're still here. Who knows, maybe we'll be gone by Christmas."
The operators got a taste for good food while touring the world DJing as The Unabombers, and fell in love with the casual but sophisticated dining styles of the Mediterranean, Asia and Australasia.
Keen to avoid the formality of fine dining restaurants, Volta and Refuge have a laid back, elegant style, with simple, well executed food.
In addition to the 139-cover restaurant, The Refuge has a large lounge-bar serving coffee, alcohol and casual bites, while there is a winter garden inside a glass atrium serving gin and cocktails, and a large basement night-time club space set to open next year.
“Curating the vision here is fundamental”, Cowdrey said. “The danger in rolled out brands is they lose their soul. As music promoters curation flowed from being obsessed with sound and lighting. Even now we spend hours arguing about lighting and sound.”
Though the step up has been a big one, for Cowdrey it is a natural maturation of their tastes, with music, food and drink all complimenting each other.
“Coming out of the club, your stimulus in life becomes more about food and drink. We’re a reflection of lots of 40 and 50 years olds who came out of music and were travelling the world and enjoy the finer side of life”, he said.
“But I hate the idea of being over earnest or holier than thou about food. What we do is very simple, There’s no showing off in the cooking.”
Cowdrey never envisaged at the age of 50 he would be running a major bar and restaurant operation – he thought he would be sat under a tree in Thailand. And he does not mince his words over how hard-working the hospitality industry is compared to the hedonism of music.
“We opened Volta on Christmas Eve and no-one came in. It was me and my girlfriend sat at the bar and it felt like It’s a Wonderful Life where he nearly commits suicide. But you have to have moments like that. I don’t think anything half decent was ever done without that journey.
“I look back at what we’ve done over the last 10 years and the mistakes we made were unbelievable.
“It’s blood sweat and tears all the way. You have to be there every night experiencing it, and have punters telling you the steak was shit. You’ve got to be at the coalface.
“You have to live in a goldfish bowl and people constantly telling you what they think. That’s hard because you can’t escape it.
“I sometimes sit awake at night thinking what the f*** have a I done. DJing was easy, you’d work two or three nights a week, and spend the rest sitting around watching Heartbeat in your boxers.”
While the thought of taking on more sites strikes fear into him, he acknowledges there may be more operations once The Refuge has bedded in.
“It gives me fear to think of doing more right now. This is a beast. One of the big hospitality business guys who shall remain nameless said he would struggle with this, and he had 30 years’ experience.
“I don’t want to be the richest man in the graveyard, but I imagine I will probably be more stressed in five years and will probably running something else.”
Cowdrey reckons the obsession with Michelin stars is a counter productive and that Manchester’s scene will eventually be rewarded.
“The more you do just good food, the Michelin star will come”, he added.
“You can chase a woman with flowers too much and she’ll lose interest. The moment you start fixating yourself on contriving a formula to get a star – it’s not about that. Do amazing food, get a great chef, deliver it will, and it will come.
“I think we’ll get a star but it will come from somewhere unexpected.”