Now with a restaurant empire that also includes Harnett Holder & Co in Hampshire, Merchants Tavern in London and the Café Murano brand, the chef and restaurateur reflects on the past 10 years, and discusses what the next decade may hold.
How does it feel to be celebrating 10 years of Murano?
Great. Especially in the current climate where you turn around and another restaurant opens and another one closes.
What were your expectations for Murano when you opened?
I always wanted a Michelin star, but I didn’t necessarily think I’d own the restaurant. Gordon [Ramsay] always said to me, ‘why didn’t you just tell me [you wanted to buy it] at the beginning? It would have saved a lot of aggro’ (Hartnett bought Ramsay out in 2010 to take full ownership of the restaurant). But it’s worked out well. We’ve just done a big kitchen refurb and got a new carpet coming and a lovely awning for the outside, so it feels in a good place.
Are you still mates with Gordon?
Oh yeah. I don’t see him often as he’s mainly in America. We were both in Australia at the start of the year. He came over to say hello and I think everyone else was petrified, but we just took the mickey out of each other. We’ve known each other for 25 years.
What are your memories of opening Murano?
We opened in 2008 when the credit crunch hit, but we survived it. We were lucky as we had a lot of old customers from The Connaught. Mayfair is not an easy audience but if you look after your customers they come back. Within the first two weeks the critics descended and we had about 10 reviews. We had some disastrous nights, too, where it was like the M25 - gridlocked - and we couldn’t get the food out quick enough.
How has Murano evolved over the past decade?
Four or five years ago we decided tasting menus were a waste of time; people don’t want to have nine courses and no choice, so we opened up the menu with four starters, pastas, meat, fish and vegetarian dishes at similar prices. Lunchtimes have also changed. People want to eat much quicker and not take three hours, so we tweaked our menu and service so people can be out in under 90 minutes. The staff needed convincing more than the customers - I had to tell one or two sommeliers that people didn’t want to wait around for them to get their act together.
Would Murano be any different if you opened it for the first time today?
I’d love to buy part of next door to open it up and have a bigger bar area. It’s a very compact restaurant.
How has the industry changed over the past decade?
It’s become very transient. The generation of customers I had at The Connaught who would come in every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner don’t exist now. People don’t go to the same restaurants all the time because there’s so much choice and it’s more affordable. The City has become its own restaurant area. When I was at The Connaught we’d have City lunchers who’d sit and eat for four hours. That no longer exists, they don’t need to. Habits have also changed, people want to eat lighter, quicker and earlier.
Has the industry become a better place for women to work?
I don’t think the industry’s been a bad place for women, though there are some who might disagree with me. I pay a chef de partie the same whether it’s a man or woman, I go on their experience. I certainly try and make it easier for women to have a baby and come back to work. There’s probably more women in the industry now compared to 10 years ago as the hours have changed, but rightly so for both sexes. As much as men might want to be all macho no one wants to work five or six doubles a week.
Kitchens can be rude and a bit sexist but I think people like me and Nieves [Barragan Mohacho, chef-owner of Sabor] and [Northcote executive chef] Lisa Allen will just tell people to get stuffed in a vocal way. I’m not saying you shouldn’t take it seriously but you’ve also got to turn around and say ‘shut up you twat’ and keep it in perspective.
Would you like to open any more restaurants?
I’d like to open more Café Muranos. You’ve got to be careful as people aren’t stupid. You can’t just open a restaurant and stick your name or a brand on the door and think people are going to flock to it anymore. People go somewhere because it’s good and consistent, and the more you open the harder it is to maintain that.
Are you worried about what Brexit means for restaurants?
Yes, especially in London. I think it’s easier for restaurants outside London as they employ a lot of British people, but in London there is a huge influx of European staff. You don’t want them to feel nervous. My manager at St James has just had a baby and I don’t want him to feel he’s got to leave. Prices are high enough as it is, they’re just going to get higher.
You’ve spoken in the past about how chefs need to do more to tackle food waste, why is that so important to you?
My husband Neil mocks me because I never throw anything out. I don’t like the way we’re such a disposable society, it’s something wrong in our psyche. It is your responsibility as an owner and head chef to teach the next generation. Anyone who can make good staff food out of what’s left has got a talent. I’m trying to continue working with [Massimo Bottura’s] Reffettorio Felix and have a big charity dinner the coming up (date to be finalised).
Who are the chefs to watch in future?
Tom [Brown] at Cornerstone, Nieves [Barragan Mohacho] and Pip [Lacey]. The ones to really watch will be those who just want to be in their kitchens. It’s dangerous to suddenly be on every TV show and at every demo. I could fill my diary and never be in my restaurant but you’ve got to look after your core business. The moment you let that loose is when you’re in danger of losing your restaurant.
Where would you like the restaurant industry to be in 10 years’ time?
I’d like to think our industry gets a bit of a break. Everyone always reads reviews and goes ‘god it’s expensive’, but if you saw what it cost to run a service from your staff to electricity you’re not left with much. People need to wise up that restaurants aren’t easy money-makers. And I’d rather give money to my staff than the landlord or on business rates. We’ve had a few rent reviews but I’ve talked to our landlords and said ‘if you increase it next year, we might have to reconsider being here’.
How is Murano celebrating its 10th birthday?
We’re opening for lunch one Sunday a month with a different sharing Italian menu, the next one is on 16 September. There’s also some more chef dinners coming up with Jason [Atherton] and Marcus [Wareing]. It’s just mates I like cooking with and have fun with.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
I’ll be 60 so hopefully I might not be doing anything. I’ll still want to own the restaurants and be involved, but I won’t be doing day to day services. It keeps you fit and young but when I do a double shift these days I find it hard work. I’d like to be in a place where there’s a chef who has ownership of it and I could say to them, here’s half the business and I’ll retain it but you guys take it forward. So I could run it from a distance. A beach in Sicily would be nice.