It’s 6pm on a Tuesday night at the newly opened Bank House in Chislehurst and Stuart Gillies is running front of house. The high-profile chef turned former CEO of Gordon Ramsay’s international restaurant group is a ball of energy, turning two-tops into fours, sweet-talking guests who have arrived at the bustling dining room to have a drink first at the bar, ushering other groups to their tables and generally trying to keep on top of an increasingly busy room.
If a camera crew had been present you’d think this was an episode of one of those back to the floor-esque programmes where the boss of a large business rolls up their sleeves, dons an apron and returns to the coalface (often to be seen nodding in concern while a cleaner bemoans a lack of supplies). But there are no cameras here. For Gillies, who seemingly abruptly stepped away as CEO of Gordon Ramsay Group where he oversaw a portfolio of more than 30 fine dining and casual restaurants across London, France, the US, Dubai, Hong Kong and Singapore, this is the first week of the next chapter in a 30-year career that sees him going back to his roots in a full-time capacity.
“I’ve had three careers so far – chef, restaurateur and MD – and now I’ve got a fourth as maitre d’,” says Gillies when we sit down to chat. “I’m doorman, I run the desk and do the book. I’m not brilliant at it but I am good at talking to people when they come in. I’m slowly learning the EPoS system and managing to make it work. The first thing people get when they walk through the door is me and my energy.”
At 53 years old, Gillies is in good shape. Dressed in a crisp white shirt (sleeves indeed rolled up), his stocky figure and closely shaved head gives him the appearance of a rugby player, but his manner is much more maitre d’ than ruck and maul. Given that he’s spent the past seven years first as MD at what was then Gordon Ramsay Holdings, a role created following the departure of chief executive and Ramsay’s father-in-law Chris Hutcheson, and then as CEO, and many years before that behind the pass at restaurants including Savoy Grill and The Boxwood Cafe, he’s surprisingly natural on the floor, effortlessly charming all with whom he comes in contact. Here’s a man who’s left a high-powered role, and a large accompanying wage packet, to start again in his own place in south-east London, and who looks good on it.
A wine bar, not a restaurant
It’s early days but Gillies and his wife Cecilia seem to have struck a positive note with Bank House, their wine bar that opened on the site of an empty branch of NatWest on Chislehurst high street early last month. The two-storey venue is “definitely a wine bar not a restaurant”, says Gillies, although this description isn’t entirely accurate. By night, the venue is very much drinks led, with only a small area at the back of the ground floor laid up for food and guests able to book tables both for dinner and just for drinks (the logic is they may be enticed by the food), but by day it is also a place for coffee and a light breakfast and also a place to eat at lunchtime.
What it isn’t, Gillies is keen to stress, is a Ramsay chef coming to the suburbs to open a posh restaurant (as described in one local newspaper story, much to his chagrin) and show people what they’ve been missing. “We have to be careful about people categorising us. We don’t want people thinking, ‘here’s an ex-Ramsay boy coming here, he’s going to be really arrogant’. From day one we’ve said we’re really humble, we have not said much about what we do but have just opened quietly. I’ve been really diligent about it. There’s been no trumpets about what we are going to deliver, we’ve said nothing other than it will be nice to see you.”
It’s a sensible approach. Indeed, everything about Bank House seems sensible. Sited next door to a new Giggling Squid (Gillies had initially wanted to take that site but the landlord decided on a branded restaurant instead), Bank House is being positioned as complementary (within reason) to Chislehurst’s other hospitality businesses, serving as an overflow bar for its neighbour and a place that will bring more people to the town midweek. He didn’t believe Chislehurst needed a high-end restaurant but rather a more free-flowing space that would attract different people for different needs at different times of the day. “You have to be more than one element,” he says. “Be multi-layered so people come to you for different reasons.”
The food offer is a case in point. The capital is littered with fine dining chefs striking out into more informal territory and yet, possibly hamstrung by high rates and rents, ending up creating menus with £15 starters and £30 mains that are still out of reach of many. At Bank House no dish is more than £11 – apart from a sharing board of meat and cheese at £14 – and most sit between £6 and £8. Dishes are small and designed to be shared as is de rigeur, but the ability to go as a couple for a few glasses of wine each and three or four dishes for less than £50 won’t be lost on the clientele.
Everything on the menu has been designed as drinking food, with dishes that include n’duja on toast; buttermilk chicken with habanero and lime mayo; tuna crudo; hake fillet with shellfish bisque, chorizo and polenta; smoked anchovies; and triple-cooked chips with chicken skin salt. Menus are written daily, with Gillies and head chef Bobby Brown, formerly of Bread Street Kitchen, happy to keep things fluid, so cod could be switched for haddock, or baba ganoush one day could become broad bean hummus the next.
Refreshingly, Gillies isn’t going to stray into areas he doesn’t believe will add value to Bank House. There will be no cooked breakfasts on the menu, for example (“I’m not going to beat the cafes at breakfast, there’s no way I could do a better full English for the money”), or the likes of salt and pepper squid. “We want to complement this environment rather than compete.”
Back to the coalface
This doesn’t sound a very Ramsay-esque position, but then there’s nothing typical about this latest play by Gillies. In an industry where chefs often become restaurateurs – increasingly so in today’s fast-paced environment – it’s common for people who have spent time behind the pass to be drawn back to the addictive clatter and heat of the kitchen to escape the more humdrum minutiae of running a restaurant business. Yet it is unusual for someone of Gillies’ standing to do so.
Once he became a CEO of an international company there was the feeling he had crossed the Rubicon, where the high responsibility and salary marked a point of no return. Surely he could have happily wiled out another decade in what he describes as a “super glamorous” job travelling the globe opening restaurants before retiring to a Tuscan villa with swimming pool?
“It had just run its course,” he says, describing the reason for departing the company to which he had dedicated the best part of two decades. “You go from being a chef restaurateur of all those years doing loads of TV and new businesses, and the journey is so exciting because you are just doing more and more. The thing about Gordon is he’s so driven and high-energy, you just get infected by it. You work harder and faster, but it becomes normality.”
In 2010 when he was asked to step up into the role of MD, Gillies says he wasn’t ready but took on the role anyway. “It probably qualified me for the role because the company was in trouble back then, everything needed a fresh approach. I came in and injected a new thought process and culture and diversity – Savoy Grill was unbranded, so was Bread Street Kitchen. It became about the individuality of concepts. I learnt so much in those seven years, but it was time to move on.”
Gillies was primarily motivated by a desire to spend more time with his wife and four boys, something which he says he had wanted to do for a while. That said, the decision to leave seems to have been quite sudden, with Gillies then having no clear idea of what to do next. Did Gordon see it coming when in January 2017 he resigned his directorship? “None of us saw it coming as such, we were both flat out.”
What was clear was that he didn’t want any such similar role, despite being approached by others to do so. “The corporate world is not me. I think I did a really good job there, but it took me further and further away from what I really loved and what I got into the industry for – the grass roots, the people, the produce, the adrenaline rush. In that level of business you stop celebrating success, you just deliver things, and expect them to be right and move on to the next one. It becomes very shallow.”
Gillies says then he had no game plan. “My wife said let’s do this for us. How do we want to live? I thought I was spending enough time with my family, but I wasn’t. I was comparing it to what other people did. I could have made small changes but no, I wanted to make dramatic ones to get a better work/life balance. I’m home a lot more, I’m now reconnected to the kids.”
Stopping altogether wasn’t an option for someone with his drive so working closer with his family was the obvious solution. “Will we retire? I can’t stop, I’m too high energy,” he says. “We had thought about working together before but there were too many big decisions to make, it was too complex. Did I want to step down from the security of the job and salary to enter the dangerous world of uncertainty? But you have to roll the dice. I started to ask myself ‘am I getting a feeling of self-fulfilment?’ The answer was no.”
The move from London
So that’s the reasoning behind jumping ship, but Chislehurst? It’s where Gillies has lived for a few years, so there’s the obvious reason of wanting to do something closer to home, but for someone who has spent a lot of time working in and launching restaurants in the capital, it’s a sad indictment of the sector’s current challenges that he has chosen to swerve the Big Smoke.
The capital, as it turns out, was a consideration early on, but Gillies ran the numbers and found they didn’t stack up. He was approached by property people he knew well from his time with Ramsay who said they would cut him a deal if he had skin in the game, but even then things didn’t add up.
“I wouldn’t have looked at it like that if I hadn’t had spent seven years as CEO and hadn’t learnt so much about corporate finance and looking at the numbers,” he says. “I was seeing businesses that were really good but that just did not convert into any significant profit, so was it worth the effort? You’re putting a lot in there for not much back; from a black and white commercial perspective, that doesn’t make sense.”
He cites the capital’s rents as a challenge, as is competing on salaries, as well as the now customary upwards only rents reviews. “Rents go up so much every five years that many people just have to close their doors, they can’t afford to pay a heavyweight rent negotiator like we used to [at Gordon Ramsay Group].”
Operating outside of London throws up its own challenges, but also opportunities. Gillies believes that word of mouth is the most popular form of marketing rather than the PR-led route often required in the capital.
Staffing is another very different proposition. “The team aren’t coming here because of the money; they either live down the road or don’t want the drama of coming to London. And they often don’t want to move on.”
He also believes that for Bank House to be a success it needs to flex to its environment, and this means offering customers the option of booking tables, and not just for food – even at peak times. “I have no problem if people book a table for 7.30pm but are drinking rather than eating because they are using us for what they want us for. It has made it really relaxing for us and the customer. But you do have to think through very strategically how you run a business like that because it makes it complicated – at times I thought I was losing my mind, we went through loads of scenarios. In the end
we just opened the doors and waited to see what happened. I run a waiting list and people wait at the bar. It’s the right thing for the area, it’s up to us to fail.”
For a man of Gillies’ experience, one wonders whether this is enough for someone used to travelling the world opening huge restaurants in glamorous locations. Chislehurst is no Las Vegas, will he grow to miss bigger league venues?
“It’s about adding value to wherever you are,” he says, dismissing this point. “It’s hard to add value in London because London is so good, you’re not going to go in there and be better. A lot of international chefs come in and try and they fail. I remember [hotelier] Robin Hutson telling me to believe in the value in being a big fish in a small pond. He said people will really love you for bringing something to their community. I feel way more fulfilled now.”
In true Gillies style, it seems unlikely he’s going to stop at one anyway. When discussing the future and the next 20 years, he talks of projects in the plural and his admiration for what Tom Kerridge has done in Marlow. It’s too early to be thinking of the next step, but he’s clearly encouraged by the start at Bank House and sees the potential to open more places in the area.
And what of Ramsay? Is he expecting his long-term former boss to pop in for a glass of Sicilian wine on tap and some smoked anchovies? “Me and Gordon don’t talk, it’s the nature of it and everyone who works with him. He just moves on to the next thing,” says Gillies, suggesting the answer is no. “I’ve known him a long time but always as an employee, and that’s fine. I was definitely motivated by Gordon and he helped me become what I am today, but you want to move on to other things.
“This is about carving out a new chapter.”
This is a web version of an article that first appeared in the October issue of Restaurant magazine, the leading title for the UK's restaurant industry. For more features, comment, interviews and in-depth analysis of the restaurant sector subscribe to Restaurant magazine here.