It has now been more than a year and a half since Hedone opened its doors. Time really flies. I thought I would have time to blog about what it is like running a restaurant, about produce and other matters that might be vaguely amusing for old readers of this blog. Speaking of which I am grateful that so many old readers of Gastroville have visited Hedone.
It has been quite a bit busier and a lot tougher than I expected. The first couple of months were chaotic. If I had to do it again I would maybe do things in a different way. I never expected we would get the attention we got. Never ever. As several online commentators and bloggers pointed out I was just an amateur chef, albeit to some with a bit of talent, and I reckoned it would take quite some time for me to get used to running a professional kitchen and to send out food in a restaurant setting. After only a couple of weeks we got 4 stars from Fay Maschler and 5 stars from Time Out. Then great reviews in FT, Guardian, Metro and later in New York Times. I was stunned by the influence some of these critics had. Nick Lander’s article drove in people from all over the world. In between there was a more faint praise from Giles Coren’s stand in Tony Turnball, who was actually one of only a few critics that I recognized. It was hard to decide whether we deserved all the good reviews since I did not know when most of the critics had been. We were shit some nights but doing pretty good food some nights. It was a struggle getting good enough produce on a daily basis and to find kitchen staff, me having no real connections in the British trade and no kitchen track record when we started. Sometimes I was dead tired and I could work for days with a constant headache. When Turnball was in we were shit, so we deserved a good beating, but did not get it.
It may sound weird, but had I known that the critics would come in this early, I would have had the restaurant open to friends only for a couple of months while I got used to being a chef and got used to the kitchen, its organization etc.
Slowly we started to find our feet and in October 2011 we won the one to watch award at the National Restaurant awards. This was an extremely proud moment. A few days later we had AA Gill on visit. He was another critic that I actually recognized, mainly because I sat a couple of tables away from him when he dined at l’Arpège. A friend of mine who considers him a genius writer pointed him out to me. That Gill saw the greatness at l’Arpège made me respect him. As it happened, when he came to Hedone, he was seated just beside the kitchen pass, which I was not entirely happy with because we had him staring at us all night checking every plate that went out. It was awkward. I was thinking that he might write something like that “the puddings wouldn’t have attracted a wasp with diabetes”, which he later wrote in a review of another restaurant. Gill liked the food and gave us a rare double 5 star rating, which was another quite emotional moment. It resulted in us being packed for a couple of months but often by a box-ticking clientele that was hardly interested in the food we were serving. Some nights, half the dining room ordered the well-aged exceptional beef we were serving cooked well done. It was depressing and made me wonder if opening a restaurant really was such a good move. There were occasions when I thought we had cooked the piss out of the beef, yet it was sent back as being not cooked enough. We then started to do beef well done in the microwave followed by a quick sear on the plancha. It made everyone that ordered beef well done happy. Well, until one day when there was an odd complaint. A customer that ordered his beef well done complained that his beef portion was smaller than his dining companion’s beef that had been cooked rare!!! Did someone say the customer is always right?
I was wondering when we would have the first trashing. One night Matthew Norman walked in. I have always felt it difficult to take his restaurant reviewing seriously. It was a hilariously stupid review which was not even fact checked. I was happy he did not rave about us, because I assume it would have been a nightmare to be packed by those who do take his opinions on restaurants seriously or trust his palate….
Fact checking is by the way something that a lot of reviews and articles about the restaurant lack to a greater or lesser extent. Some are worse than others. I have gradually gotten used to being totally misquoted. One magazine called me a Swiss born chef cooking a French-Swiss style of food.
It was not before 7-8 months after we opened that I started to think I was about to become a professional chef. Not totally but I was getting there. We started to be more consistent and more rarely did mistakes.
The final proof, or graduation, that I had taken the step to become a professional chef was the Michelin star we were awarded in September last year. Easily the proudest moment since opening a restaurant and one of the proudest moments ever. The impact of the Michelin star has surprised me. While it does have visible impact on the reservation book, short term it did not match the double 5 star award by AA Gill. I suppose AA Gill can be likened to a beam trawler bringing in all sorts of clients. By contrast, Michelin’s readers tend to have a genuine interest in food. The Michelin star’s most important impact is that it facilitates recruiting and retaining staff.
The London restaurant scene is brutal. Customers tend to go to a restaurant only once, simply because there are so many new (and old) places to try. This means that publicity is crucial at least until a solid clientele with returning regulars have been built up. In reality, restaurateurs only have a short 6-12 months window to establish themselves. After that it is very difficult to get anyone’s attention. Why? Because the majority of punters and critics are focused on new openings, new openings and new openings. In between the punters will pop in to their favorite places. A handful of the major newspaper critics are extremely powerful and important with respect to the establishment of a newly opened restaurant. Critics tend to go early after opening and they basically do not come back. This is good I suppose if they assume that restaurants are static operations with never changing menus, suppliers or kitchens or staffing. But this is not the reality for all restaurants. A critic I criticized for being focused on restaurants that were only 8 weeks old, brushed it off by telling me that reviewing established restaurants is for guide books. These mechanics results in some severe constraints and challenges but also opportunities for anyone opening a restaurant in London. What it does mean is that it is better to get it as right as possible in the beginning than not. I did not know all this. So opening Hedone was an incredibly risky project especially since we did not use a PR consultant.
We were and are not in the static restaurant category. We have come a long way and the food we do today is much different from what we did the first six months. We are still far from a finished product. We have lots of improvements and evolution to go through over the next years. A critic who I told this asked me if that meant he could pay a reduced price when he dined at the restaurant. I told him that everyone is paying a reduced price and always has been.
I often get the question if I am happy about changing career. It has been tough, actually extremely tough. It is extremely painful to be uncompromising and searching for excellence every day. Most often, days start at 6 am and ends after midnight. The majority of eaters have no clue of the amount of effort that goes into every dish, even into those that may seem very simple. It is worth it, since being able to work with what has always been my greatest passion makes every day’s hard work worthwhile. In the beginning I thought negative feedback from clueless besser wissers was a bit like grit in the shoe. I gradually changed my mind and realized that negative comments, even from the clueless are helping to strengthen the restaurant.
I will now take up blogging again. Stay tuned.