GFG archives

Why good restaurants are expensive
Published 14 February 2022

The 1984 edition of The Good Food Guide saw acclaimed chef Nico Ladenis share his views about high prices in restaurants, the detrimental effect of no-shows and the increasing popularity in set lunches. Has anything changed in 37 years?

Of this decade it should perhaps first be said that no other has seen such a flowering of very high-quality restaurants; and when we look at the names of some of the best - Le Gavroche, Tante Claire, Waterside Inn, L’Interlude de Tabaillau, Ma Cuisine, L'Arlequin - one clear clue emerges. Without exception, all the great young chefs of these establishments served their time in the kitchens in Lower Sloane Street*: some, indeed, began their careers on those legendary premises. In short, and whether the result is to your fancy or not, the stamp that is indelibly imprinted upon the last decade is that of the brothers Albert and Michel Roux. Already one of their protégés has outshone them all. Pierre Koffmann - in the eyes of all those professionals who sweat nightly in front of hot stoves - is the most gifted chef in the country today.

The style, of course, was not invented in SW1. England has not yet progressed that far. In France, during the Seventies, a movement took hold which has come to be called, perhaps somewhat irritatingly, La Nouvelle Cuisine, banishing the béchamels and the espagnoles and ushering in the light sauces, the delicacies of taste, the finesses of presentation, often dazzlingly attractive in themselves, which more and more persuaded the chef of his right to call himself an artist! Let us call it a new era; or, at least, a culinary watershed. New chefs were drawing new maps, the old frontiers had vanished, and seemingly limitless new territories were being opened up and pioneered.

Unfortunately for me, I was nobody's protégé.

The chefs involved in this latterday French Revolution all knew one another; they worked together, evolved together, ate and played and laughed together, whereas I was nothing more than an outsider, watching, observing, and of course admiring, from afar.

My education in cooking was quite literally that: a mere extension of my university days. Cooking meant study; I immersed myself in books, I accumulated a library of the giant past. And, inevitably, pride of place in this collection went to the series of books written by the great French chefs (published by Macmillan). Within a week of each book's publication, I had pounced upon it and devoured it; I spent hours, days, months poring over the works of Guérard, Vergé, Troisgros, Bocuse, Chapel, and, more recently, Girardet and the Recettes de Baumanière of Raymond Thuilier. Unquestionably, it was Vergé to whom I was most powerfully drawn, both by the man himself and by the spirit embodied in him, and when I at last met Michel Roux, some four years ago, and he offered to find me a place in Vergés kitchens at the Moulin de Mougins, just for a brief week, that week was perhaps the most important of my career.

And yet, that said, the finest book of this astonishing period is undoubtedly Guérard's La Cuisine Gourmande. His was the true original spirit of the 1970s; the rest, however great in execution, were merely imitators. His was the supreme genius. I have worked from his recipes, and none has ever failed, and when I hear, as I did recently, an English chef maintaining that he can match everything the great French chefs have done without once setting foot in France**, I wonder whether that arrogance could even begin to exist without that chef's knowledge that those books not only represent the basis of any skill he has, they are also all there, to hand, should his confidence in himself ever falter. You can take the French on at their own game only because they themselves have given you the rules and the techniques by which to play it. Unfortunately, what ought to be emulation turns out so often to be mere slavish plagiarism; in one London restaurant, I recently ordered the whole of page 81 of Vergé's Ma Cuisine du Soleil!

Not that the new cuisine hasn't already manufactured its own clichés to match the old sole bonne femme and tournedos Rossini; while I shouldn't join the ranks of the kiwi-bashers who now modishly attack this unfortunate fruit, nor do I see it as nouvelle cuisine to cook a hunk of meat and surround it with thin green slices. Similarly, if terrine de légumes and salmon à l'oseille are clichés, remember they may have become so through inferior imitations; terrine Covent Garden is nothing to do with Messieurs Troisgros, even though more recent books may claim otherwise. Nor could I pretend to be anything but disappointed with Anton Mosimann's Cuisine à la Carte: not enough originality, and too much chi-chi - to call trout "danseuses de la rivière” is just crazy. As Chapel says, 'La Cuisine, c'est beaucoup plus que des recettes.' Still, I'd have to concede to Mosimann some invention: whereas the Troisgros originally used ham to bind their vegetable terrine, he uses chicken mousse. This is not to suggest that he isn't doing good work at the Dorchester, it is simply that his training of young chefs has led to the evolution of a somewhat self-satisfied clique, and a clique of hotel chefs, at that. The soi-disant Club of Nine seems designed to exclude some of the best chefs in London. Despite Quentin Crewe's opinion that this club will one day be seen to have contributed more to English cooking than any other single source, I should prefer to cite Mr Crewe's own book, together with Anthony Blake, The Great Chefs of France as more important influences. It would be far more desirable if young English chefs chose to emulate the brothers Roux.

At both Le Gavroche and the Waterside Inn, new chefs are being trained who are already threatening to perform greater feats than their mentors. My own kitchen is staffed entirely with young Englishmen, whom I find to be dedicated, cool under pressure, and infinitely painstaking. Just to watch them work gives me confidence and strength; in return, I would offer them one piece of advice, which is not to listen to those who invite them to ignore French kitchens. Choose your French restaurant well, and spend as much time as you can working there. It is the only way to become a true all-rounder.

What is the future of the small one/two-star Michelin-standard French restaurant? Since 1979 costs of running any restaurant, let alone a good one, have risen so dramatically that it must surely be not very long before it is completely impossible to run a small place - by which I mean a typical husband-and-wife operation with about thirty covers - both impeccably and profitably. You cannot have two sittings, because you're providing the highest quality ingredients, carefully cooked, and that takes individual attention and time. The only way to increase trade is to open for lunch, but lunch as a source of worthwhile business becomes less and less viable as economic pressures bear down and drag with them the leisurely, civilised lunch and its concomitant expense. The preponderance of diet-consciousness is, to the small restaurateur, no joke; there is no percentage for him in having Jane Fonda book a corner table. So, then, can you extend the evening session, by opening late and offering after-theatre dinners? Only if you expect a kitchen staff that has left at 1 a.m. to turn up, ready for action, seven hours later.

More and more, to the small restaurant, the threat of the no-shows grows. Guarantee thirty covers a night, five nights a week, and you can run a good establishment at a decent profit; but to arrive at this average, you have to spend nights squeezing thirty-six people in, and risk all that that means, to make up for the nights when two tables didn't turn up and you served only twenty-four covers. Some nights, you'll be fully booked, and turn away maybe thirty possible bookings, only to have a table of six not show, which means that you work the whole night just to break even. Every time someone does not honour his reservation, as night follows day, he is driving another nail in the coffin of the small restaurant.

Wages have now become extremely high in catering, and rightly so. Even the washers-up have to have cards (surely the most important piece of legislation passed by Mrs Thatcher's government), and statutory holidays are long. You close for three weeks in the summer, ten days at Christmas, a week at Easter. It takes nine weeks of trading to recover from the summer break alone, and as for trying to stay open over other holidays, that's out, because the markets are closed.

Ingredients? No one, surely, needs to ask; so expensive have top-quality raw materials become that there is no slack for the thirty-cover establishment to take up, no wastage that it can possibly afford. More and more, we shall see the best ingredients only in the larger units: somewhere like Jean Louis Taillebaud's Interlude de Tabaillau is laying down the ground-plan for the future, a future in which the Roux brothers are bound to flourish even more, through their formula of brilliant chef/prime site/large premises/total backing/split shareholding - we shall be looking at investments in the half-million-pound range. The chefs who will operate these are the protégés currently hovering around the pianos of Upper Brook Street and Bray.

I think we shall be seeing rather clinically clean premises, no table-cloths, set lunches and set dinners, with wines included, possibly aperitifs too. We shall see a pattern of full lunch-times, full for early dinners and for late dinners as well, and the food will be modern in style, light cooking and beautiful presentation; there will be truffles, there will be foie gras. There will, above all, be quality-control and a high degree of standardised organisation. The pressure on the chefs in places like these is likely to affect standards more than in a smaller restaurant.

Expansion of the brasserie seems to me to be inevitable. The literal, Larousse Gastronomique brasserie, i.e. from a glass of beer and a snack to something as elaborate as the circumstances will allow, cannot quite be permitted here because of the licensing laws. Langan's is presently the supreme English example, serving five hundred meals a day on crisp white napery; well-laid, flower-decked tables and a long menu, incorporating daily changes, the fare enjoyable and unfussy, the ambience bustling and volatile, the people both beautiful and Beautiful - what better place to relax with a bottle of Perrier-Jouet, what better antidote to dreariness and disorder and both national and personal depression? Londoners have much to thank Richard Shepherd for.

Nor does Bob Payton deserve less gratitude for his ability to feed eleven thousand people a week at his Chicago Rib Shack and Pizza Pie Factory, slick professional operations run to authentic American standards and serving American food of the highest quality, all of this achieved despite the pressure he is under from inferior imitators.

And what do I not want the future to offer? Any more amateurish earls or dukes, opening and closing rotten restaurants with monotonous regularity as we have seen over the last five years. Nauseating gimmicks such as starters only, vegetarians only, this only, that only. In fact anybody contemplating opening a small restaurant should serve ONLY good food.

So, finally. to our critics: since I have been fortunate enough not to suffer too much at their hands, no one will accuse me of settling old scores if I say that we have had enough of uninformed critics, of self-promoting critics, of freeloaders and poseurs and out-and-out crooks, and of those of their sponsors whose aim is to produce giveaway so-called 'guides', for the dubious honour of inclusion in which the restaurateur is expected to pay through the nose. Even the great and good, too, may sometimes err frighteningly; one of the saddest pieces of journalism I have read was a Guardian piece by my good friend Prue Leith, in which she advanced the proposition that the customer was always right. She even encouraged waiters to grovel! My view is that if a customer is demonstrably wrong, if a customer is openly rude, you do not offer them a glass of champagne. If they steal the cutlery, I call the police.

Call me misinformed, ignorant, stupid, what you like, but I am totally evangelical in my belief that the customer is not always right. And if anyone ever asked me how I wanted to be remembered in catering, I would reply: 'As the man who could never understand why so many people believe in the maxim "the customer is always right".’

*referring to the original site of Le Gavroche

**Nico refers to his rival, Marco Pierre White, who famously claimed at the time that he had never been influenced by French chefs as he had never been abroad

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