Restaurant critic of the Financial Times for over 20 years and author of The Art of the Restaurateur, Nicholas Lander talks about the business and his book during his recent visit to Melbourne during the Food & Wine festival.
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Congratulations on The Art of the Restaurateur. While I was reading, I often thought there wouldn’t be many other people out there who would be in a position to write such a book.
I would like to think that. I began to appreciate as I started to write the book that it was incumbent upon me to record all that these highly talented and determined individuals have achieved – as they have not only changed how we enjoy food and wine, but also the cities within which we enjoy them.
How did the opportunity to do the book come together? Was it an idea you’d had brewing for a long time or did it come together a little more serendipitously?
Emilia Terragni, the far-sighted editor at Phaidon, emailed me out of the blue in the summer of 2010 asking me whether there was a book inside me as she enjoys my column in the FT. I responded immediately with the title and the list of the 20 restaurateurs…
Did you interview each of the restaurateurs specifically for the book, or were these recollections of your previous interviews and experiences with each chef?
I knew all the restaurateurs before I started writing and then I interviewed them all again individually and specifically for the book.
It’s a very different landscape to just 15-20 years ago in cities like Melbourne and London – food awareness and restaurant patronage has exploded, however so too the number restaurants trading. Then of course there are sites such as Urban Spoon and Yelp providing an instant outlet for mass praise or persecution. Do you think restaurateurs had it ‘easier’ a generation ago?
Today the competition is far more intense, without a doubt. The biggest difference a generation ago was that there were far fewer interested customers, which brought complications and challenges of a completely different sort.
At last year’s Chef Jam event, David Chang said when people ask him for advice or recommendations for aspiring restaurateurs, his reply is “don’t do it”. Would you agree with him? Or understand where he’s coming from at least?
No! I would obviously say buy my book by way of detailed reply. Our son has actually just opened The Quality Chop House in London and it is undoubtedly a tough and exhausting profession. But it can be exceptionally rewarding and equally exciting – and far more uplifting than spending one’s day in front of a computer screen!
The prices of food and wine in restaurants has risen a lot in recent years in Australia, yet restaurateurs say their margins are shrinking down to razor thin percentages. Is this something occurring internationally as well?
Yes, but only because everyone moans. Farmers moan, so do journalists, those in advertising. It is a universal malaise.
Is the era of the Marco Pierre-White / Gordan Ramsay style of chef intensely yelling orders and profanities a thing of the past? Are today’s restaurants a more professional place? Has hospitality grown up?
Yes and Yes. And one major beneficial consequence of there now being far more restaurants is that if one individual in charge is rude or unpleasant then there are no shortage of well behaved Head Chefs and restaurateurs to offer an alternative job. This process has also been hastened by the decline in importance of the French kitchens with their demeaning hierarchical structure.
Could The Art of the Restaurateur make an interesting program or documentary series?
I am sure The Art of the Restaurateur would make cracking TV.
Can Nicholas Lander still review a London restaurant anonymously?
Oh yes, no problem!
Most of Melbourne’s dining hotspots are no bookings, many with queues literally down the stairs and out the door. Would you ever queue for an hour or two to eat at a restaurant?
It depends. If it will make a good story and appeal to FT readers around the world, then yes.
The Art of the Restaurateur – Through Phaidon
By Matt Hurst