Along with chef and business partner Fergus Henderson, London restaurateur Trevor Gulliver is responsible for one of the city’s most cherished and enduring dining halls, St John. With the original St John restaurant approaching its 20th anniversary, its second outpost St John Bread & Wine just celebrating its 10th and the first vintage of St John’s own wine production being ready for service, it’s been another interesting year for one of the UK’s most interesting food and dining operators.
On a ferry en route to the Lofoten Islands in arctic Norway, Trevor sits takes a moment to share thoughts on running his ever evolving yet comfortingly steadfast hospitality operation.
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How’s the first vintage at St John wines?
This is the 2011 and to be honest we are really pleased. The grenache gris has had folk being most complimentary, and the again with the reds it is almost as if people are surprised. From our perspective this was neither a vanity or charity project – make good wines or don’t make any. Let them express each vintage.
Many chefs and restaurateurs cite St John as an influence and reference. What or who was an early influence on you? Did you have any mentors along the way?
I do clearly remember Pierre Koffman’s pig’s trotter at Royal Hospital Road when I lived around the corner, however being born in the middle of London I’ve always enjoyed restaurants… Good or bad, they were always there, along with the pubs and clubs, part of the landscape and where you went, what you did.
There have been a few folk along the way that have either taught me lessons or been kind with advice. The path from naivety to experience has its pitfalls but I was happy to start naïve. Hindsight is great as they say afterwards, and these days experience, knowledge and friendships are very important.
What is a typical work week for you like?
There is no typical work week, I’m writing this on a three hour ferry journey from Bodo up to the Lofoten Islands in arctic Norway – got to see a man about some urchins! Yesterday we spent a long time at the bakery just talking about breads, pastries and then the general management of things, and hopefully solved a few problems too… Like our kitchens the general life of St. John is always changing and always happily demanding, I believe that a healthy workplace demands involvement.
It’s almost the 20th anniversary of Smithfield and the 10th for Bread & Wine. London’s dining public and its restaurant offer has come so far since then. Is it a harder or easier climate for new restaurateurs in 2013 versus ’93? Or even 2003?
Smithfield, the mothership, will be 20 next October, Bread and Wine was 10 back in May. Yes much has changed, restaurant chains, factory prepared foods, TV cooks (many are not chefs), healthy eating issues, sustainability, Slow Food and more, crikey, plenty of bandwagons for people to hang their marketing hats on!
Some are lucky, but generally it is difficult to start, as it should be. What is harder is knowing if you are any good at it, and actually having a way that you wish to go about your business and sticking to it. If you are good, patience will be rewarded and you will feel happy every time you walk into your place because you will have done right yourself, by your customers and your people.
If you weren’t doing what you do, what other field could you see yourself working in?
Oh, something would have come up, what it would have been I do not know…
What are you currently working on now (or next)?
We are fortunate that people talk to us about new opportunities and this does not change, not sure if Dubai or Moscow is right for us though, but who knows might be wrong!
Benjamin is doing good things in the winery and we have a lovely new head baker, Yohan, so we are enjoying working with both on our breads, pastries and wines. It’s also nice to see that we have a good stream of new clients and this is its own reward. We are looking at a couple of restaurant ideas and who knows, now we know about hotels, maybe a hotel – as we’ve always enjoyed our travel!
Latest book, film or album that grabbed you?
I always have some magazines, Lucky Peach, Economist (I know, I know!) on the go, a long term book and some “readable” stuff. As a Londoner, knowing the characters, location and life I am very much enjoying John Lanchester’s novel “Capital“… it’s very good read, and he’s a nice man too!
If you could change one thing…
Then nothing would be the same, what’s the phrase, “be careful what you wish for”!
Twenty years and still relevant – to achieve this do you subtly change with the times or stick to your guns?
We are always in a time of change – produce, people, today’s lunch menu, tomorrows vintage or simply a change in the way we feel about a particular subject that informs how we go about what we do. We are not new age luddites, our rigour and philosophy is the constant against which we move.
Sadly St John Hotel is no longer – Is the hotel business tougher than the restaurant business?
The hotel business is different from the restaurant world (excluding the chains), hotels are food and beverage, yield and a set of operating statistics, catering school and hedge fund stuff, nothing beyond the stage set of your room… We gained a Michelin Star in our very difficult first year (in a building site) and had already achieved occupancy in the high nineties with great folk staying, sowhat can I say, we did prove that there is a different way!
If you could give yourself one piece of advice to your 21 year-old self, what would it be?
Enjoy the naivety and freedom of youth but don’t forget to do the hard work when you are at a time in your life where you should have boundless energy. So work hard, play hard, and when you can, be polite. Only the young will make the world a better place!
Is there another 20 years in St John?
We wanted a sense of permanence at St. John, you should feel comfortable when you arrive, aware that we are comfortable in what we do, a good restaurant is an old friend, so we do not think in years we just think about being the way we are.
Trevor Gulliver (left) and Fergus Henderson (Image: Rahil Ahmad)
By Matt Hurst
(All images at top: Patricia Niven)