The best experience a young chef could have hoped for in the 1980s was to work under one of the big names in one of London’s prestigious hotel kitchens, those celebrated restaurants where apprentice chefs could really earn their stripes. When I arrived from Dorset, still wet behind the ears, I was fortunate enough to work for Anton Mosimann and Anton Edelman at the Grosvenor House and Dorchester Hotels.
Looking back, those were certainly tough times. I was earning 50 quid a week – half of which went towards paying rent in South Kensington – but I’d stretch my funds wherever I could, walking to work through the park and taking on every bit of overtime that was offered to me. I ended up working once a week on the HMS Belfast to earn that all important extra beer money, so economically speaking, we got by.
Today is a slightly different kettle of fish for those starting out. Young chefs and waiters go to work in restaurants, rather than in hotels with well-known chefs. That’s not to say that it isn’t as hard going, as although there are new restaurants opening almost every week, there are almost as many closing. With so much choice out there for diners there’s zero room for error for the independent restaurateur, especially with rents and rates soaring all across London.
It’s easy to blame Brexit for all the industry’s problems, but at the end of the day we have to live with the situations that the world economy lays at our front door. But few would deny that the growing demand for labour is a ticking time bomb. Catering and hospitality colleges aren’t opening at the same rate as hotels and restaurants are being built, so the pressure is on restaurants to look abroad to bring labour in. I can’t see that changing anytime soon, but if the UK is ever going to grow its hospitality businesses it needs to seriously think about where the future talent will come from.
It’s wise to remember that the industry’s been through a few cataclysms and come out relatively unscathed. I opened my first restaurant in 2008, during the world-ending crisis of the time: the credit crunch. Everyone said I was mad, and that I should wait until things settled down, but I got on with it and made it work. You have be able to smile in the face of adversity, so as a bit of tongue in cheek humour I stuck ‘Credit Crunch’ ice cream on the menu at a wallet-friendly £1.50 a scoop, just in case any of my customers were feeling the pinch.
That first Hix restaurant in Smithfield saw a lot of custom, with my friends Fergus and Trevor over at St. John being the only other restaurant in the area. We didn't regard one another as competition, and we probably complemented each other by providing a bit more breadth of choice in and around the meat market.
Now I’ve been in Soho for seven years and witnessed a boom in new restaurant openings, from places that can offer a decent lunch for less than a tenner to mid-range spots like ours. Watching who succeeds and who closes their doors makes you reassess what people want, what people can afford, and ultimately what they’re willing to pay. The people themselves are changing, too. But while a lot of the design studios that gave Soho its character have been priced out of the area, along with the young creatives who worked in them, there are still a few interesting old characters gracing The Groucho and Soho House. This part of London isn’t letting go of its identity just yet.
In business you have to just get on with things and make the most of what you have, and realise that when a door shuts, more often than not a window will open. The weak pound is continuing to lure tourists to the UK in great numbers, and restaurants and hotels are feeling the benefit. Our love of wine from around the world means we have to pay a bit more for it, but that gives our increasing number of UK sparkling wine producers an opportunity to get on more wine lists, and to be competitive. A lot of them are winning global awards.
Credit Crunch ice cream is still on my menu, too, a small reminder that we can stick these things out. It’s as popular as ever, and still £1.50 a scoop.