"The Oldie is an incredible magazine - perhaps the best magazine in the world right now" Graydon Carter, founder of Air Mail and former Editor of Vanity Fair

Subscribe to the Oldie and get a free cartoon book

Subscribe

Hell’s kitchens. By Rowley Leigh

Blog | Feb 12, 2024


Restaurants thrive on disfunction and misery.

Sensible, successful people, happily married and with 2.4 children, a cleaner twice a week and a foreign holiday at least twice a year, don’t go to restaurants. Apart from anything else, they can’t afford them, what with all three boys destined for Radley.

Restaurants thrive on Tolstoy’s unhappy families, each being unhappy ‘in its own way’. They thrive on disfunction and divorce, acting as cover for the lack of a happy home. They thrive on diversity and dodgy dealing – the use of a restaurant is to persuade somebody to something they might not have agreed to without the help of a couple of margaritas and a rather good Oregon Pinot noir.

The reason restaurants thrive on diversity is that they present themselves as neutral spaces whose only demand is that you should enjoy yourselves.

That imprecation is not always obeyed. You propose on a hilltop, by a waterfall or on a trip to Barnard Castle and in broad daylight. You dump in the dark, in the murky corners of a restaurant. Such dinners aren't much fun - yet there are family gatherings that seem even more shrouded in gloom. Those who haven't come to have fun will take it out on the waiter or whoever else is within their range.

Most complainants save their ire for later, either with vengeful emails to the owner or – the coward’s way out – by posting a filthy review on Trustpilot.

It is only the brave who voice their disappointment at the time. One such couple at the Waterside Inn called over Michel Roux (Senior, Albert’s brother) to tell him how feeble their starters had been, that their meat had been undercooked and served on cold plates and that they had not enjoyed anything.

Michel said he understood and walked away, instructing the head waiter to remove the couple’s table, leaving them stranded on their dining chairs in the middle of a busy restaurant.

Other customers come with an excessive sense of their own importance and adopt a peremptory tone. One man started ostentatiously clicking his fingers to attract his waitress, Marianne.

She studiously ignored him as he waved his arms around, clicking frantically. Eventually he gave up – and Marianne finally approached the table.

‘Didn’t you see me clicking my fingers?’ he demanded.

‘It takes more than two fingers to make me come’ was her curt and devastating reply.

If the question ‘Why go to a restaurant?’ is problematic, more mysterious is why anyone would want to run one. It is almost impossible to make a profit.

By the time you’ve filed your VAT return, revised your risk assessments, assimilated the blow of another hike in the business rate, spluttered disbelief at the latest utility bill and negotiated a month’s extension from your creditors, you might ask why you got into the business.

You thought it might be rather fun. Think again.

Imagining that you can charge a fair price for a fair product, you find yourself forced to charge £50 for a bottle of wine that the punter can buy for a quarter of that in their supermarket.

The same goes for the food. Nowadays a profit margin of 75 per cent is not unusual. After the VAT man has taken his 20 per cent, a dish costing £30 in a restaurant will have cost the chef cooking it £6. Daylight robbery, you might think.

We don’t go to restaurants to buy food or wine. We go partly because we cannot be bothered to cook, serve or clean up after a meal. And we go to be pampered and to be schmoozed a little. All this cooking, serving, cleaning up, pampering and schmoozing makes up the largest part of the hapless restaurateur’s costs. Staff – increasingly hard to come by – are expensive, a chef’s wages having gone up 40 per cent in the last five years.

Given these travails – not to mention the energy prices or the huge rise in the price of food – it is heartening that some restaurants thrive. There is no shortage of would-be restaurateurs: honest toilers looking for a piece of the action, or speculative investors who see gold at the end of the restaurant rainbow.

There is no magic formula for restaurant success. You might think consistently good food would underpin such a blueprint, but there are graveyards full of chefs who produced great food but failed to control costs and have slid under.

Even good service is no guarantee of success, especially if it is too formal or even overfamiliar.

Providing either or both of these qualities is, of course, expensive. One of my old bosses, Albert Roux, addressed the idea of restaurant success cynically but succinctly: ‘Consistency is everything: you can be good, bad or mediocre and being consistently mediocre is probably the best way.’

It wasn’t his way. At Le Gavroche, he always strove for excellence and claimed to ‘thrive on difficulty’. That his son, at 60, should choose to close the place, rather than take his foot off the pedal and let it slide into ‘consistent mediocrity’, is only to be admired.

After over 40 years in the business, he has merely had an attack of sanity.

Rowley Leigh set up Kensington Place and Le Café Anglais restaurants. He worked at Le Gavroche