Duo behind London's next culinary revolution
Kamau Johnston & Chef Michael Moore
Upon first impression, Chef Michael Moore is a man full of confidence. He has a million dollar smile and a deep, bellowing laugh that quickly disarms you. He’s dressed in a suit on this occasion adding an air of formality but that air quickly transforms to the feeling you have when you’re with a good friend.
It’s not every day you get the chance to speak to a chef with so many accolades. He’s trained at the Savoy, worked at the Dorchester, George V in Paris and has owned his own restaurant - Michael Moore Branford Street in Marylebone. But it’s clear that Michael isn’t stopping there. He’s a mover and a shaker, looking beyond the confines of the kitchen on a mission to transform the world’s hospitality scene.
I was lucky enough to also interview Kamau Johnston on this day too. Kamau has worked as General Manager at Zuma and the Ivy in Chelsea. Today, he is Managing Director of a consulting firm for restaurants. He’s collaborating with Michael on his new project the London Cookhouse.
The past few months have been a busy time for Michael. He's been meeting with developers, partners, and shareholders. He's been to Barcelona cycling around with the architects behind El Bulli whilst searching for the perfect venue here in London. We speak about what it takes to find the right people, the journey of starting a new business and his mission to reshape London’s hospitality scene.
Tell me about your new project The London Cookhouse? The London Cookhouse is about offering guests a full sensory experience. It’s a food entity that will breathe life. The bar and ground floor restaurant will come first. We will have a live theatre where celebrity chefs such as Locatelli will be cooking for a weekly residence and people can live stream and tap into what the chefs are doing. Tying this all together will be an atrium in the middle so everyone can see what is going on in the other rooms. It’s about breaking down the barriers between chef and guest. It’s bringing the best of service forward. We want people to spend the whole day. Our space will be open to everyone.
Finding the right venue was the most difficult. We were looking for a warehouse space that is comfortable, warm and welcoming. But more importantly creating a space that is sustainable for the staff – not keeping them in a tiny crammed room in the back that is not functional. The warehouse building we found was famous for glass and leather production. It has a lot of history, so we wanted to preserve that. Famous films like Batman and Sherlock Holmes have been shot there too. Watch this space Farringdon...
How long has this been in the making? In 2014, I fell ill and was hospitalised. It was a terrible time for me but it gave me 8 months to think and I kept saying to myself if I get through this I want to create a legacy. I had closed my restaurant in 2010 after a decade in business. The leases in London increased to extortionate amounts and it was a hard choice to make. I had been doing a lot of consulting work trying to help struggling business survive but I kept thinking to myself, why am I wasting my time on these dying businesses when I should try to focus on something greater. I want to break down barriers in London. When I worked at the Savoy, I was the only black guy in the kitchen. Today, when you see Gordon’s restaurants there is a black guy in every kitchen but you don’t see them being promoted. I don’t want to swim in anyones shadow. I'm here to make a difference.
On finding the right people…We want staff knocking on our door asking to work here like in the old days. A place where training and education are at the forefront creating clear career paths and autonomy in their roles. We want to move away from only focusing on maximising covers. The influx of labour is being cut off and people need to think about sustaining and keeping the good people. Everyone in TLC will have a purpose. Things aren’t just created, they are created by people.
How have you seen the London hospitality scene change? What shifts have you seen to know this is the right time. I started in hospitality in the 80’s. I loved the passion, the respect, the glamour. No one spoke about money. It was the old fashioned gentlemans way. Today, we are just numbers, bums in seats. We’ve moved away from service to become yield managers. Like at Christmas time when you’re supposed to be engaging most with your customers, there are turn times of 115min to get more seats in and the customers who are the heart of your business - their experiences are being cut short.
Being greeted when you walk into an empty restaurant with reserved signs on tables and being asked ‘do you have a booking,’ copying the nightclub model of creating desire from the outside when its empty. It really winds me up. I think it boils down to restaurant managers not being trained and not being able to handle the stress. Managers who trained in hospitality are forced to know about numbers. In mainland Europe you can’t make reservations anymore – I love this! Our industry isn’t about clients anymore its all about numbers.
At my restaurant we would have queues at 6:30pm and other restaurants on the street would ask me how I did it. It was simple - I didn’t take bookings. The public will only go as far as you allow them to go. It’s how we treat our clients.
What challenges do you think restaurateurs face in London? Pressure. When the owners or investors come to you saying I need you to make this much money in this amount of time, the whole service element goes out the window. There is pressure to also do what everyone else is doing. It’s like a London template. And you have to ask yourself realistically, what cost am I willing to take a hit on to give that experience - because taking that 7% hit on your margins may just be the thing that keeps you going for the next few years.
Staff retention being an issue, how will you tackle this in your venue? Staff training is at the core of what we will do. Even if a runner gets stopped and asked something by a client, we want them to know where everything is and more importantly to be accountable. There has been a shift in London from service to yield in margins and cash flow. New restauranteurs think lets make as much money as quickly as possible because they don’t think their business isn't going to last. They have no faith in their business and this translates directly to the service level. To have great service, you have to invest and this is what gets people to come back.
You sit on the judging panel for Imbibe’s wine awards - what role does wine play with food? Food and wine are a marriage and they’ve always been. I remember serving great wines at my restaurant and watch people pour the salt all over their food and just chug the wine. The culture is now changing and people are taking more care of what they eat and drink.
We won’t have sommeliers but all our staff will be trained to a certain level. People are intimidated by sommeliers, guests want a person using real words that they can understand. We want to offer them a selection of wines so that they can taste and pick what they like instead of having to decipher a wine list. Having our suppliers be partners is key for us to be able to do this. Something as simple as a free bottle from our suppliers can easily enable us to deliver this service. We don’t want to become a special occasion place, we want it to be casual and for curious people to stop by.
What wine are you drinking at the moment?
KJ – Argentinian Malbec
MM – Viognier or Merlot for its chocolatey taste and dark fruits
Your thoughts on natural wines?
MM - Its still very young, it needs support and the attention it deserves. I’m for anything that supports the food.
Wine on tap?
KJ - I’m dubious about it because it goes back to the box wine culture of the 80’s and moves away from the experience of opening a bottle.
MM - I’m with Kamau on this one. I’m old fashioned, its traditional and we like the experience of opening the wine at the table. We won’t be serving any wine on tap at the restaurants.
You have so much experience, tell me what do you think will be London’s next big food trend? Do you know what the French say about London? They say ‘the British care more about what they put on their backs then what they put in their belly’. The London Cookhouse will be the next big trend. We want to give them the real McCoy without being extortionate.
Stay tuned with The London Cookhouse