“It’s very rare that you get stripped of everything and have to ask yourself: can I do this?”
When Adam Byatt eventually walks into his new restaurant in Clapham where I’ve been waiting for nearly an hour and a half, he’s rather apologetic. He looks down at the glossy pages of his cookbook I’ve been given for amusement. “Have that as an apology” he says; “I always buy my kids presents when I’ve been away for a while”, he jokes with a smile.
The reason? A manic lunch-service in Byatt’s more established restaurant Trinity, a short walk from where we’re both now sat, and despite the wait, it’s actually fairly refreshing to meet a celebrity-chef who still works in their own restaurant. Not that Byatt considers himself a ‘celebrity-chef’, or, for that matter, even particularly successful; more a “work in progress”. But he denies the charge of modesty. “I’m just grateful; I don’t take anything for granted. And it’s been a slow burner. I still live in a three bed flat and work 80 hours a week, I’m no better than anyone else.”
Byatt’s realism stems from a tempestuous ride through the industry. After the quick crash of his first venture, Thyme, in the West End, Byatt refused to play-dead, and now owns two buzzing restaurants in Clapham, whilst he remains below forty. It’s like he’s been served a promising starter that turns out to be severely over-seasoned, distrusts a well-thought out main, and is finally enjoying the sweet, satisfying reward of dessert. And unbelievably, whilst he believes he’s spent most of his waking life in a restaurant kitchen, he’s still lucky enough not to have absorbed the grey pallor that marks many a nocturnal chef’s cheek.
Yet, there are scars. Thyme opened when Byatt was just 26, an age he believes he was still “horrendously young, immature and inexperienced. On a lot of levels”. When Thyme hit financial turmoil almost immediately, Byatt was not at an age where he could work out what he needed to do, and its closure was a damaging experience; his confidence, with the restaurant, disappeared.
Is Byatt sick of talking about the restaurant that now hangs from his neck like an albatross? Slightly, but he’s got fighting talk. “You get stuck with these things, but they are all part of how you get where you are. It happened for a reason. I can tell you now it’s the loneliest place in the world to be: having to close a business and make redundancies, and tell your wife that your house is going to be repossessed. It’s extremely lonely. But you are faced with a very rare opportunity which you do not get at any other time – and that is to look at yourself in the mirror, unprotected by anything at all. You don’t have anything left; you’re completely exposed. You have to look at yourself in the mirror, and you have to judge for yourself whether you have the absolute raw talent and belief to go forward, or that you don’t, and you want to run away and hide. It’s very rare that you get stripped of everything and have to ask yourself: can I do this? Given only my 2 hands and what I know in my head can I take us from ground zero to a successful place? And I believed I could.”
Does that mean Byatt would make the same move knowing what he does ten years later? The gamble’s still an uncertain one; it placed him on the stage of the industry, and life is about building blocks, he says. “The good and the bad both filter into a melting-pot and they make you who you are”, he considers. Luckily for Byatt, this bubbling substance in the melting-pot is now an ideal situation. “If I could’ve known this when I started out – I haven’t even really thought about this until now, but if someone had said, by the time your 37 you will own two lovely, local, fully-booked restaurants in London, at the top of their game, I would’ve taken that immediately. But I still look at it like we’re only starting.”
Where it in fact started was Claridges, the Michelin starred hotel-restaurant in Mayfair, now headed by fiery chef of expletives, Gordon Ramsey. After an agitated time at school, Byatt finally escaped a day before his 16th birthday and moved out of home on the same day. Lacking academically, and in an ambitious school catering only for erudite intelligence, Byatt was badly bullied, and became a troublesome teenager. “I was put by the wayside because I couldn’t champion the studies they wanted me to, so I ran away from it as soon as I could. The structure of the kitchen appealed to me – I needed to be somewhere controlled. My dad was an East End window cleaner but he desperately didn’t want me to do the same thing. He wanted me to be better.”
Packed off to Bournemouth with 12 other young chefs from around the country and trained on a private scholarship, Claridges aimed to fix the attitude Byatt had developed early on. “Disruptive” is how Byatt himself describes it, but to his credit, he, too, wanted it changed. “I asked what Bournemouth was like, and someone told me there was a beach, so I said I’d go. But I loved every minute of it – even if people do go to Bournemouth to die” he says, with a surprisingly straight face. Five years later he was spat out as a trained chef; money and hours began not to matter, he’d set his heart on becoming really good at what he’d started and spent the next ten years perfecting his skill.
Partly to thank, is Marco Pierre White, Byatt’s reason for being so drawn to the restaurant world. It was the early 90s and Pierre White was being sold as the first rock-star chef; he had his own PR and an image selling his dark brooding looks as cool. You could’ve given him a guitar and sent him on stage with Pearl Jam. Byatt was bought, and immediately wanted the same thing. Not the fame though; it was more the mischievous elements of Pierre White’s performance which enticed him. “He had tonnes of attitude and unlike me, was allowed to express it. I wanted the freedom that he made look so appealing.” Byatt moved to The Square, another of Mayfair’s Michelin starred eateries, and into the arms of a head-chef who’d worked with Pierre White for three years, thinking it would be the next best thing. “He came in for dinner a lot” he smiles, “The Square was very rock and roll”.
Despite Pierre White’s dodgy knife-waving on Channel Five now though, Byatt still credits him with shaping the food scene in this country, and inspiring many in the industry. “I have nothing but admiration for him.” Un-judging is Byatt about people taking full advantage of their status as a ‘celebrity-chef’. “This industry is very hard, and if it’s not all going your way it is a really lonely place to be. Slogging it in a kitchen, not making any money, and seeing the years drop by – that’s not a very nice position. So when you see chefs that have been incredibly showered with accolades and press in former years go on to do things which are perhaps a bit cringe worthy I can completely understand why they do it. As long as it’s not damaging your business – why shouldn’t you? You’re only here once. I’m practical, not precious.”
Hugely different, though, is the notion of being a chef, and being a cook, and Byatt fell in love with food and the process of cooking much later on. “Once I engaged with it, I became very good, and when I started to believe in myself everything else fell into sync” he explains. “At Claridges I learnt the knuts and bolts of how to be a chef, but I didn’t learn how to cook.” Why? Because he couldn’t force a connection with the old-school dishes that were leaving the passé. “When I went into restaurants it was very different. It was real cooking – I felt an exciting emotional attachment to what we were serving. There are very few industries that give you instant gratification for what you do – but being a chef is one of them. We’re judged very quickly, and I get a lot of buzz out of that.”
But evident, still, are the consequences of Thyme’s premature closure on Byatt’s attitude. With blunt logic does he see each venture as a business, and worries, just slightly, about the future, a reason he spends as much time with them as he does. “Trinity is very fine dining – a thousand moving parts to make it work every day – it’s complicated and difficult. The result is a beautiful thing – our customers are very happy, and it’s an exceptionally nice business but it takes an enormous amount of effort and focus and energy to make it work. If I didn’t go there for a month it would deteriorate- even though I’ve got a great team – it needs that 100 per cent every day. Every day we think about how we can make it better than the day before.”
Bistro Union, Byatt’s newest venture, though, is remarkably different. Compared to Trinity’s thousand moving parts, Bistro Union has a number closer to forty – if each part runs smoothly, everyone’s happy. “I don’t need to be there every day for that to happen” Byatt admits. “It’s more sustainable – and it’s scalable. We could easily open several others. It’s a high class brand with an artisan feel. There are a lot of really unique touches, but we want to move forward.” They’re looking at sites already – and all within two miles of the flagship restaurant on Abbeville Road. The beauty of the close proximity between restaurants is that Byatt can flit between the two with ease, even if, he admits, it might not be to the ease of his staff.
So much is Byatt’s involvement; care, that he’s at home only one or two nights a week. Does he think his son would probably echo his own childhood complaints that his father wasn’t there enough? Jack, at eight years old, is happy enough to voice his opinions; he does. “Do you know what – I’m really sad to admit that – but it’s true. I used to be so disappointed when my dad came home late from work every night and I told myself I would never do that to my children – but I continually get that look from my son”.
I wonder whether Byatt feels safer away from a West End site, and his answer comes quite close to a yes. “I wouldn’t open another restaurant in the West End. It’s about happiness and balance; that work-life balance. Right now I have two restaurants within two miles of my house. I have to be at the restaurants all the time, and so that’s the only way I know how to do that. And I like knowing who my customers are – the local element of Clapham allows that, but the West End doesn’t. Here we’re offering a West-End experience in a local environment and that’s become our forte.”
Stylistically Byatt believes it’s important to know your centre and not to be governed largely by trends. “Innovation and creativity are important – you need to push your own boundaries and challenge yourself, but experimental cooking when you’re younger can be counter-productive”. A reason perhaps for Byatt’s avoidance of the infamously ground-breaking Spanish restaurant El Bulli, even if he does admit the best meal he’s ever had has been at the equally brave Danish venture Noma. “I’m quite susceptible to being led if I’m honest, and Ferran Adria is inspiring; I thought he’d make me depreciate what I was doing. Every plate of food I make now is based on whether my guests are going to love it; it’s not fickle or tricksy, but it is current; it’s very ‘now’. It uses modern techniques but fuses them with the foundation of classical cooking.”
By opening another couple of Bistro Unions does Byatt not worry that he risks the impersonal nature of a chain? Constant seems the slip of quality, as chains sprout up with big-names above the door. “When you expand something, it’s naturally going to dilute” says Byatt, “but that isn’t based on how many restaurants there are, but on how many moving parts the business has. It’s the same with cars – they don’t make a million Rolls Royces – but they can afford to make a lot of Ford Fiestas. The less complication there is, the less likely the quality is of diluting. That’s why Bistro Union would expand beautifully.” Whether it is impersonal perhaps depends on how romantically you think about the trade – at the end of the day, restaurants are of course all businesses that need to make money; a blunt truth, but one which it would be naïve to criticise.
Byatt’s dream now, surprisingly, is to travel. Stalling back-packing plans to take the first opportunity of employment at The Square, Byatt was been repressing itchy feet for years. Finally, next August, he’s taking a luxurious four weeks out of the kitchen to enjoy a long-awaited trip abroad; a momentous decision for someone who has been unable to take more than a week off for the last ten years. They’re loading two kids and a dog into a huge campervan and driving all the way down to Barcelona before crossing to Corsica, Italy and France. There’s still a youthful glint in Byatt’s eye but life has coloured his cheek. Is he exhausted? “Always”, he replies, without even a blink; “but it doesn’t make any difference”. How long will he keep going? “Forever” he says, with as much speed. “I’m sorry to tell you when you get older everything changes. You can’t eat as much as you used to. You can’t drink as much. You get a lot less sex. It all goes horribly wrong. Forget it. Stay where you are”. I told him we’d try.