Food For Thought
The key to success in the restaurant business is not about making the perfect béchamel sauce, it’s simply about being nice to people, says Russell Norman
Buridan’s Ass is the name given to an ancient philosophical paradox where a donkey, positioned between two equally large and delicious bales of hay, must choose which to eat. Because the bales are identical and equidistant, the donkey lacks a reason to choose one over the other, can’t decide which to eat, and so starves to death.
I’m a bit like that when I go to a restaurant. If the menu is really well-written and everything sounds so enticing that I want to order every dish, I go into a sort of confused, trance-like menu meltdown. In fact, it was this terrible flaw in my personality that motivated me to open Polpo, a small-plate restaurant where all dishes are designed to be shared. I wanted my cake and I wanted to eat it.
But despite my love of food, my innate greediness and the feeling of rising panic I get just after ordering in a restaurant (“Did I order the right dish? What if someone else chose a better option? Will they let me try theirs?”) I have learnt a surprising truth over the years: restaurants are not, in fact, about food. Yes, you read that correctly.
A restaurant experience starts with the food, of course. That is the reason we book a table at lunchtime or at dinnertime, because we know we are going to be hungry then and that’s when we want to eat. But once the biological, physiological requirements of your stomach have been taken care of, the real restaurant experience takes over. It’s then that you realise that restaurants are actually about people.
My job as a restaurateur is to make you feel good. The word comes from the French verb restaurer – to restore. And the way I do that is principally by surrounding you with other people who are having a good time, employing people whose job is to make sure you have a good time and generally being as hospitable and accommodating as possible to make sure that you have a good time. A meal in a restaurant should be a transporting experience and it should make you feel better about yourself and the world around you when you leave than you did when you arrived. When people ask me what I do for a living and I mention restaurants, they will often then talk about food. I prefer to talk about hospitality.
My business strategy, one that I applied to my first restaurant Polpo in 2009, and to every one of the eleven restaurants I have opened since, is simple: I never lose sight of the fact that I am here for the benefit of my customer. Restaurants are multi-layered enterprises where hospitality, service, décor, design, lighting, atmosphere, music, conversation, food and drink all come together to create an experience that is greater than the sum of its individual parts.
Next time you leave a restaurant and all you can remember is the food, trust me, something’s missing. Good restaurants need more than a delicious bale of hay to tip the balance.