Posted on Sunday, April 29th, 2012
The boss hated turning people away who hadn’t booked – “chance”, as he used to call them, and most weekends we would end up feeding a dozen or so of these hungry strays in the cramped area in front of the bar, giving me more than my fair share of additional labour but adding enormously to the excitement of the evening. It would be like a scene from an Italian wedding: all sorts of people, thrown together around one big table, talking animatedly to people they had never expected to meet, never mind spend the evening with. These were definitely my favourite nights and I would go home feeling both physically exhausted and spiritually invigorated by the impromptu nature of the occasion and the buzz it generated.
John liked to encourage people to show off and was always thinking up new schemes for making the punters spend more cash. He was a bit of a slave to money, if I tell the truth, to the point where his lust for the stuff seemed to irritate Gloria, who, from the looks of things, might have been brought up around older money in her native Tuscany. John would organize ‘Lobster Nights’ at quiet times of the year, taking the trouble personally to invite all of his best regulars. He sure knew how to throw a party and, even though they would be expected to spend quite a lot of their own money, the customers seemed always to delight in his company and hospitality.
John would ostentatiously ply everybody with “champagne” when they arrived, before going on to serve the biggest lobsters they had ever set eyes on. I am sure that it was only the staff knew that it was Asti Spumante Secco in the glasses and that the lobsters were ‘crippled’ lobsters, bought at a knock-down price from the market, that were not complete with their own two claws - nor all of their own legs, for that matter. Prior to boiling them, John would ostentatiously parade the lobsters around the room on a silver platter, like champion shellfish at the seafood Olympics, just high enough above potentially prying eyes to hide their collective disability. Then he would disappear into the kitchen to perform his clever sleight of hand, distributing the pieces of red carcass on to lettuce-piled plates accompanied by a flotilla of gravy boats bearing mayonnnaise.
This calculating, sneaky side of John was what I identified with the least. But it wasn’t as if he was poisoning his customers or anything terrible like that - he just had a cheeky way of always making sure he came out on top, while encouraging customers to believe that they were actually getting an exceptional deal themselves. It was a kind of caring cynicism, and I am certain that John gave the customers sufficient value for money by bringing laughter, fun and sophistication into their otherwise predictable and mundane, suburban evenings. I rarely saw John happier than on these mad and rather lucrative Lobster Nights, surrounded by his faithful, regular clientele - and if John was happy, we were all happy.
I remained working for John, on the weekends and during summer holidays throughout my last two years of school, by which time he had opened a smaller, seafood restaurant across the road from the hugely successful L’Escargot. It was called La Crevette (The Shrimp) and this became my next little home, with its wall-hanging fisherman’s nets, plastic lobsters and wobbly tables. It was cosy as hell, with only nine, we’ll-spaced, dark wood tables, and I can’t say I ever had all that much to do. I suspect that I was really only employed because I was cheap and John wanted to help out my family. I got a huge buzz from the busy Saturday nights and by the time I left school for Manchester University, I was already looking forward to finding similar, part-time work up in the North. I did not realise it then, but I was about to embark on a year of poverty, academic stagnation and relative loneliness, barred from any restaurant work by the strict rules of the Manchester Law Faculty. My favourite hobby was to be no more.
One night, while I was away, I heard that John had suffered a massive heart attack and had fallen into a coma. He was fifty-two years old. A few days later, before I even had time to take the train down to London, he was dead, never having regained consciousness. Gloria eventually left London and moved to Italy; the party was finally over at L’Escargot. When I think about it now, I really could have done with talking to John when I had my first business crisis a few years later. To tell the truth, I still miss him now.
Posted on Monday, July 4th, 2011
At the age of seventeen I took my first steps in the restaurant business and began working part-time behind the bar of a local restaurant in North London, called L’Escargot. The restaurant was owned by John Moretti, a flamboyant English-Italian bon-viveur and entrepreneur who happened to be married to my mother’s best friend. Gina was petite, elegant, feisty, entertaining and quintessentially Italian. In the dreary suburbs of North London, Gina seemed to me about as glamorous as Sophia Loren with her extravagant, hand-painted silk dresses, designer shoes from Cortina d’Ampezzo and West End coiffure. The restaurant occupied a prominent corner position on a crossroads in a quiet backwater close to London’s northern border with Hertfordshire. It was not, at first sight, perhaps the most obvious spot in which to open a smart French restaurant but the location turned out to be absolutely perfect: it was a short drive from residential areas that had become colonized by professional footballers from First Division (now Premiership) London clubs such as Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur and by other nouveaux riches who could afford the big house prices and the golf club memberships. Gina and John became an instant hit with this affluent crowd who greatly enjoyed their hospitality and style and regularly came back for more. L’Escargot was a restaurant full of regular customers. It was indicative of John’s nature that he had named the restaurant in honour of the horse that won the Grand National that year and not, as many people believed, after the famous Soho landmark restaurant with the huge snail above it’s door (our snail was a small bronze sculpture and occupied a prominent position above the bar). John was a keen gambler and liked to tell his friends that he had only been able to afford the restaurant lease after backing the famous horse at Aintree that summer. Having got to know him better, I now suspect that this was all made up but, at the time, everyone believed it to be true.
John was a self-made man who had traveled abroad more than most people he mixed with. As a result he had acquired a more than convincing veneer of sophistication and, in my adolescent view, John embodied the epitome of male chic. He smoked big, fat Romeo y Julieta cigars, padded around in hand-made, Italian calf-skin loafers, drank only the best wines and drove a vintage Mercedes sports coupe. Whatever John lacked in formal education he made up for in style. I mention this because he was always telling people what a bright boy I was (something my father would never do) and how I was getting a much better education than he had ever been permitted to have. He never wore socks beneath his loafers but always kept a spare pair in his brown leather attaché case – “in case I have to see the bank manager” – where they would keep happy company with fat rolls of cash and at least two day’s supply of Havana’s best cigars.
John’s greatest talent was for making people feel special. He would let customers into “secrets”, taking them into a corner to whisper conspiratorially in their ear, and he was always generous with racing tips, even sharing them with me when he felt strongly about a particular horse or greyhound. He was a font of privileged information about shares, currency movements, fine wines and horses. John recognized that people were looking for fantasy and glamour when they dined at L’Escargot and he understood precisely what his and Gloria’s contribution should be. He knew how to flatter people and how to make them laugh; he created an incredible buzz in the seventy cover bistro with its red check tablecloths and improvised liqueur-bottle candle holders covered in thick layers of multi-coloured wax. He could make special occasions all the more special by donning whites and going in to the kitchen himself to create a special dish for a customer whose birthday it was. Later, he might call Gina to come down and share a crepe suzette with these favoured guests. People loved to see John and Gina dining in the restaurant.
I got on very well with John and I must say I liked and admired him enormously. He ran the restaurant mostly hands-on - unless he was away on one of his and Gloria’s frequent trips to Italy - and with its successful combination of popular French bistro food, soft lighting, well-chosen background music and excellent hospitality, L’Escargot was a truly wonderful neighborhood restaurant. I watched John carefully and learned a great deal from him of the art of the restaurateur although I had not the slightest inclination that I might follow him into the trade; I had already set my sights on a Law degree and was preparing for my university entrance exams.
One of the first things he told me when I started at L’Escargot was that we were permanently on show from the moment we entered the building – John never failing to tell me off for biting my nails behind the bar when I wasn’t busy, reminding me that I was in the spotlight and now “public property”, as he liked to say. He showed me how to taste wine correctly, how to handle and cut expensive cigars, the basics of ‘reading’ customers and how to differentiate between those you could be yourself with and those you had to “handle with care”. He adored good food and said that life was too short for drinking bad wine. “But you don’t want to open a restaurant my boy… There are easier ways to make money for a boy with brains like you. People think that what I do is easy and that I make loads of money but, let me tell you, as soon as you hit a quiet patch it’s easy to lose everything you made on the busy days. No, you go to university and become a big-shot lawyer. Now there’s an easy way to make money!”
Stay tuned for Part Two...
Posted on Monday, July 4th, 2011
The director of London's world-famous The Ivy restaurant, best known for his show The Restaurant Inspector, tells the ladies about his nationwide tour helping improve restaurants around the country.
He tells the women how he wants to help restaurants create a good dining experinece to go alongside their food, and discusses not losing his cool when dealing with hot-tempered restaurant owners.
He also reveals why he once turned Beyonce away from The Ivy!