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An interview with Vaughn Tan
The Uncertainty Mindset, R&D chefs, quality, and the reshaping of the restaurant
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How to sum up Vaughn Tan for those who don’t know Vaughn Tan? While discussing this writer’s dilemma with Vaughn himself, I brought up that I consider him to be the perfect example of the Gladwellian archetype of the ‘connector’, which Malcolm Gladwell described in his book ‘The Tipping Point’ as the nexuses in our social networks, ie. those who are in the habit of making introductions. Vaughn then immediately corrected me by reeling off the names of the two sociologists who had made this point prior to Gladwell, and the titles of their research. This, perhaps, sums up Vaughn Tan more than anything else I could say.
The power of connectors has never been lost on me. In my own job Postcard Teas I’ve witnessed the most unlikely introductions, and then traced the network of friendships, collaborators and co-conspirators which have flourished because of them. Vaughn, however, is a one man nexus. I’ve been in bars in Japan, or with people who I have never met before, and suddenly something they say will push me to ask ‘Do you know Vaughn Tan?’ Often the answer is ‘of course, but how did you know?’ I often suspect he is capable of bilocation.
What makes Vaughn’s reputation even stranger is that he doesn’t even work in the food and drink industry. As a professor of strategy at UCL (a job no one has ever really got to the bottom of) he has been fully ensconced in academia, and yet it was no surprise that his first major book, The Uncertainty Mindset, revolved around food and restaurants ─ specifically the Research and Development (R&D) teams of high end kitchens. What I love about the book is its ability to connect disparate areas that no-one else would have thought of putting together, much like Vaughn himself.
I’ve wanted to interview Vaughn for a while, so it was a pleasure to finally sit down last week (me in London, him in the Auvergne) to talk about the book and the new relevance it gained during the pandemic. Over the last year Vaughn has expanded the book’s lessons through his own Substack page (what making pizza can teach you about uncertainty, for instance) and became the voice of reasonably phrased and empirically verified doom due to his (extremely prescient) article for Eater London on how restaurants will change due to the pandemic. We also talked about our mutual love (London restaurants) and our pet hate (also, London restaurants), and what our hopes are for them post-pandemic.
To buy Vaughn’s book, The Uncertainty Mindset, please click here http://www.uncertaintymindset.org/
Vaughn has also recently set up a website for his new project ‘idk’, which is basically tarot cards for people who used to work at Google. You can now pre-order them here: https://productivediscomfort.org/
When I read the The Uncertainty Mindset, I was struck by how it connects two fields which are seemingly unrelated to each other: how high end restaurants innovate and adapt their menus and the more broader field of business strategy and self-improvement. How did this project get started so you could link these two things? I take it that you would have been observing these kitchens not under the impression you were going to write a book about them, or if you were, having no idea what that book was going to be about?
Yeah, what you just said is absolutely true. The kind of research method I used for this is inductive research, where you go into a field ─ in this case restaurant kitchens ─ and you don’t really have an idea of what you’re there to look for, you just have an idea that the setting is an interesting place to look. I think I started doing this research mostly because ─ as you know ─ if you’re Singaporean you have almost a cultural or national interest in food. When I was working on my PhD, because I was interested in innovation there were obviously the possibilities of going to a tech company, like a semiconductor plant and figuring out how they do things. But I was opportunistic and lucky at the same time.
At around the time I had to pick a site, I was at Harvard and it was the first year in which what eventually became a very famous course was run. It was the ‘Science of Cooking’ course for which the instructors brought over Ferran Adrià and a whole bunch of mostly Spanish chefs to give weekly public lectures about cooking techniques which would then be explained in a much more detailed scientific way in the course.
So José Andrés, who used to work with Ferran, was one of the people involved in this. José did a session of his own; I went to his office hours, and I just asked him if he would be interested in having someone looking at how his organisation did stuff, because he had mentioned during his talk that he had an ‘R&D’ team. And he said ‘yeah sure, come for breakfast the next day’. During breakfast I said ‘I don’t know what I’m looking for but I’m quite curious about an R&D team in restaurants’.. I asked him if he would be OK with me coming down to just watch what they did, and bizarrely he said yes. I wasn’t expecting him to say yes, but when he said ‘yes come on down’, he kind of called my bluff.
So I went down and the first time I went I spent a week with them and that week I didn’t destroy anything or cause anything to catch fire, so they let me join them when they were opening three restaurants at the same time in Las Vegas. Once you’ve gone to one restaurant and shown you’re not a complete disaster, it became a way of getting into all the other restaurants that I ended up going to. The first one is always the hardest and I was very lucky that José was, and still is, the kind of person who would take a risk like this on someone he doesn’t know.
For those who aren’t familiar with the distinction, what is it about an R&D chef that is different to the role of a regular chef?
As a regular chef, if you’re in the service kitchen, you are basically cooking from a list of dishes that you know about already and you know how to cook. So every service someone orders this dish, you know how to cook it, the ingredients don’t change very much. The whole point of being a service chef, is that you know what you’re doing and you know how to do it, and you’re expected to do it the same way every time. So it’s about consistency, but also efficiency as well.
Now if you’re an R&D chef things are different. You’re supposed to be creating new things, whether it’s a new dish, or a new experience of dining, or a new ingredient or a new way of cooking. What that means, by definition, is that you as the R&D chef cannot yet know what that thing will be, nor can you know how to achieve that thing. So not only is the outcome unknown, but the way of getting to that outcome is also unknown. So R&D chefs are different from service kitchen chefs, not just because they cannot be expected to do things consistently and efficiently ─ the bigger difference is that R&D chefs have to be really, really good at failing all the time.
If you think about any situation where you’re doing something for the first time, you will not succeed at doing that thing. The way you don’t succeed at doing that thing will be different until you find out how to do it right. I think that is something we don’t talk about enough. There is a deep emotional obstacle that most people face ─ in fact I would say everybody faces ─ a deep emotional obstacle to failing and not knowing what success will look like. And R&D chefs are different from service kitchen chefs primarily because they are either more OK with failing and not knowing what a successful outcome looks like, or they’re able to get over the fact that they’re afraid of not-knowing. And that’s a really clear distinction between the chefs who try to work on innovation all the time, and those who thrive in a service kitchen. It’s not to say that one is better than the other, just that they are different.
When did this role of the R&D chef become more important? Because obviously restaurants have created new dishes since their inception, but at some point the role of R&D became specific and distinct.
One of the things which I try to do in the book ─ which I always try to do ─ is to say that things don’t happen at a single, clear point in time. What is actually going on is that things are always happening but only at some point does it become obvious enough and enough people pay attention to it. And so it seems like it has just appeared at that point. A better way to ask the question would be: when did the trends begin that eventually led to the creation of an R&D team in restaurants and therefore people whose job was solely R&D?
The restaurant as we understand it to be in the Western tradition showed up in France hundreds of years ago. And you’re right, along the way there have always been people who have accidentally created a flavour combination and then suddenly there’s a new dish. But I think what you’re talking about is: “When did restaurants decide that they needed to have specific people working on creating new dishes?” And I would say that was probably a few decades ago. You can think of a few restaurants that were the first places where there was a specific R&D capacity. El Bulli was one of them, you had El Taller which was their workshop. They shut down the restaurant for a part of the year and moved in to El Taller, so the leaders of the restaurant were cooking for half the year and for the other half they were in their lab coming up with new things. At The Fat Duck, what eventually became the FDEK ─ (the Fat Duck Experimental Kitchen) ─ was, for a long time, a separate unit that was running while The Fat Duck was running year round. So those two to me are the first two clear places where there is an R&D team and there are R&D chefs.
In your book you talk about how this happened in reaction to innovation becoming the main metric a restaurant should be judged by. And one of your theories is that this was in itself an unexpected byproduct of who was writing about these restaurants, and also where these restaurants were being written about ─ which was not newspapers but primarily on the internet and on food blogs.
Until the late 90s, the real arbiters of taste in the restaurant world were probably the very powerful newspaper and magazine critics, and also the people who reviewed for Michelin. What this meant is that you had professional arbiters of taste. If you were a professional critic, either for one of the guides or for a newspaper, you were paid to know a lot about food. There was a fairly high standard for the review itself ─ you would almost never see a review of a restaurant where the critic had not been to that restaurant several times. What you had was this very trained set of critics looking at restaurants, and a part of training is that you understand nuanced things more than people who are not trained. So that generation of critics probably were better able to detect refinement in execution and talk about that.
But then with the internet, there was a progression. You had internet forums, bulletin boards, which are beginning to become back. Then you had blogs, then things like Twitter and Facebook and Instagram. And I think what was happening, first with the bulletin boards, then the blogs, then social media, is that you’re gradually increasing the set of people who get to talk about whether food is good or not. So at first it was literally a handful of people, who were the critics at the papers and the guides, who could say whether a restaurant was good and why. Then with the bulletin boards, you could get ten times more. Those people were, almost definitionally, not as well trained. They didn’t go to the same restaurants again and again. Once you add food blogs, you further increase the number of people who could say stuff about food and restaurants. Once you add social media, even more than that again. So you’re increasing the pool of people who are allowed to say something about whether a restaurant is good, while decreasing the likelihood that they’re highly trained assessing quality in restaurants.
So my theory about this is: as this happens, the question of whether a restaurant is good or not starts to become based on whether or not it is different. And that’s why innovation suddenly becomes more and more powerful as a reason why a restaurant should be thought of as good.
When I read this the theory made a lot of sense to me, because when you look at old reviews, even stretching back to writers like A.J. Liebling, what they talk about is execution, and whether this is a correct execution of a dish already in the culinary repertoire, that a ‘refined’ person would know about if they eat very well. If you look at reviews today, that kind of idea of whether a dish is ‘correct’ in execution is never talked about, it’s almost untrendy to do so.
One thing you don’t mention in the book is whether you think this focus on innovation over execution has been to the detriment of restaurants or not. Because I’ve eaten with you, and I know how much you value execution.
I want to make sure I’m clear when I say this: I think if you go to one of the great innovation restaurants ─ I’m not going to name them but there are not that many of them ─ you get a combination of innovation with really good execution. This is incredibly difficult. The problem with innovation becoming the definition of quality for restaurants is that a lot of restaurants which try to innovate are not very good at executing even if they weren’t innovating, and the fact that they’re now innovating as well means their ability to execute goes down even further. So, I think my very nuanced response to your question is that I don’t think innovation is bad, but I think this focus on innovation combined with an increasing lack of awareness from critics of what good execution looks like, is leading to a situation where a lot of restaurants can only succeed if they innovate. And yet they don’t have the capacity to execute those innovative dishes to make them delicious.
What this means is you go to a restaurant and they’re trying to do something new and they don’t do it particularly well, but it’s “innovative”. And if you’ve got a critic pool that doesn’t even understand what good execution looks like, all they can do is evaluate it on the basis of innovation. So this has led to the situation that we’re in where restaurants get lauded for doing something new, even if that thing which they’re doing that’s new actually isn’t very good at all.
When people think of innovation they have this idea that it’s always something that might ‘wow’ you when you see it. But there’s another type of innovation which is hidden to the customer, and there’s a great passage in your book about this on the construction of a Welsh rarebit which the FDEK was doing for their pub The Hind’s Head. The problem was that as rarebit cools, it congeals and becomes unpleasant to eat. Most restaurants would have saw this and thought ‘well, this is just how rarebit works’ and that either you eat it quickly, or maybe you could make the portion a bit smaller so there’s less time for it to congeal. Could you explain the difference in mindset between the R&D team and a regular kitchen which meant they couldn’t let this problem go?
So the problem with rarebit is that it’s cooked cheese and some liquid like beer or something. It’s delicious when it’s hot because it’s molten and unctuous and all those other good things, but as it cools it congeals and becomes claggy and gross. So if you want the experience of eating the rarebit to be good right from the point where it lands on the table all the way to potentially an hour or more later, what you need to do is have an innovation mindset. You have to look at the dish and think ‘how do I solve this problem?’
The difference in mindset is that I think, and this goes back to what is the difference between a R&D chef and a service chef, that the ability and willingness to fail is very closely connected to the ability and willingness to look at a problem like this and reframe it. Not to solve it in the easy way, but to say instead ‘how do we find an elegant way to solve all of the problems?’ So the other solutions ─ which I’d call obvious solutions, like making the rarebit smaller ─ are easy solutions that don’t actually solve the problem itself. The elegant solution would be to come with a way where this dish would be delicious at any point where the diner chooses to eat it.
How do you create that mindset in a restaurant? First of all, it sounds clichéd but you need leadership that wants this kind of thing. There’s going to be tons and tons of head chefs and owners who would say “don’t bother rejigging the recipe”, or “if it doesn’t work, take it off the menu”. And this is a completely legitimate thing to say. But it takes a particular kind of leader to say ‘yes, let’s invest 3-4 days of time by one person to change the way the recipe works so that the result works in the way that we want’. The other thing is that you have to hire people who are willing to do this, because lots and lots of people would look at this problem and think ‘why is it worth spending 3-4 days revising a recipe so you can achieve this outcome? Why not just use another recipe?’ It’s not like either of these is good or bad, it’s just one is different from the other one and you need people who are interested in both of them to run a restaurant of either type.
The book is already a bit of a chimera in that it makes the leap from restaurant research to showing how completely unrelated businesses can harness this idea of uncertainty whilst innovating. But then when you released it, the pandemic happened, and it took on this unexpected lease of life as a way of showing how other restaurants can use this mindset to navigate them through the pandemic. Could you talk a bit about how that happened?
I think one thing that I’ve noticed about all the places that I’ve been to during researching that book, is the uncertainty mindset ─ which is basically just acknowledging that you don’t know what the future will be and taking action based on knowing that you don’t know what the future will be. Those restaurants also tended to be the ones that looked at this changing situation, and decided to do something different, they weren’t stuck in or bound by the idea they had to do the same thing, because they were so used to doing something different. That, I think, was maybe the new relevance that you were pointing to.
This isn’t just a problem for restaurants, it’s a general problem for people and organisations. I’m speaking for myself in this context as well. We, as people and organisations, love stability, we love knowing that the future will be like the past, even when we claim we don’t. We love thinking that the future will be predictable, we love knowing how to do things, we love knowing what to do. Having that certainty is very viscerally comforting. The people who are at organisations who are OK being confronted with the reality that the future is not knowable, that it is changing all the time (like what’s happening during Covid) that they don’t know what to do next and they don’t know how to do it: those are the ones that tend to be much more effective when the situation is very uncertain. There were some restaurants and businesses during the pandemic which said ‘holy shit, everything is changing, we’re going to stop everything and panic.’ And then there are other restaurants which said ‘let’s try to experiment about doing a new type of business that works now, if that doesn’t work we’ll try something else, if that doesn’t work we’ll try something else until that does work.’
A restaurant that we both love a lot, which we don’t have to name, you know has been doing things just like that. I know it’s not easy, but they’ve been very successful doing that, even though they’re not one of the types of restaurant in my book, because they’re embracing uncertainty. Not in the sense they love it and want more of it, but in the sense that they’re simply not trying to pretend it’s not there.
Do you think this rethinking and reshaping of restaurants will last just for the duration of the pandemic, or do you think there will be a longer term shift? Because the restaurant you’re talking about, which I’ll just name ─ 40 Maltby St right?
Well, I think I spent more money there during the pandemic than I would have done in normal times. Because, when they were normally open, maybe I would go once a fortnight and have a meal and glass of wine. It would be a treat and it would cost me £30-40 for a meal. But then during lockdown, it became more justifiable for me to go more often, because maybe I was getting food for the week, or getting wine to drink at a later date, or a meal to put in the freezer, or a sandwich, or a vegetable box, or some pastry to use in my cooking. So even though these were smaller things per spend, they actually added up into something bigger. Given some restaurants are thinking about what they should keep, do you think that the pandemic has actually been a way for restaurants to find business models that are perhaps more resilient than they were before?
Yes, absolutely I think so. I think there are three ways of answering your question. The first way is looking at those restaurants that experimented with different business models, and by different business models I mean they’re selling different services and products that they would normally have sold, possibly to different people. What you mention with 40 Maltby St is they did so many things over the last 12 months and each one of those things was differentially successful. I would imagine they may keep some of them if they were successful enough when they reopen if they worked well enough. So that’s one way: if they found a new customer, or developed a new service and found that it works, then there’s no reason why you wouldn’t keep that thing, right?
The second way is that there is a bigger question above this idea of just offering a different service. Before March 2020, an ambitious restaurant would be trying to attract customers that came from, maybe not even within London, but across the world. You were trying to be a destination restaurant for people coming from far away. And suddenly, with Covid, everyone had to focus on people who were close enough to go there without flying in or taking a train.
So I would hope that the restaurants that experimented with building products and services for nearby people, and who might eventually become regulars, I hope those restaurants realise that this is actually a really good thing. Regular custom tends to be more favourable custom, they cut you some slack when you’re having a bad service day, it’s fun to serve them because you like them, and the fact that they come again and again means you know them better and you can give them better stuff that they want more. So I hope that there’s a transition away from ‘ambitious’ meaning ‘being a destination and attracting a destination customer’, towards ‘ambitious’ meaning ‘I want to focus on a nearby customer and really serve them what they want’. I hope that sticks.
And then the third way is if you have a team of people who have gone through this long series of experiments with changing the business to adapt. If you have a team who has gone through it, and has made it out the other side, and knows how to do it well, I think that’s really powerful for the team. Because maybe the next source of uncertainty ─ maybe not a pandemic, maybe something we don’t even know about yet ─ will mean you’ll have to change your business model again. But now you’ll have a team that is able to do that because they know how to stop doing what they got good at, and start doing something new and learn how to get good at that. And that’s a powerful thing, not just for restaurants, but for individual people and for any company. Building the personal capacity and team capacity to do something different and get good at that, is incredibly powerful and I hope that sticks around.
It was really interesting for me as someone whose area of specialism before the pandemic started was diaspora restaurants, that what you are saying with that second point, almost exactly, is not how high end and innovative restaurants operate ─ they tend to be how diaspora restaurants operate. Which I found funny because there was a lot of talk about this ‘new type’ of restaurant and whether the concept of the restaurant was changing, which I guess it was, but it also looked very familiar because these are the type of restaurants I love and usually eat at. It also made me rethink all my preconceived distinctions that I made between these two types of restaurant, and that actually, why not say that a restaurant like 40 Maltby St is closer to a restaurant like Singburi, for instance
Than it is something like...Gordon Ramsay at Claridges. No wait, that restaurant doesn’t even exist anymore, but you know what I mean.
I absolutely agree. I love Singburi, as you know, and I would say that both of those restaurants have invested a lot in making sure that the offering they provide is one that encourages people to come back, and encourages people to become regulars.
Definitely. I think the sense of familiarity and comfortableness I feel when I’m at either is the same, and they serve the same function for me. It’s made me reassess whether I should be separating these types of restaurants simply because one is run by first or second generation immigrants and serves a vernacular cuisine. That kind of distinction doesn’t really make any sense to me now.
I’ve always believed that anything can be categorised in an infinity of ways, and some of them are more salient to a particular time than others. At a time when ethnicity and race are very salient, we tend to look at things and categorise them in these very salient categories. And I’ve never bought into that, as you know.
If we want to take a look at these restaurants that we all know and love, and how they feel to us, I would put three very unlikely restaurants together: 40 Maltby St, Quality Wines, and Singburi. And I’d also put The Winemakers Club into that cluster because they operate from a fundamentally different way of thinking about who their customer base is and how they want to appeal to that customer base. It doesn’t matter if the person who runs it is from a minority background, or is an immigrant, or whatever. Genuinely to me I think it’s irrelevant because they’re offering something more than where they came from or what their ethnicity is.
You mention those four places. I’d say those are the four places that I would categorise as ‘Vaughn Tan restaurants’ in the sense that if I walked into any of them and saw you propping up the bar I would not be surprised. For you … sorry I’m carefully trying not to provoke an answer which I think will get you cancelled by everyone in the London restaurant industry, but … how would you categorise those very few restaurants that you love, and then how would you categorise where the rest of London restaurants are at the moment?
Those places that you mention do something very specific which I care about a lot: each one has a very clear idea of what ‘quality’ means for them. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something that everyone else agrees with, it just happens that I agree with their idea of what makes something ‘high quality.’ For each one of those four locations, you’re not going there for the same thing. You can’t mistake 40 Maltby Street’s food for the experience of going to The Winemaker’s Club. They’re all trying to do something distinctive, and in a way, what’s really cool about all of those places is they don’t pander to the customer. If the customer doesn’t like what they’re providing then the customer can go somewhere else. Many people actually do go somewhere else, because they don’t like what’s being provided or they don’t like how it’s being provided, but what each of these places is doing happens to be something I like a lot.
This also links to where I think the London restaurant scene is or is going. What I really would love is for more restaurants to say ‘this is what I’m about, this is my unique idea of quality, and I’m going to try to find the people, the customers, who want this kind of quality and I’m going to give them this in as pure a form as I can. And for anyone who doesn’t want that, I’m going to be OK with them not coming to eat at my restaurant or drink at my bar instead of trying to dilute my offering so that I get more people to come who don’t necessarily want the core of what I’m offering.’ I’m definitely not going to name names, but a lot of London restaurants are not doing that. They’re thinking ‘my rent is so high, my space is so big, I need to fill it up. In order to fill it up, I need to do not only the thing that I really want to do that appeals to what I believe is a small population of customers, I need to dilute.’ In the course of diluting, what inevitably ends up happening is that you get mediocre food.
I can’t see this changing until the economics of running a restaurant changes in London. Even with the pandemic, it’s difficult to see it happening. Ambitious restaurants still run on this idea that their restaurant has to be in central London, and that the way to make money is to scale up, to have this clever, recognisable brand or concept, and then to rapidly expand it.
Yeah, I agree. When I said this is what I hope it’s not a prediction. I’m not expecting to come back and see, in four or five years, a massive flowering of places that are doing what I want them to do. Because, exactly as you point out, in London rent is very high. The cost of labour is also high, and yet the pay is not enough for the people who are working in those positions. And realistically, it may be the case that there are not enough people who care enough about unique ideas of quality, or loyal enough or frequent enough customers to make these restaurants succeed.
What would have to happen? I think if there was a real estate price collapse in London then … maybe that would help. And it is plausible that that might happen. Another interesting thing would be if ambitious chefs thought about what an ambitious restaurant could look like in different ways. As you point out, if the idea of what an ambitious restaurant is is a big restaurant in central London, or a group of restaurants, that is beautifully kitted out, then it seems almost impossible to see how that could work. On the other hand, it’s possible to think about an ambitious restaurant as … which Zone is Singburi in? 3? 4?
3 I think. Leytonstone isn’t actually that far, everyone just likes to pretend it is.
Yeah it just feels like it’s very far away! But it’s possible to think of a restaurant as ambitious and not be in Zone 1 or Zone 2, and actually treat it seriously as an ambitious restaurant as a chef, as a critic and as a customer.You’ve been to Tokyo, you’ve seen places in Japan, and this is exactly what happens ─ you can have a serious restaurant that is very ambitious in what they’re trying to do and they’re in a 150 sq ft location on the 9th floor of a 35 year old building. And people take it seriously. The food is serious, and it works as a restaurant. Why can’t we have that in London? I mean, there’s many many reasons why we can’t have that in London. But it’s not an impossibility, because it happens in other places.
Is there a distinction there for you between ambition and innovation? I’d say that the restaurants you’ve mentioned are ambitious restaurants without necessarily being that innovative or new in what they cook. Again I’m not going to name names, but there have been a few examples of restaurants in London which have changed their business models during the pandemic from something which focuses on innovation to a repetitive, more limited in scope product, where I would actually say I prefer this repetitive product to the innovative menu that it was pursuing before that. But is that ambitious? I wonder if there has to be a mindset shift around ‘what does an ambitious chef do?’ Is it someone who innovates the menu every single week, or is it someone who does a similar thing week in week out and innovates within those parameters?
I think your question brings up a couple of things I want to say a few things about.
The first thing is that opening up the idea of what innovation can be in food is important. When you think of innovation you think of innovation on the plate, because that’s what we’re conditioned to think of innovation in food as ─ here’s a new dish, a new flavour combination. But actually there are so many ways of innovating. I can talk about five ways of innovating which are not about a product. You could innovate on a service model. You can innovate on a process ─ the rarebit example is partly a recipe innovation but also a process innovation, how you actually make the thing. You can innovate on a business model. You can innovate in terms of how you organise. You can innovate on what quality is. None of those kinds of innovation necessarily require you to make a new dish every week or every month, but they still make businesses more successful.
If you think about the people who do process innovation, they’re the ones who tend to reduce the cost of doing business and become more profitable. If you think about service innovation, I mean Postcard Teas I would say, has been a service innovator for a long time, because of it’s way of choosing how to sell tea and how it does the in store experience. That’s a service innovation! In terms of business model innovation, I think we see this all the time in London. I think the JKS group has a very interesting business model innovation going on. Even if I don’t agree with everything they do, they’re certainly successful at doing it. And the way you organise, I’d say 40 Maltby St has a very unusual way of organising its own team. And then we’ve talked about quality innovation. Why aren’t we talking about those kinds of innovation in food? Why are we only thinking about being ambitiously innovative in terms of making a new dish every week or every two weeks? It just seems to me like an unnecessary focus on something which, to me, isn’t even that interesting as an innovation. Do I really want a new type of sandwich every week, or would I prefer, by far, a really really well-made sandwich? I’d prefer the well-made sandwich.
No absolutely, I think you’ve made a really important point there to bring these things under the umbrella of innovation. Even thinking of Singburi’s current model, of essentially operating as a dark kitchen despite being a restaurant with a physical presence, and yet still taking bookings and not offering delivery or dining in: this is an innovation. He’s found a way of existing as a restaurant that alleviates the stress for front of house, keeps his customer base, and avoids delivery commissions. Very few people have done that.
One final thing: you’ve been in the Auvergne now for seven months and I take it you haven’t eaten at a restaurant in that time?
How has your relationship to restaurants changed in that time? Over here people, and certainly critics, are saying ‘right, I’m fed up, I want to go back to restaurants now’ but has it changed your...I wouldn’t say you had a reliance on them before, but you were fairly regular at certain places...I guess your relationship to eating out, and really, whether you think you’ll eat out in the same way again?
I think my approach to restaurants at the moment is quite fraught. I have no desire to go to generic restaurants just to have food cooked for me. But there are certain restaurants that I desperately want to go back to ─ and you know which restaurants those are in London. After cooking everything that I’ve eaten for the last seven months myself, I’m not tired of cooking. What I would love to experience again is someone else’s idea of what good food is. Maybe how I would categorise it is that most restaurants in the world are ‘commodity restaurants’, they’re just producing food and I’m personally capable of producing food myself. I want to go to the non-commodity restaurants, where the restaurant is in the business of producing an idea of quality, implementing it in food or service, which is distinctive to the person doing it. But I’m not yearning to go out just so someone else can do the dishes, I don’t care about that. I don’t mind doing the dishes, or cooking or prepping. But it would be nice to go to a place where there is a unique and distinctive idea of what it means to serve good food and serve it well. And I want that again, as soon as I can.
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