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13 June 2024

Top British restaurants are going global

By John Arlidge

They say the only people who walk in Los Angeles are British or odd. Gordon Ramsay is both. It is 10am and the three-Michelin-star chef is walking through the smog-flecked air on Sunset Boulevard on his way to check the progress of his latest restaurant, Gordon Ramsay at the London Hotel (LA), which opens next year.

As the 40-year-old passes a giant billboard advertising the latest series of his Kitchen Nightmares and steps into the hotel, he says: “If Brits like Helen Mirren can win best actor at the Oscars, then British chefs can win the award for best restaurateurs.”

A few blocks away on the Evian-spritzed terraces of Beverly Hills mansions, you can almost hear the sound of leather-skinned movie moguls spluttering into their Sonoma County Chardonnay.

A London-based chef taking English cuisine global might sound like a plot-line for a new comedy starring Rowan Atkinson but it is more likely to wind up the subject of a documentary. UK restaurant groups are expanding across the world, eating their French, American and Japanese rivals for breakfast – and lunch and dinner.

British restaurateurs have won the top spot in branded global fine dining, the fastest-growing sector of the £500bn (Dh3.7 trillion)-a-year global restaurant business. Between them they have more than 20 Michelin stars and the brands they have created are worth almost £3bn (Dh22bn).

It is a three-Michelin-star achievement for a country whose only international restaurant brand was, until recently, the Harry Ramsden fish ‘n’ chip chain, which had a single overseas branch in Dubai serving imported haddock and chips to sun-dried expats.

Ramsay leads the pack. His LA opening will take to seven the number of up-scale overseas restaurants he controls. He also operates in The London NYC in Manhattan and Cielo in Boca Raton, Florida; the Conrad Hotel in Tokyo and the Hilton in Dubai. He has outposts in Enniskerry, Ireland and in Prague. Next year, he will start serving his signature lobster ravioli poached in a lobster bouillon in the Pulitzer Hotel in Amsterdam.

Hot on his US heels is restaurateur and private club owner, Nick Jones, who has taken his London-based Soho House club and restaurant to New York and will soon be in LA, Miami, Chicago, Berlin, Tokyo, Istanbul and Madrid.

Alan Yau, the former McDonald’s franchisee behind the London-based noodle chain Wagamama and the contemporary Chinese Hakkasan and Yauatcha restaurants, has opened outposts in Boston and Milan is about to launch new restaurants in Istanbul, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur and Las Vegas.

The Caprice and The Ivy, the restaurants that kick-started London’s upmarket eating out boom two decades ago, are also moving out. Richard Caring, the rag-trade billionaire who last year bought the restaurants, will shortly open Caprice-branded restaurants in New York, Miami and Los Angeles, before moving into Moscow, Morocco, Cairo and Dubai.

Even small groups are thinking big. Arjun Waney and Rainer Becker, owners of Roka and Zuma, London’s leading modern Japanese restaurants, have just opened their glitziest new restaurant – Zuma in Hong Kong – and are opening branches in Istanbul, Dubai, Macau and Arizona.

Marlon Abela, the 33-year-old Lebanese-born millionaire behind the upmarket, Umu, Morton’s and The Greenhouse – all in Mayfair, London – has grated his first Parmesan at modern Italian restaurant, Avoce, in New York, and opened an upmarket organic restaurant, Gaia, in Greenwich, Connecticut. Next year he will open in New York, Miami, Las Vegas, Atlanta and Dubai.

With eateries by Conran – now renamed D&D London after a management buy-out – already well-established in Paris, New York, Tokyo and Copenhagen and two new openings planned in the Middle East, British-based restaurateurs have overtaken France’s Alain Ducasse and Joel Robuchon and Japan’s Nobu Matsuhisa in global branded fine dining.

Matsuhisa, Ducasse and Robuchon started the trend for branded international posh nosh by creating high-end restaurant brands, such as Nobu/Ubon, Spoon and L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon and setting up branches in major cities in Europe, Asia and the US, like luxury goods retailers. Ducasse describes London as “the most interesting place for food, with restaurants that are events”.

The British takeover is an unlikely success story. Until recently, “British cuisine” used to be a contradiction in terms. London restaurants are the most expensive in the world. Many restaurants are pretentious and service varies between the flustered and the arrogant. It could be argued that you can get a better value and often better quality meal in most small French or Italian towns.

So what is driving the boom?
“It’s the food, stupid,” says Yau, as he rushes from feng shui room to feng shui room in his office in Wardour Street, examining the menus for his Istanbul restaurant. London, he argues, is the most international city in the world and its chefs fuse different international styles to create cutting-edge international products that travel well.
He points to Hakkasan. “We use Cantonese as an anchor but our head chef is from Singapore and he cooks in a modern Asian style, creating dishes served in Spanish tapas-style portions. It appeals to almost every palate and, to pull it off, all we need are good fresh basic ingredients, which, these days, you can find anywhere.”

Relaxing on a leather banquette in Morton’s bar, Marlon Abela says the city has a secret ingredient: branding. “London is the best place to create a restaurant brand. We have some of the world’s best restaurant designers, best marketeers, best PR firms and a very dynamic media, which make it a great place to create a buzz about a place with the right food and the right clientele.”

He will not say it, of course, but what he means is, diners think the food at his upscale Umu tastes much better – and they are prepared to pay a lot more for it – because, thanks to deft PR, they know that Madonna is a regular and the singer might just be sitting a champagne-flute’s distance away.

The relatively small size of Britain’s posh nosh market is, perversely, an advantage. Unlike America, where domestic demand is huge and restaurateurs can grow big in their own backyard, British chefs who want to expand have, as Zuma’s Rainer Becker puts it: “only one place to go – abroad”.

For Ramsay – who has made an £80m (Dh592m) fortune – it all comes down to money, in particular the fantastic growth in the City of London. It was at his Pétrus in Knightsbridge that a group of bankers spent close to £50,000 (Dh370,500) on lunch. Of the £31bn (Dh229bn) spent on meals last year in Britain, almost one third was high-end corporate hospitality in the South-East, according to the British Hospitality Association.

Now the City is buying more than fancy meals. It is bankrolling Ramsay’s empire. Private Equity Group, Blackstone, funds the expansion of Gordon Ramsay Holdings (GRH) by buying up hotels, such as the London chain in the US, and leasing the restaurants to GRH.

British restaurateurs may be thinking big but going global is risky. Food critics say chefs rarely manage to cook well on two continents simultaneously. Ramsay, himself, has suffered. When his New York restaurant opened it was condemned as “lacking imagination”. He sacked the chef and now insists his own kitchen nightmare is over.

It better had be – because Ramsay is only months away from attempting to pull off the toughest trick any British chef has ever attempted: opening a British fine dining restaurant in the home of haute cuisine, France.

This spring high-profile chef will open a restaurant at the Trianon Palace in Versailles, just outside Paris. Blackstone bought the hotel last year and some £20m (Dh148m) has been spent doing it up.

Are French diners ready for le rosbif from le rosbif? Ramsay says he will leave his rivals looking as stodgy as a day-old croque monsieur.

“It’s going to cause controversy but who gives a f**k?”

You can almost feel the French food critics sharpening their pens and the chefs their Sabatier knives, as he speaks. After all, if a Brit can make it there, he can make it anywhere. For the new kings of the global kitchen, the steaks could not be higher. (Daily Telegraph)