«No competition – no opportunity to be the best…», – Milhail Zelman, a leading London restaurateur and member of the Jury of the National SALT Restaurant Awards 2015, has given an exclusive interview
Mikhail Zelman, a famous restaurateur and founder of Global Craftsmen Group, has joined the Jury of the National SALT Restaurant Awards this year. We have discussed incentives for personal development, benefits of awards, competition in the industry and notion of a good restaurant.
Mikhail, in your opinion, what makes a good restaurant?
Restaurant is always representation of culture and society. From my point of view, restaurant culture can be called the most mainstream one. The restaurant business industry is one of few industries which exists in any country of the world and is a part of the society. Therefore, I believe that restaurateurs shall have specialisation the same way as doctors do. If we go to a steak house, we have to know that all personnel, from the owner to a waiter, are enthused about the things they do. If we go to a sushi restaurant, we do not necessarily expect to meet an ethnic sushi culture bearer, but we want to meet people who love and know a lot about sushi. So I guess a good restaurant is a place where people do what they love to and are professional.
What about restaurants which do not have evident specialisation?
There is some specialisation anyway. There are ethnic restaurants or the ones which specialise in a certain product or service (for instance, fast food restaurants). But it is also very important for a restaurant to have its own story, the reason for opening. And this story has to be individual, demonstrate unique nature of this restaurant concept and substantiation for its existence in our highly competitive world.
Now we are talking in Goodman, a restaurant you have opened in London. What is its story?
Goodman is the story about a crazy Jew from Russia who came to America from Russia for the first time, ate a steak for the first time, saw everything going on there and said: “It is so damn good and tasty, and almost perfect that I want to make it better”. So I travelled the world, found the best things, combined all of them and got Goodman, restaurant No. 1. Goodman is Spanish ovens Josper which we started to use in our restaurants among of the first ones, special coal which we bring from different countries, from different brands, and mix them, it is a room for meat maturing and various maturing technologies, it is meat itself: the best is brought from all over the world. And when it comes to our story, it is a story on impossible things becoming possible. Goodman in England is a story of crazy Russians who came to the island, brought Spanish ovens, American meat, coal and made the best steak house in Foggy Albion.
To you mind, how does a client choose a restaurant?
Clients to do not come to us with a calculator, philosophy and marketing books. At first sight it may seem that guests come to the restaurant to socialise, but in fact they are incredibly picky when choosing us. Trust me, they are interested in everything: who the restaurant owner is and why it has been opened, what country a waiter has come from and why he/she works in this very place, why he/she recommends a certain dish and believes it to be the best, whether the chef has been to the market today, when he has made a sauce and why this very sauce is served and many other things.
How does recognition of its achievements stimulate development of a restaurateur? Can vanity be called a force for progress in the restaurant industry?
It depends on your attitude to your fixations and vanity. If you are shy of and deny them, it must be bad. I do not hide my fixations, and my ego, which is not that small, make me do many things out of those I do. I understand that I am rather eccentric, selfish and vain, and recognition of what I do by other people plays an important role for me. In this case it is important to find balance by using your failures as a drive for changing for the better. And my changes for the better are liked by consumers and make me famous.
Can we say that you are driven by recognition?
I am driven by my failures and criticism rather than recognition. Therefore, the more failures, the more energy to move forward. I treat criticism with great attention, take it into consideration and try to be better.
What role does competition play in your personal development and development of your restaurant concepts?
You cannot get better without competition. In competition there is always the first and the second, there is a winner and losers. But failure often enables finding your unique advantages. For instance, when I lose, I always try to find niches where I can win. In this aspect the restaurant industry is a multidiscipline competition rather than mono sport. Here you can find the niche where you will really be the best. For instance, I do not think I am the best restaurateur, I am quite an ordinary restaurateur. But our burger&lobster is the best in the world.
What are your plans for the future?
My restaurants represent the mono-product manifest I have written. In short, it means that in the restaurant menu there is one dish which is popular with visitors and profitable for restaurant owners. At present I have a successful restaurant with two dishes: burger&lobster. I hope I will achieve a real mono-product restaurant concept in my professional development.
You have become a member of the Jury of the prestigious SALT Restaurant Awards. What are your personal participation motives?
I have joined the Jury to repeat: it is important not to win, but to participate. Awards are important in the restaurant industry, but we have to remember that it is more important to succeed as a restaurateur. So my message for restaurateurs is the following: do not greatly rejoice at your victories and do not be upset with your failures. Always learn a life lesson for the future and move on.
Kate Shcheglova, International journalist