Published by Phaidon Press
Publication date: September 17th 2012
Genres: Essays, Food, Memoir, Non-fiction
At age twenty-nine, Nicholas Lander became the proud owner of L’Escargot, a London restaurant that had fallen on hard times. So began his journey into a world he would come to love and a group of people he would grow to admire. Throughout the 1980s Lander built L’Escargot into a London restaurant of renown. When health reasons forced him to sell it in the 1988 he realized that, all along what he loved was to eat not to cook and so, through timing and connections, he began a new career as the first restaurant critic for the Financial Times. The Art of the Restaurateur is his carefully considered ode to all that goes into making some of the finest restaurants in the world the successes they are. After an introduction to the book’s concept, which he explains is to “show the importance of the restaurateur’s profession, by telling the stories of these professionals I most respect and admire…”, he goes on to in-depth chapters on 20 restaurateurs. Their restaurants and histories cover the globe and it is fascinating reading. Here are just a few bites:
It is in Lander’s meeting with Joe Bastianich, Mario Batali’s business partner and the son of famed Italian chef, Lidia Bastianich, that the topic of the differences between chef and restaurateur is first broached. Batali is the chef for their NYC restaurants but Bastianich is the restaurateur and he believes the difference between the two is important:
“A chef’s life is one of the last few bastions of true apprenticeship and I have a great deal of time for that and all it represents. But chefs do see things in terms of black and white while restaurateurs see the world in various shades of grey.”
Later, Lander reminisces of Babbo, one of the Batali/Bastianich collaborations, that the energy generated in the restaurant is such that “I am never sure whether I want to eat and drink, or just inhale.”
Of all the places Lander visits Il Vino in Paris may be the most controversial from the diner’s experience. Owner Enrico Bernardo is first and foremost a sommelier so the restaurant is as much about the wine as it is about the food, if not more. Dinner patrons are not presented with a menu but are given a series of wine flights at different prices. They choose their flight upon which the chef and sommeliers have created a meal designed to best show off both the wine and the food. Disconcerting to the Type A personality but with no complaints once the meal is served.
For Michelle Garnaut, an Australian chef who has traveled the world in search of good food, her journey ended in Shanghai. In 1999 she opened the first Western restaurant on Shanghai’s waterfront. In 2009 she opened a restaurant in Beijing overlooking Tiananmen Square. What is marvelous here is what a strong, opinionated person she is and how she translates that into success in her restaurants in a part of the world where being a strong women is not always an advantage.
If you’ve ever watched restaurant or cooking shows or find yourself drawn to chefs’ biographies this book is a nice complement. It gives outsiders a look into a world many find inexplicable- long hours, low pay, flying temperaments. Its composition may look like a textbook, with narrow margins and dense paragraphs but Lander’s prose and vast knowledge of food and wine make reading The Art of a Restaurateur an experience that will leave you hungry for more. It’s not a book that demands to be read start-to-finish in a single sitting but like a great restaurant you will want to go back again and again to try something new.