As one of London’s most influential restaurateurs, Karam Sethi thinks a lot about the current status of the city’s dining scene. Here, he outlines some of his opinions on what issues the industry’s facing and what London might have to look forward to.
London’s ranking (relative to NYC)
London’s restaurant scene is booming, there is no question about that. Is it the best in the world? Almost. Some of the restaurants we have here are as good as you will get anywhere — some recent standouts for me have been Kiln, Breddos and Luca. After a recent trip to the States I think the Americans are still slightly ahead of us in terms of bar and dining culture, quality and diversity: the places that really stand out are bars, such as Attaboy and Dead Rabbit and restaurants such as Pasquale Jones, Pok Pok and Blue Hill at Stone Barns.
The New York food media is also going down a very different route — with a much bigger digital focus. But, there too, we seem to be slowly catching up. Their critics take on a more forensic examination of restaurants, which may not go down well with British readers who want entertainment ahead of real knowledge. The loss of the brilliant AA Gill has left an icon-shaped void in British food media. There are some talented young guns emerging entering the fray; their opportunities expanding, but those in charge of senior appointments at established outlets seem to be moving to more entertainment-focussed, non-industry writers — see Michael Deacon and Ed Balls for details.
Alongside this, the way that social media and online content is moving means that essentially everyone is a critic, no matter how informed or qualified. Now more than ever this free content is affecting restaurant launches and their continued success as much, if not more, than the traditional media. Whilst the core critics often insist on visiting a restaurant two or three times in order to gain a fair representation — something which I hope continues — the same can’t be said for everyone. It is hard to stomach for restaurateurs and operators when the level of time, passion and expense, is seemingly not understood or accounted for when words are written solely for kicks and not to inform.
Brexit and policy opportunities/impediments
Within the industry there is a real concern and apprehension about how exactly Brexit and the changing political landscape will affect the world of restaurants. Access to skilled — and willing — staff is already a problem and only looks set to get worse. Rigid council opening hours will also hinder the industry; the introduction of the 24-hour tube seemed to give hope to longer hours and a move towards the New York mentality of a ‘City that never sleeps’. But how do we tackle that with a depleting workforce? We need more generous and complimentary laws and regulations that work with the industry to boost business with locals and tourists alike. Restaurants generally employ a high number of foreign employees, and with the proposed changes to Freedom of Movement laws we would need to see a huge increase in support from our education system to encourage hospitality as a viable and esteemed career path if we are to attract quality staff.
Rents are another highly publicised issue, with traditionally restaurant-heavy areas like Soho and Mayfair becoming less and less of an option for restaurateurs. Many are being forced east, outside of zones 1-2. The only way to combat that is for landlords to cap rents, or else the result will be a central London filled with soulless chains and international brands.
The craft and skill, and the quality of produce at restaurants like The Clove Club, Lyle’s and Kitchen Table [JKS Restaurants is a backer in the two latter] are on par with any restaurant in the world. These should be championed as these are our star chefs, being recognised on an international playing field. It is how we will continue to develop our reputation as one of the best destinations in the world for restaurants, inspiring home-grown, and attracting international, talent.
Arjun Waney is someone I have a lot of respect for. His creation of internationally recognised and, importantly, scalable lifestyle brands is second to none. There is huge consumer demand for this and the crossover between lifestyle and restaurants is something I think we will see more of: restaurants becoming part of people’s everyday life. This scalability is key to a thriving business model and earning consumer loyalty.
On the horizon
In terms of upcoming trends: I’ve observed the arrival of specific ethnic cuisines, and yet unexplored regions of cuisines we may think we know, but actually don’t. With the recent launch of XU [JKS-backed] shining a light on northern Taiwanese food, and the opening next month of Ikoyi, a restaurant focussed entirely on Western Africa, the trend for development of generic labels into unambiguous, highly focussed restaurants is set to continue. But in my view, there remains a gap in the market for more quality Southeast Asian, and specialist Middle Eastern restaurants, as well as a mid-market sushi offering: an Itsu-meets-Nobu, if you like.