Anthony Demetre is chef/proprietor of Wild Honey, the restaurant he opened in Mayfair with former business partner Will Smith in 2007. Demetre took over the restaurant last June after buying Smith out and continues to run it as well as advise Searcys on its Barbican restaurant Osteria. Here he talks to Hospitality & Catering News about going his own way, championing lesser-used ingredients and trying to strike a work-life balance.
You and Will Smith ran restaurants together for 20 years, how does it feel to now be doing it on your own?
I feel liberated and I mean that in the nicest way. With Will and I it got to the stage where we wanted different things. I’m very creative – I think all cooks are – and I just wanted to go a different way. Specifically, Wild Honey wasn’t going in the direction I wanted it to, so we parted ways. It was all done very amicably. People need to move on and I’m glad we did it before the relationship became stale and we ended up falling out.
Arbutus was such a successful restaurant, why did you close it?
It was a game-changer and I have to admit, accidentally so. I say that because we opened in 2006 when it was pre-austerity. I’d done all the fancy-schmanzy dining and I’d got bored to death. Along came our first child, so I took some time off. During that time off I reflected on what I was doing with my life and what I wanted and that was when Arbutus was born – it was no frills, great cooking and affordable. The kind of place where 11 years down the road I go to.
It did so well, but it had got to the stage where Soho had become a bit hipster – it was all about low spend from a young crowd. We had a Michelin star there and over the years we found the business getting a bit tougher, so instead of sticking our heads in the sand and saying ‘it’s them rather than us’ we cut our losses and focused on Mayfair where there is a better chance of longevity.
Are you still looking to re-open Arbutus?
It is still on my agenda and I do want to resurrect the Arbutus ‘concept’ if you like. That approachable, affordable and great dining experience resonates with so many, but I’m rooted at Wild Honey and that’s where my priority is for now. I need some time to tell people we are still here and I’m still at the stove. I’m in this game long-term and I had to weigh up which site has legs and that’s Wild Honey. The restaurant world at the moment is extremely tough, so you’ve got to be consistent and priced correctly and just get on with it.
You really championed lesser-used ingredients at Arbutus, are you still practising that and if so, what are those you’re using currently?
At the moment I’ve got some lamb sweetbreads on the menu. They are the unsung hero of the offal world in my opinion. Calf sweetbreads get all the glory, but they are four or five times the price. I’ve got Swiss chard on the menu, which again isn’t used much, and lamb belly. I think I’m the one who put lamb belly on the the map, because when I started putting it on the menu 15 years ago, my supplier in North Wales said ‘you’re the only chef who’s using it. The rest goes to kebab houses.’
I really like to use those cuts chefs shy away from. I still love tripe and pigs head and I use pollock. I remember a three-Michelin starred chef coming into my kitchen 10 years ago and seeing pollock and saying ‘what are you doing with that?’ but it’s a great fish. These ingredients are not new to a French chef, they use everything they have available.
Wild Honey celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, are you planning to celebrate?
I don’t want to make a massive song and dance about it, although 10 years in restaurant life is a good stint. I’m quite humble in a way. Saying that, we have stood the test of time and we’re still here, so maybe we’ll invite people who’ve supported us over the years to some kind of celebration.
What has been the secret of its success?
There’s no great secret to success, just make sure you’re there, the standard is consistent and balance the books. We’ve had blips along the way, but I think that happens in every business. You just need to keep plugging at it and you’ve got to be involved. I turned 50 last November and people say ‘why are you still doing this?’ I say maybe I’m not flavour of the month, but I’m still here and I still love to cook. Ten years is a good milestone, but for me it’s just that. I will just keep going and see what happens.
Where do you find inspiration?
I’ve been in this game a long-time so I tend to get inspired more by seasonal produce than chefs. I go to the market three times a week and I love looking at what’s there and getting inspired by that, like the first lot of English cherries or some baby cucumbers. It doesn’t have to be all about British flavours though, I do love spice. French cooking can be a bit flat and linear and an injection of spice here and there would be great.
In terms of cooks, I admire people like Simon Hopkinson, Fergus Henderson and Shaun Hill. Proper British cooks, who have, of course got all the credit they deserve. I love their ethos. I also embrace what the younger cooks are doing – I think what James Lowe (Lyles) and Merlin Labron-Johnson (Portland) are doing is great.
Where do you like to eat out on your days off?
I work Monday to Friday and then close the restaurant on a Sunday when I give my partner a day off and take my boys (Max, 12, Otis, 10) out. Family time is so precious for me, so we rarely eat out. We go off cycling or do a bit of sport and then I’ll cook. I still like cooking even when it’s my day off. For me, there’s nothing better than cracking open a bottle of wine and having a family supper.
If we do go out it’ll be for some Indian food or to Chicken Shop. I would hardly ever go to a Michelin-starred restaurant. The last one I went to was Bibendum because I’m a good friend of Claude’s (Bosi) and I went for Sunday lunch with the family. I’m quite old fashioned, I guess. We always eat as a family and I don’t want my boys to feel they are in a temple of gastronomy where they can’t drop a fork on the floor.
What is on the agenda next for you?
I’m striving for that work-life balance. At the moment it’s work, work, work and I’m not getting any younger, nor are my children. But I still love cooking food, so I need to strike some kind of balance. I am here in the restaurant every lunch and every dinner, but I do need to implement some kind of change somewhere. My chefs work a four-day working week, but for me and the management we have to do longer because three days away from the business is too long. I just need to find time to balance my three passions of family, cooking and cycling.
Hospitality & Catering News, Interviews Editor