British chef and restaurateur Stuart Gillies has racked up an impressive 35 years in the hospitality industry, starting out as a chef in the early 1980s at Royal Garden in London before moving abroad to work in a number of kitchens, including Riche in Stockholm and Daniel in New York. Returning to the UK six years later, he worked at Le Caprice and Teatro, where he met his wife, Cecilia, before joining Angela Hartnett at The Connaught Hotel. In 2003 he opened Boxwood Café for Gordon Ramsay and ran it until it closed in 2010. A year later he was appointed managing director of Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant group.
As managing director, then CEO of the company, Gillies oversaw the successful overhaul of the large, global portfolio during a seven year tenure. Now, almost two years after leaving Ramsay’s restaurant empire, the hospitality ‘veteran’ is opening his very own restaurant and wine bar – Bank House Wine Bar and Kitchen in Chislehurst – with his wife Cecilia as his partner.
The new project, based in a converted bank on Chislehurst High Street and which sees ex-Bread Street Kitchen chef Bobby Brown head up the kitchen and Angelika Oparczyk installed as general manager, is being dubbed ‘a local for the locals, by a local’ and, as well as serving ‘brilliant, but unpretentious’ food and drink, will focus on sustainability and fostering local talent.
In the week Bank House Wine Bar and Kitchen opens its doors, Gillies tells Hospitality and Catering News of his apprehension at finally opening his own business, why he’s excited to be back at the coalface of hospitality and shares his thoughts on the industry’s perennial staffing issues.
I must have done 20 restaurant openings over the years, but this is completely different, because it’s much more personal, not only to me, but also to my wife and business partners (the landlords).
Bank House is in an old Victorian bank that has been converted. Everyone knows how much work is involved in doing up a Victorian house and we’re doing it on a bigger scale, plus we’re creating somewhere that needs to be special and unique on the high street, so yes, it’s been challenging. We have completely stripped it back and pretty much rebuilt it so that it’s this beautiful high street venue with a 90-seat wine bar and restaurant inside. We’re excited to be finally opening it.
I’ve worked in the industry for 35 years, but I hadn’t ever thought about doing my own thing until recently. I was really happy working in companies, developing concepts from A-Z and then helping engineer the system. It was only really when my wife and I started looking at our future for the next 20 years that we thought ‘what shall we do? Do we want to retire?’ We’ve got four kids and wondered what to do as they get older and start moving on. We decided we were never going to retire because we love the industry, so thought let’s give this [Bank House] a go.
I do wish I’d done this 10 years ago, but then I don’t think it was the right time. When we decided to go ahead I’d been CEO of a global company and my wife had been at home with the kids for many years. We thought it would be lovely to do something together like a local wine bar or hotel and put our skills together, because if anyone has the tools to do it, we do.
You have a completely different perspective on a business when you create something bespoke. Bank House is not just another business that’s part of a collection. When you know you’ll spend a lot of time in a place, you really want it to be somewhere you’ll enjoy your time too.
I love the theatre of restaurants, as does my wife Cecilia. Food and restaurants have always been part of our lives, and our kids’ lives. Everything about our lives revolves around food. Even if we’re not working and are away two weeks on holiday we’ll be thinking about what we’re going to be eating. It doesn’t stop because you’re not at work.
Our staff food will probably be the healthiest in the south east. It will also be delicious. People think that staff food is just eating scraps and chips every day, but we’re putting lots of focus on it, because this is something we’re living too, rather than a commercial project that needs to deliver for shareholders.
The biggest problem in the industry is finding staff. Everyone knows that. The reality is we don’t have enough people, so you have to look three to five years down the line at what you’d do to deal with that issue. I’ve approached this project completely differently to others and have put in a system that will support the team to deliver quality when they’re busy as well as when they’re quiet.
You have to give staff structure and support to staff, then you teach them the really important thing, which is customer engagement. If everything is in place they have more time to focus on the important stuff. From day one I approached it strategically and put systems into place to help consistency. We’ve designed the kitchen with a Robata grill and have lots of plating space. Our food is on small plates which are cooked fresh and served immediately. I’ve done these things because I know what’s needed to produce a quality and consistent product. It also means we won’t get caught out with too few staff working long hours and end up with a low retention rate.
We’re using a KeyKeg tap system for wine, craft beer and cocktails so we can keep quality and consistency immaculate all the time at the bar, as well as deal with the speed of service we need. It means you can have really high quality drinks that are hand made and high quality stored in 20-30 litre kegs in a cellar which are then pumped up to taps. We’ve started working with a handmade cocktail company which makes small batches of cocktails for this system. We’re using three to start – a Negroni, Mojito and Espresso Martini. They hand batch them, put them in these key kegs and seal it so it’s completely air tight. We tap them onto our system so it comes out as a beautifully hand made product every time. It’s really clever.
We made it a condition that we didn’t employ anyone until we had two references and we followed them up with a phone call. It’s something most of the industry never does, because they don’t want to hear anything bad about them, especially when staff are scarce. I think it It doesn’t take much time, but it shows commitment to them and that you’re serious.
Central London has so many great places now, but it’s over-saturated. Rents and rates are too high. You can’t make it convert into a good business in the same way you could 10 to 15 years ago. Since I finished working with Gordon two years ago, I’ve realised what an enormous market there is outside London, which is why we’re confident this will work in Kent.
The most important thing I’ve learnt is that you’ll never know everything. You have to listen and learn constantly. Things always change. The public demands change. It’s hard to be that open and vulnerable sometimes, but it’s important if you want to evolve and move forward.
I’ve worked for some amazing people over the years. Both chefs and restaurateurs. I spent seven years abroad living and working abroad and I learnt something from everyone. Chris Corbin and Jeremy King were great to work with, as was Daniel Boulud in New York and Gordon Ramsay. There have been lots of people I’ve worked with who are great at what they do and are really inspiring.
We really need Bank House to work, because we also live about six minutes away. We know loads of people in Chislehurst and they have been asking about the restaurant and are desperate to come and try it out. I keep thinking ‘what if it goes wrong?’. It won’t, but there is that added pressure when it’s so close to home.
Being a CEO in a corporate world for so long really removed me from the grassroots elements of the industry and the longer it went on the more I missed it. Sometimes you need a break from it and the intensity of the hours, but when you have a break you’re really refreshed and re-energised. I forgot how great this was. It’s so much fun and have loved the journey, the challenges and the excitement of doing something we think is right.
Bank House Wine Bar and Kitchen in Chislehurst opens today, so the team at H&C News would like to wish Stuart and Cecilia every success with their new venture.
Interviews Editor, Hospitality & Catering News