Great restaurants deliver a theatrical experience, London innovator tells Irish hospitality leaders

Great restaurants deliver a theatrical experience, London innovator tells Irish hospitality leaders
Micheline Corr of The Firm, Fergal Lee of The Wolseley, London.

A great restaurant is constructed like a theatre show — behind the scenes, raising the curtain, showtime, the finale and the reviews — says Fergal Lee, general manager of The Wolseley, London.

Mr Lee was guest speaker at the (pre-lockdown) March 2020 Firm Talks event, an invite-only series hosted by Micheline Corr of hospitality recruitment specialist The Firm. The event entertained 70 hospitality leaders in the RDS Members’ Club in Dublin.

Micheline said Fergal began his career with renowned restaurateurs Chris Corbin and Jeremy King for the 2003 opening of the now-iconic Wolseley Restaurant in Piccadilly. The trio have now been working together for 17 years.

“I have special memories of The Wolseley,” Micheline said. “My late husband, a man of obvious good taste, said breakfast there was an essential part of any trip to London.

“Last time I was there, Cat Deeley was at the next table and on the other side were two elderly ladies who were quite upset that the bowl of café au lait with toasted baguette was missing from the menu. They mentioned this to the server, who replied, ‘It may not be on the menu, but we are happy to make it for you’. Pure class!”

Fergal Lee thrilled the Firm Talks guests with first-hand secrets of the Corbin and King theatrical dining experience, which started with Le Caprice and The Ivy in the heart of London’s theatreland.

“That was 1990 and it transformed the way people ate out in London,” said Fergal Lee. “There was a one-year waiting list and it created the whole concept of celebrity dining.”

The Wolseley was followed by The Delaunay, Brasserie Zedel, The Colbert, Fischer’s, Soutine, and Café Wolseley near Oxford, the group’s first venture outside London.

“A restaurant is not just a place to eat. It should be much more than that. The first ingredient is the people. Who are the most important?” he asked. “The customers? To a point. Front of house?

“I really want to focus on the teams in the restaurant — the kitchen, finance, procurement, training, and development, staff welfare, your external partners including your suppliers, who get the quality ingredients you need. If you don’t pay them on time, you won’t get deliveries when you need them.”

His talk then moved onto “the first act” — the maitre d’, the best of whom have their own unique tricks of the trade.

“I know a maitre d’ who keeps a notebook with sketches of high-profile customers,” said Fergal.

He also told the tale of when a very famous English author arrived into an unnamed restaurant and the maitre d’ was forced to confess that he couldn’t remember her name. She responded witheringly: “Go find someone who does!”

Five top tips for restaurant success

He left the gathering with his five top tips for a successful restaurant:

  • Having a great reputation as an employer is the most important thing;
  • The maitre d’ is king;
  • The farewell is as powerful as the welcome;
  • Never see customers as a source of income;
  • Embrace whatever stage of the life cycle you are in.

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