In London, it’s infamously difficult to open a permanent restaurant, even if you have stints at some renowned institutions to your name. Issues such as funding, leases and design come into play; but sometimes it can fall together if you find the right space to test your idea first.
Previously of the award-winning, Petersham Nurseries and The Drapers Arms respectively, Chef Damian Clisby and Restaurateur Nick Gibson did just that, opening the doors of the new restaurant concept Emile; promising an authentic and intimate dining experience. Aware of each other’s work for years, the pair joined forces over their mutual no-nonsense approach to food and drink. Following a six month residency, we paid a visit to debrief with the duo on the trials and learnings of opening a temporary restaurant for the first time:
Had you worked together before opening Emile? Why did you decide to collaborate?
Damian: We hadn’t, actually, but I was always aware of Nick’s pub, The Drapers Arms, and we’d met at several events. I’d always liked the convivial approach Nick has to food and wine; we both have a very robust and ‘no-faff’ approach in common that we try to get across in everything we do. In that way, the partnership made sense.
Tell us the story behind Emile.
Damian: I knew I would always do something about my grandfather, which is probably the reason it all fell together so easily. He’s the reason I cook. He was all about the same love of food and wine that I have, and how it’s the perfect catalyst for conversation between people. So Emile is, in a way, a strange ode to him. It started with him teaching me how to cut a piece of gammon when I was 12 and it’s led to this. He’s the reason I love food.
What were your reasons behind opening up a six-month residency, as opposed to a permanent restaurant?
Damian: I think that this residency just worked so well for us timing-wise. I was looking at other commitments in the future so this temporary space offered us the opportunity to make a team together, to get to know each other professionally and test the Emile concept out.
Nick: It was also great to do something at a controlled cost; there’s a tendency in the hospitality industry of having to build something you need to commit to forever.
Let’s talk more about that, it’s infamously difficult to open a restaurant, especially in London. Did a temporary space help you overcome this issue?
Damian: The cost is normally huge, so most restaurants come to be through long-term leases that you have to commit to for a long time; if anyone could afford the freehold they’d buy it, but it’s just not possible for most.
Nick: The question is: where do you get the cash from? People investing in restaurants aren’t interested in one-off concepts, they’re looking for 20 sites across the country. When you get funding from a third party, it’s rare that you can walk into your space and it feels like it’s your own, for me that was out of the question. As Damian said, leasing is probably where most people end up, but even then with long leases you have significant overheads, that’s why a six-month flexible residency was ideal for us.
How did you bring your vision to life in your space?
Damian: Sometimes I look at the restaurant and think: ‘How did this happen so quickly?’ Once we found the site with Appear Here we decided on the inside, the decor, and the branding within three weeks. The space we were matched with was already right for us; it really complemented what we wanted to do with cosiness and simplicity. Some of the artworks are pages from my family’s recipe books from the 60s, but we also picked some artwork with an East London artist just up the road. There wasn’t a drawn-out process; Emile just came together really naturally.
Nick: People were coming in and saying: ‘This looks like its been here for years!’ I think when you set out your core values and stick to them, they really flow through everything you do. If you want to make a restaurant centred around how clever and tasteful you are, people will see right through that.
Damian: Good question! At the time this was the best site that we found, we just felt it was the perfect space so it could have been anywhere. Shoreditch is a bit of a hotspot in terms of things going on, but I think it was more right space right time.
We live in an Instagram age; how has the platform helped Emile establish itself and what are your thoughts on its role in the industry?
Nick: I think it’s an excellent tool, but a business can have a healthy or unhealthy relationship with it. I find that some restaurants will design their offering so that it suits ‘the gram’... In terms of letting people know what we’re up to and keeping them informed on our changing menu, it’s totally key, but we don’t worry about whether we’ve got the right amount of likes and followers. Through using Instagram, you just want people to know that the restaurant is here, and you want them to come!
Did you notice any difference in the customers you got as a pop-up?
Damien: One thing we did notice from doing Emile is that we’ve had some insane repeat customers. We just had our busiest Tuesday and Saturday and saw a lot of the same faces; I think it’s all about that word of mouth experience. I was also surprised by how many people had travelled from the other side of London. People were coming from Notting Hill and Mayfair to eat lunch with us, there was a real happening in that sense.
What are the challenges that you faced when starting up your own restaurant?
Damian: You know the challenges that are coming when you’ve been in the industry for a long time. For me, personally, the biggest challenge was being patient; the first week was super busy and then the following week we only had four covers in for Tuesday lunch. Trusting that it was going to take off and that people would come was a big challenge, but on the whole, it’s just been so enjoyable and I’ve had so much fun.
Finally, what advice would you give to any chefs looking to start up their own restaurant?
Damian: Get into it for the long haul because you won’t get a big return straight away. Surround yourself with like-minded people who understand that it’s a vocation and that you have to love every single part of it.
Nick: The most important people are the people who work with you. Beyond food and drink, looking after people is the essence of hospitality. The reward is that you get to be a part of people’s lives; you see them catching up with someone they haven’t seen for ages, sharing some good news or some bad news. What you’re doing as a restaurateur is you’re helping people to live fully, you’re helping them to live.