New restaurants open daily (or so it seems) in London, each promising their own take on a particular type of food. But what’s the process that people go through to bring us, joe public, a new dining experience? How long does it take to start a restaurant? And why would you? By all accounts it’s a tough world to work in. We had behind the scenes access at Nuala, the new kids on the block, to find out the answers.
When did the idea of your own restaurant first really take shape?
Well I’m not sure how to answer that question as running my own restaurant stems from the idea of wanting to be self employed. I started buying and selling quad bikes on my granny’s farm in Derry when I was about 14 and I used to love it. It got to the point where I was skipping school and not telling my mum, because someone was coming from Donegal to look at one that I was trying to flog. I remember being about 16 and I was in form class and I went into school and my form teacher asked why I’d been off for three days. I just told him I was working. I didn’t tell my mum though. But really it was that desire to not have a boss and be able to do what you want to do.
Also have some disposable income which you’d made yourself and not depended on anybody else for it.
I became a butcher when I left school, after not really doing much for a year and half, and my dad told me I had to do something. So I became a butcher when I was about 17 or 18. I always wanted to be a farmer from day dot, but realised it doesn’t really pay any bills and it’s tough. So I went into butchery and fucking loved it.
I came to London with that, kind of chasing my dreams in essence, and did it for a few years. I worked at Jack O’Shea’s at Selfridges, and he put me in charge of all the wholesale business. Out of that I met the guys at St John Bread & Wine, where James Lowe was, and a guy called Fred Smith who was at The Admiral Codrington. I had two days off and asked him if I could come in, so I was working for seven days but I loved it. My first shift was fucking difficult, I went down so hard on garnish I nearly passed out! But you know when you find something out of your comfort zone and you absolutely love it?
After that experience I felt I’d done butchery. St John Bread & Wine was always my favourite place. I sat on table 21 when I was 21 and ate new season garlic soup and snails, I think. I think Lee Tiernan cooked it and then I asked for a job. They had a breakfast chef job going so I took it. After that I knew I’d found a profession that I loved and a little bit of the entrepreneurship I was looking for. Up until then I really didn’t know what I was going to be. The idea for my own restaurant didn’t really happen there but I knew that this is what I wanted to be. I was addicted to the stress! I could take all that energy from when I was 14 and focus it into hospitality.
I kept my head down and just learned. I went to Australia for a bit, set up the Beef Cartel on Maltby Street, which was my first ever pop up and where I met Ian McKay because I really wanted to find the best beef in the world. (He’s now my business partner in Torloisk Highland after 10 years of working with him). People liked it and I had a few offers but I just kept my head down and then maybe three years ago I just thought I’ve got to give it a shot. Try your best and go for it. I knew I had my limitations but felt like it was now or never. Nuala, and we’re standing in it, stemmed out of the love of London. It’s amazing working with people who are great at what they do, but how do you turn that into something that people want two or three times a day.
Did you already know the core team members?
Yeah. Over the years I’d been working with these people and they super impressed me. Colin I met at Jack O’Shea’s and he was working at The Fat Duck and he wanted to learn some butchery so was the same as me. He came in for his first day and made a hare saddle, French trimmed, while I was running around like crazy. I still wind him up about it. But he was amazing and he is amazing. Working with him, we got on really well so about two years ago I mentioned the idea of the restaurant and asked if he’d be interested in joining, thinking he’d be like ‘nah’. But he went yes, sign me up. He’s trusted me to get it going now I’m trusting him to deliver!
I met Charlie at Barbecoa where I was a butcher after Fred’s and we became mates. What I like about Charlie is the attention to detail. It’s that thing about people coming in and being blown away, but at the same time not feeling like they’re being over-served.
As a group we fall out sometimes and there are some strong opinions but I’d rather have that for sure.
Do you remember you bollocked me because I didn’t fold the hi-vis jacket last time I was here? I just threw it under the shelf and you took it out, folded it up properly and put it away.
Yeah, it is that same thought process, attention to detail about everything. And it’s hard because now we need to deliver. We’ve got this brand outside – you’ve got myself, Charlie, Colin, Honey, Spencer, Lauren, Ellen, Natasha, you’ve got my dad – all these people that are really fucking great at what they do, but how do you turn this product, which is world class, into something that people can relate to. That’s where the branding comes in. Working with the guys at Drinksology has been great. I’ve always worked for people because I’ve wanted to work for them, not because of the money. Same rule applies.
What’s the general ethos of Nuala?
We want to create a business size to enable people to do what they love. When you’re working in places, you end up working 90 hours a week and end up burning yourself out, losing girlfriends, missing parties and all that. You start to think, if it this difficult, fine, but I’m not going to do that for anyone else but myself. With that, some of the hardest experiences in your life are the ones that teach you the most. You’ve got to start with a business model that makes money. That way you can pay people correctly and you can afford to hire an extra manager so someone doesn’t have to do more shifts.
People talk about the sustainability of materials and rubbish and the environment but no-one ever talks about the sustainability of people. And also development, trying to make sure the person can get the best out of themselves. If that’s working with me, that’s amazing. If it’s not, how can I help you. I’m not going to set a ceiling for anybody. The only ceilings will be those that are self-imposed. If you want to go for it, and stand on my toes a bit, then go for it. How can we make sure a kitchen porter or bar back can see that there’s no ceiling?
Tell us about process you’ve had to go through, from idea to investment to plans and finally, the build.
I was woking at Chiltern Firehouse with Nuno Mendes
and Patrick Powell after working at The Lockhart with
Brad McDonald and had an amazing time. At Chiltern it
was a big team and nice people. 250 covers a night and you’re trying to push out really good food. But I really like the hustle and bustle.
I decided it was now or never though. I had an investor through my dad and had to almost PR myself to get things going and sell the idea to people. I met another guy called Nick Garston and if it wasn’t for him, we’d be pretty fucked right now. He found us sites all over London over the last few years and then found this place. I really like places on corners and this was it. I hadn’t quite raised all the money yet and we had about 3/4 of the money in place, then an investor called saying he was out, after three years.
Along the way, I had met another guy called Joe Isles who’s my business partner now, so I called him and said I had good and bad news. The bad news was an investor dropped out, the good news is it’s just you and me now! We had to make it happen, which we did. It worked out for the best.
We had some designers but it wasn’t working out and I had to go with my gut. You think you need architects and interior designers and all that and you do, normally, because your life would be easier right now. But if they don’t get it… The guys from Drinksology really get it and they let me loose in their office. You also need to be adaptable to problems.
Was your dad always going to be involved as architect?
Nope. We had these designers but they just weren’t getting it. We had to fire a couple of teams before my dad took over. But you have to make some decisions to get where we are now. The builders and crew and all great but if you’d told me how hard this was going to be, I’d of said, you know what, I’m just going to work for someone else! Wait for the cushy head chef job that comes up in the country, you know? This next two weeks will be the hardest as we finish off, but if you can push yourself it’s definitely worthwhile.
Did any of your old bosses give you advice about it?
The best bit of advice I’ve had was from two guys at Columbo Group, Steve Ball and Rizz. Two years ago I decided to take myself out of chefing a little to look at operations, to see how that side of things work. I did some consulting and met Steve and Riz. Being around them and seeing what they thought about things, I learned as much working with them for six to 10 months as I did with anybody else. I also went to work with some Turkish restaurants which got me thinking about the psychology of restaurants and price points and all that. I learned a lot from them. They’ve been going for 20 years in the City. It’s one thing to learn how to cook, and I’ve been so lucky to have worked with some legends, but it’s another thing to keep people happy on a managerial, operational level.
You seem to have been pretty hands on throughout. Was that always the idea?
In my head it was! I didn’t realise I was going to be so hands on. We have renders and designs and all that but on site you have to be able to make quick decisions and it’s great. As you build, things develop.
For anyone who’s going to try Nuala, what’s the top 3 things you would suggest?
Hand on heart, I don’t have a top three things. The food, the energy of the place, the anything goes attitude – there’s more than three here, I told you – the fact that I want this to be a restaurant where everything rebels against what people have come to know. Like, here’s a set menu, have it. I want you to come in, and we have a big menu, and you tell me what you want.
Nuala the concept is about old school hospitality. I think in the last couple of years people have forgotten who the boss is. The boss is the people sitting at the tables. It’s your job to take your skill set and turn that into something that they’ll love. Not be too ego driven. So the main thing is come in, dust off the cobwebs, have whatever you want. There are dishes that excite me like the bone marrow doughnuts, Fish straight from Newlynn and Torloisk highland beef, crab claws, but that will change all the time with the products.
And the fact that when you come you don’t have to leave! You can stay until the early hours. Do what you want, dance on the concrete pass. As long as you don’t break anything.
You’ve just done international stout day with Guinness. How was that?
It was great. It was fun. Pretty hectic because Colin cracked his skull so wasn’t there! I had to call in the troops. Guinness people are absolute legends. I always want to push for the unrealistic. You push for the top and get near and you’re happy with that, rather than set low expectations of yourself. It’s also nice to do an event where the food isn’t the only focal point. We were cooking in a car park and did a 10 course tasting menu for 70 people, with no electricity, and it worked. Imagine what we can do in a kitchen!
Aside from Nuala, what’s your favourite restaurant in London?
I have a couple, but I don’t eat out much now. Haven’t been for ages but Salon in Brixton. Nick Balfe is a great guy and it used to be my go-to date place. I did a dinner there once, and my sister – Nuala – was helping me. So that’s where the name comes from. She was 15 at the time. She disappeared for an hour trying to find more ice in Brixton before she got back.
Where are your little regular haunts?
The main one at the moment is Polopo in Shoredtich. Absolutely ace. No bullshit. Tasty and no pretence. Sit at the bar and eat some pasta. Also my dad makes these amazing Fajitas. I can make you the tastiest ones in less than 10 minutes. You have to know which ingredients to buy in the shop, it’s all about the brands to go to on the shelves. The best 10 minute dinner you’ll ever have. They’re not badass but they piss all over any Mexican chain restaurant you’ll ever have.
Remind me about the Shamrock whiskey connection?
Nuala came out of this. It was my dad again actually. We were driving a van to Scotland to pick up some meat. We were thinking about an icon and he started chatting about an Art Deco girl from a poster for Shamrock Whiskey and all that. There was a 1890s poster with this girl on it and we wondered if we could create an icon that was as relevant now as that girl was then. So we found an artist in America, and added a few subtle shamrocks here and there and that’s how the image came about.
So your dad’s responsible for more than just the architecture then?
Yep, he’s the Boss!