“Who does this Oldfield bloke think he is?” you might ask. An engineer writing about food is surely about as relevant as the pope pontificating about marriage.
Ah, but here’s the rub. Do you really need to be experienced in something to be an expert in it? His Holiness will be surrounded by advisers full of sage while I’m surrounded by . . . who exactly?
I’m not a trained chef and don’t pretend to be one. But my hobby’s been food for longer than I care to remember and, 17 years ago, I opened my first restaurant.
My real training was as an engineer and that’s where my qualifications lie. Sailing the seas as an engineering officer, working my way through the deserts of the oil industry in North Africa and then finishing up in the energy efficiency industry can’t possibly have qualified me to write about all things foodie. Could it?
Eighteen years ago I didn’t have a clue about how to run a restaurant; apart from the fact that, because of business travel, I’d spent many a happy hour in restaurants, squeezed into a corner on my own behind a diminishing bottle of wine and armed with a notebook.
Because I had a hobby. In my own mind I was the world’s greatest restaurant critic. It was obvious to me why so many of them were getting it wrong and, maybe more importantly, why some were getting it right. I did a little research and found it was said that 95% of all new independent restaurants went bust in less than three years. For those that don’t do percentages, that’s 19 out of 20; a phenomenal failure rate that makes accountants and bank managers ask: how do you turn £100,000 into £50,000? Open a restaurant.
It was obviously more difficult than it looked.
Sitting there on my own I could see what was needed from a customer point of view but there was so much ordinary, behind the scenes stuff to know. I’m frequently asked how we judge how much food to buy or how much to prepare. But I had more basic questions such as how much crockery to order or how much to pay the staff.
I solved some of these conundrums by spending six months (spread over the year I was acquiring and developing my first restaurant) working in cafes and bars and restaurants; mainly for free. When nobody was looking I’d dive into store cupboards and do a quick stocktake; I’d count plates on shelves, cutlery in draws and glasses behind bars. I helped out with ordering and the accounts, which was a tremendous insight, at the same time as plying my boss and other staff with alcohol in order to persuade them to give up their secrets.
And this self-styled apprenticeship meant I’d started to fill my bag with the tools to do the job. But I must never forget that I considered myself the world’s best restaurant critic. And now I run a restaurant that’s, of course, full of people who think they’re the same.
As a result, I take issue with those in the spotlight who complain about their critics. I remember Michael McIntyre, a guy who makes me laugh, asking his critics: if it’s so easy, why don’t you do it?
Michael, we don’t do it because you’re the expert. We just want you to do it as well as we’d like. If someone doesn’t like what we do in our restaurant, are we to ask them if they’d like to do it? I admit to having my Basil Fawlty moments but, even under extreme stress and great temptation, I’ve never had the right to respond like that. And I’ve only occasionally actually done it.
We need our critics and all our customers are experts. They know what they want and it’s our job to do it as well as we can. I’m surrounded by real experts who produce and serve the food and my job is to guide and adjust the workings to make sure things run smoothly. I guess that’s where my engineering background comes in.
And on that basis, I thought I ought to print a little note like you find on the labels of food products: Warning – future columns may contain nuts. But in this case, bolts and spanners as well.